I’ve recently participated in an online discussion about “corruptions in the English language”. Here are a few of the “corruptions” which raise the ire of some of the contributors and some from discussions I’ve had with teachers over the years:
“should of” instead of “should have”
the insertion of “like” into every utterance
the word “irregardless”
confusion over less and fewer
I’m loving it
saying advertisement rather than advertisement
gotten instead of got
Now, I don’t consider myself a complete linguistic libertarian but I am surprised when:
Some people (mainly Brits, talk about some of the disgusting Americanisms that have entered our wonderful rich English (belongs to the English right!) tongue.
Some people work themselves into a frenzy about the heinous use of less when fewer must be used. I wonder if communication has ever broken down because of this confusion?
Some people mutter darkly about how young people are degrading the language with their new expressions and how this is symptomatic of the end of Western civilization as we know it. I’m sure these people never used expressions like “cool” or “groovy” or “hip” when they were young. It would be scandalous of me to suggest that they spoke anything other than the Queen’s English when they were spotty, hormonally imbalanced teenagers.
Excuse the heavy-handed sarcasm. It’s just that I get worked up by other people getting so worked up about the way other people choose to express themselves.
In his fascinating read The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher talks about how language change results from three tendencies:
economy – the tendency to save effort
expressiveness – our tendency to strive towards achieving greater effect and meaning for our utterances
analogy – our craving for order and regularity in the language.
So, if we look at the corruptions mentioned earlier, we might be able to discover why they are used:
‘Innit’ seems to me to represent an attempt to be economical. Many languages have simple equivalents to question tag such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. How much easier is it to say ‘You will come to my party, yeah?” than “You will come to my party, won’t you?”
‘Should of’ instead of ‘should have’ in spoken English surely derives from our tendency towards phonological economy. Pronouncing the ‘h’ in ‘have’ after the modal verb ‘should’ requires a lot more effort than eliding it (I do agree that it’s absolutely wrong, if understandable, to use ‘should of’ in written communication).
Using ‘like’ probably derives from our attempt to be more expressive: to engage the listener and prepare them for our next utterance A discourse marker used to inform the listener that we are about to say something of importance.
It was… like… absolutely awesome, bro’.
Irregardless, a blend of irrespective and regardless, probably results from analogy. The fact that this word is so frequently used suggests that the two original terms are semantically similar and we are not always sure about which one to use. We hedge our bets by using ‘irregardless’. It’s better to be partially wrong and partially right than fully wrong.
I wonder if the confusion over ‘less’ and ‘fewer‘ is also a result of our tendency towards analogy. I’ve been teaching countable and uncountable nouns to English language students and trainee teachers for years and nobody ever fully gets it. He eats less chocolate than his brother but his brother ate fewer chocolates last night. Using one word (less) and keeping the other (fewer) in the last century is an option I would seriously consider.
‘I’m loving it’, a phrase which irritates the hell out of me , does offer a more immediate and dynamic option than the present simple stative form. A classic case of expressiveness.
Advertisement and advertisement is probably a combination of economy and analogy. I’d imagine that the verb ‘advertise’ has grown in popularity in the last few decades and this has influenced our pronunciation of the noun form. Not to mention the influence of those pesky Americans and their economical use of English.
The final item, ‘gotten’ instead of’ got’, often gets up the noses of us Brits and we fume about how our cousins over the pond have corrupted our language. Well, most linguists agree that English had two past participle forms of the verb ‘to get’ and the American kept both and the Brits discarded the gotten form. So, it appears that we ‘corrupted’ the language due to our tendency to economise (or is it economize) it.
Well, that brings me to the end of this post. I’m the same as everybody else and get irritated when people use English in a way I think it should not be used. I do think that we have to be alert to the use of corruptions in the language if meaning is not conveyed successfully. On the other hand, non-standard forms are used among members of different social-linguistic groups for reasons we may not be aware of.
As Henry Hitchings writes in ‘The Language Wars’:
People who use standard English allege that those who fail to do so lack linguistic ability, but in reality people using stigmatized forms of English may have complex abilities as speakers – incomprehensible to many observers but powerful among their peers.
Please send me your ‘favourite’ corruptions.