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The times they are a-changin' ... and so is our language

Aug 30, 2015

People sometimes get fussy with University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan for saying that the English language is always changing. But why does the English language constantly change? Is there a schedule out there somewhere saying how fast it will change? Why can’t we all keep saying the same things, all the time, forever?

But change is progress, says Curzan, and the language cannot simply stay still, for several reasons. 

Reason number one is babies. That's right, the next time you look at an adorable child smiling up at you, remember that little monster is changing your language.

"Some linguists will says that every baby as it learns the language, be that spoken or signed, it reinvents the language," says Curzan. "It's not just that it learns it, but babies are taking all the data that they hear as we speak around them and then they have to figure out how the language works."

Then there is slang and just generally playing with language, says Curzan. 

"We love playing with language," says Curzan. "We make up new words, we come up with different kinds of sentences that are playful. That changes the language."

We also change the language with our own creativity, by creating new patterns and new things to say, explains Curzan. But there is also ambiguity.

"I say peruse to mean read carefully, you hear peruse to mean skim, and now suddenly the word is changing," says Curzan.

Plus, languages come into contact with one another, says Curzan. People come together and languages change. 

We've blamed babies, and for those who do not like change, you also might be able to blame the Internet for increased changes. Curzan we don't know for sure exactly what the Internet is doing, but we do know it's creating new and faster registers for language. Think Urban Dictionary and Twitter. 

"New words in the language can spread at a speed they've never spread before," says Curzan. "A song uses a new word, it's being heard around the world in minutes."

Sorry folks, but language is changing, and there really isn't anything to be done about it. Just don't shoot the messenger.

– Cheyna Roth, Michigan Radio Newsroom