As a wordsmith (AKA, wordtroll, wordserf, wordworker), I have collected many stories about languages. I want to share two of my favorites here, and the first deals with the Christian Humanists.
No! Don’t run away! This is interesting, I promise.
OK, so the Christian Humanists (think the Renaissance and people like Thomas More) have been great and pious philosophers and super-smart thinkers. Western cultures and global science owe them enormously.
But collectively, they also did something really dumb.
When the Christian Humanists were really going strong, Latin was the common language of Europe’s educated people. Theists and scientists and artists and philosophers from all over could communicate through that shared language. Over a millennium after the fall of Rome, Latin was a thriving, invigorating, inclusive tongue that allowed knowledge and theory to flow from country to country.
But these really smart guys also decided, and I’m not sure why, that this use of Latin, which included all these new words and ideas never dreamed of by the ancient Romans, wasn’t so much “useful” as it was “corrupted.” Collectively, they demanded that Latin be “purified” and “returned to its original form” like the great Roman thinkers of old.
And Latin died.
Seriously, stick a fork in it. Dead as a doornail. Pushing up the daisies. Totally 86’ed.
The moral of the story? Language is like a shark. When it stops moving, it dies. By insisting that Latin could not be adapted to the needs of the time, the Humanists pulled Latin’s plug.
Today, English is not quite the universal language of science, but it is the world’s most spoken language (when you include non-native speakers), and it’s certainly the language of money. I know, as an editor, I’m not supposed to say this, but when it comes to a language’s health, imposing grammatical rules isn’t nearly as important as staying relevant.
From 1997 to 2003, a great show on TV was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It told the story of, well, Buffy, who slayed vampires and went to high school. Among the show’s many impressive feats was the authentic-sounding slang used by the high school characters. Bear in mind that the slang of the time included gems like “gettin’ jiggy,” “eat my shorts,” and “phat.” But none of that real-world slang is on the show.
There’s a bizarre authenticity about the way the teenagers speak on the show, yet even today it doesn’t really sound dated. A few examples:
By the time the episode made it to air, he explained, whatever “real world” slang they used in the script would sound like old people trying to talk like young people.
Language’s Eternal Tug-of-War
I’m terribly oversimplifying things (this is a blog post, after all), but the life of a language can be defined by these two stories. On the one hand, if language doesn’t adapt, it dies. On the other hand, if you use that fresh new slang “the kids” are using today, you guarantee that very soon, you will sound hopelessly dated, if not a little sad.
New words (which are called “neologisms,” for the record) are essential for a language’s health, as are repurposing old words, altering the spelling of words, expanding/restricting the meaning of words, and putting words into specific phrases.
Two of the many categories where this type of wordsmithing and slang are obvious are technology and sex.
The Writer’s Challenge
The writer who wants to sound up-to-date and in-the-know must navigate treacherous waters indeed. In next month’s post, I plan to talk about how to make the most out of the legitimate growth of English as a language while avoiding the dangers of “here today, gone tomorrow” slang.
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