Professor David Crystal’s Insights into Linguistic Change

As part of Helen Doron Educational Group’s celebrating 35 years, British linguist, academic, author, and Helen’s former professor,  David Crystal, weighs in on some of the more interesting changes in the English language during that time. Who knows what new terms and expressions are next as language continues to evolve?

Helen has a good reason to remember 1985, but that year is still with all of us in many lexical ways. It was the year – according to the first recorded usages in the Oxford English Dictionary – when we first read about biodiversity, ecotourists, Rambo, and something happening      24-7. It was the year for telecottages, rent-a-quote, power shopping, and telling porkies, and when we first heard people saying no problemo.

There are 196 new words or expressions recorded for the language in 1985. Most have remained, though a few (such as Pac-Man and Game Boy) are history now. And the lexical expansion of English has continued at a similar rate ever since. Or increased. When 2020 ends, I suspect we will find it to have been an exceptional year for word creation. The pandemic has changed the character of the everyday lexicon. Serious terms, such as social distancing and self-isolation, have been supplemented by novelties such as covidiot and elbump, and playful terms such as quaranteenager and quaranteetotal.

Vocabulary is the primary index of language change. But grammar has shifted too, in more subtle ways. Have you noticed how that has been replacing which in such sentences as I’ve read the book that/which I bought last week? Or the way the present continuous has increased in frequency – most famously in McDonalds’ slogan I’m lovin’ it, which in earlier times would have been I love it?

Keeping in touch with the real, varied, and rapidly-changing world of English language is so important to ensure motivation and enjoyment for all, and especially for younglings. Congratulations to Helen and her team for 35 years of doing just that. And a warm wave to someone who cut her linguistic teeth with me and the linguistic science department during her BA at Reading in the 1970s.

Language is a mirror of the people who use it, and a reflection of their culture, mentality, technology and other developments affecting their lives.

Technological development rapidly accelerated in the last few decades, and now it’s hard for us to imagine our lives without personal computers, smartphones, 24/7 communication and multiple channels of digital information.  We have become dependent on social media, which entirely revolutionized the way we connect to other people.

New technologies are continually evolving, so they need new representation in language either by borrowing from associated “old school” words, and adapting their meanings to suit the new digital world or by creating completely new vocabulary.

As pioneering gadgets and inventions are rapidly introduced and adapted, we are quick to abandon and neglect the old devices which have become obsolete. So what was so innovative and useful in 1985, may be foreign to today’s teens.

Let’s reflect on how the English language has evolved in the last 35 years, how our lives changed during this time, and how the past influences the present.