English as a Living Language

Image courtesy of Dan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Dan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A “living language” is one that is used every day for communication among people. It generally changes over time to suit trends in tastes, habits, and activities. When it comes to being a living language, English is robust. German philologist, Jakob Grimm described it, “In wealth, wisdom, and strict economy, none of the other living languages can vie with it.”

Its robustness can be credited in part by its lexicon. Of all of the world’s languages (approximately 2700 of which are in existence), English has the richest vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary lists around 500,000 words, with more than a half-million technical and scientific terms that remain uncatalogued. Compare this with German with a vocabulary of approximately 185,000 words and French with fewer than 100,000.

This is because English has been and continues to be influenced by many languages. “The English language is the sea which receives tributaries from every region under heaven,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. He was right. Eighty percent of English’s teeming vocabulary is foreign born. Among the most influential are: Celtic, Arabic, French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Italian, Norse, Norman, Dutch, Indian, Hebrew, German, and Yiddish. In addition thousands of others are “loanwords” or words borrowed from other languages (ex. African words – bogus, jazz, banana, tote, yam; Chinese words – tea, soy, wok, and ketchup; Hungarian words – coach, goulash, and itsy-bitsy, just to name a few).

This variety in its origin and ongoing development explains why spelling can sometimes be confusing if not downright confounding. Take for example, the thirteen different spellings for sh: shoe, sugar, issue, mansion, mission, nation, suspicion, ocean, conscious, chaperon, schist, fuschia, and pshaw (from The Story of English).

English also possesses the ability for nouns to become verbs (such as in “I will videotape the speech”) and verbs to become nouns (such as in “The kids will bus in from all over”) as well as derive new words from mixtures of existing words (ex. “cafetorium” – a large room used as both a cafeteria and an auditorium).

The English language is always in flux. Its use and expression is beyond control of any one group whether it is a city, region, government, country, or culture. Think of the word cool which means “of or at a fairly low temperature” and how it changed over time to informally mean something attractive or impressive. Or awesome, defined by Merriam Dictionary to mean “causing feelings of fear and wonder; inspiring awe,” that has seen a shift over the last few decades to now meaning “cool” (informal use) and its overuse (as seen in the Lego Movie.)

Some lament over the mutations and transgressions of English’s evolving nature. For example, the ongoing debate over the word, literally that was fueled by the Oxford English Dictionary’s updated entry in September 2011 using it as a form of exaggeration.

The great writer on English, H.L. Mencken said, “A living language is like a man suffering incessantly from small hemorrhages, and what it needs above all else is constant transactions of new blood from other tongues. The day the gates go up, that day it begins to die.” With the global use of English, the infusion of new words and their meanings should continue for a long, long time.

Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype


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