New World, New Words

March 2, 2011

It may be a cliche that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow, but it’s true that words and environment are closely related. It’s also true that language evolves with the environment in which it’s spoken.

Our world is evolving at an intensely rapid place. I remember a time as a child when our family did not have a computer in the home. When we finally got one, it had a simple, highly-pixellated game in which you navigated a frog through a maze. The internet was spotty and came with that horrible dial-up screech. Now look: nearly all households have at least one computer, games are almost life-like in their graphic detail, and I can get on the internet in seconds with my iPod (assuming there’s a WiFi hotspot- mercifully, the screeching dial-up noise is extinct).

With these changes come changes in our day-to-day language. “Tweet” used to be the sound a bird made. Not anymore. And it’s not just vocabulary, though that has seen the most obvious changes. In just a few short years, we’ve seen the use of words change as well. Take “Facebook.” It went from meaningless word/type of yearbook to a noun, and then to a verb (i.e. “Hey, you never responded when I Facebooked you yesterday). The same thing’s happened with “texting” somebody.

It’s fascinating to ponder why some words, and why some uses of words, catch on and enter the general lexicon and why others don’t. Obviously, if a word sticks around, it’s because there’s a need for it. When words outlive their usefulness, they go extinct.

This can be seen in old English, where there used to be dual pronouns to go along with the singular and plurals: wit (we two) and git (you two). As in “Wit sungon” (“We two sang”). Because that was the Anglo-Saxons’ way of counting: one, two, a lot. But, obviously, there probably aren’t that many cases where you need to specify “we two,” and the general plural eventually subsumed it (becoming our “We sungon”/”We sang,” in which the “we two” isn’t explicitly stated).

All of which was a really long digression to say that we are awfully pragmatic creatures, and we keep the words that fill our needs. We developed a need for a word that describes the action of sending somebody a message on Facebook. Creative beings that we are, we came up with the verb “to facebook.” Or a very specific and recognizeable type of photo; that oh-so-carefully-posed photo of someone which gets either the face or the upper torso, with the arm holding the camera sneaking into the foreground: the “Selfie.”

The "Selfie"

Languages survive by evolving. It’s growth, and it’s really exciting to be able to see it happen within one’s lifetime. But for all the new words that are springing up, I have to wonder: what old words will be casualties, and die like the dual pronoun? Will “book” eventually be replaced by “ebook?” Will “modem” pass from our collective memory as wireless and hitherto-unimagined ways of getting online predominate?

Well, they say hindsight is 20/20….




  1. Hate to admit this, but the screeching dial up noise still exists, in my place of work. We are so rural that we still have dialup and I remember when it seemed fast…a few years ago we were at a friend’s and my son wanted to know why she had a set of books on the alphabet. I had to explain encyclopedias to him. I stil remember the salesman that came to your door selling sets of encyclopedias, the great investment for your children’s future.

  2. I miss that screech, since that’s the sound that the Internet made for a decade. On your bigger point, I couldn’t disagree more. We don’t need “facebook” or “text” as verbs. “I sent you a message on Facebook.” That requires little effort and doesn’t degrade the language.

    In that line, anyone in my classes who conjugates “text” gets dipped in red ink and planted on a spike as a warning to others.

    • I see your point… However, I’m not sure if it is a degredation of the language, or simply change in the way language is used in a relatively small sector of linguistics (I would never use “facebook” or “text” as verbs in an academic setting!).While I agree that “I sent you a message on Facebook” requires little effort, and is still used, I see the verb form far more frequently amongst my age-peers and younger (oy… feel like I’m showing my tender years here! :P).

      Is it a bad thing? I don’t know. I wrote a post a while back arguing that “tipin lyk dis lol” was a degredation of language. How is this different? I may be splitting hairs here, but it seems to me that “chat-speak” is truly the product of laziness, and more dangerously, tempts its users to avoid learning/forget the rules of proper English. Will transforming new nouns into verbs make me use other words improperly? I do think it’s similar to the way “to make a telephone call” or “to telephone” (“telephone” began as a noun, I believe) became “call,” and “sending an email” became “email.”

      In any case, thank you very much for your reply. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I genuinely enjoy engaging in these types of dialogues. And should I find myself in one of your classes, I promise to never conjugate “text.” 😉

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