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Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

What is the problem with losing so-called 'traditional words' from the English language?

Asked by Simone_De_Beauvoir (38857 points ) October 30th, 2011

I’m tired of reading articles like this one where a ‘worrying trend’ is reported about how all hell is breaking loose upon the English language due to textspeak or what have you. Is there any proof that we’re using less words (and is that such a horrific problem? language exists to serve us, we don’t exist to maintain a specific amount of words in our language) or is it just people worrying about whatever ‘good old days’ they waste time worrying about? Why do people not see that language is ever-changing, that it’s dynamic and contextual. Many words die out all kinds of reasons and if textspeak is the reason balderdash (!) is no longer used, so be it. This goes along with all of the ‘proper’ grammar paranoia and ‘our kids can’t read, write and etc. anymore’ kind of whining. Well, if your children can’t read and write, blame yourselves. What do you think?

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68 Answers

Brian1946's avatar

Cripes, that article has just a tad more than a wee smidgeon of poppycock. ;-o

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Didn’t read the article.

The more words a person has to describe phenomenon, then the more consciously aware a person becomes of that phenomenon. A Bumblebee is not consciously aware of a coffee cup because it has no words to describe such a thing.

A person who speaks two or more languages is more consciously aware than a person who only speaks one. A person with a vast vocabulary is more consciously aware than a child who doesn’t. A person who can enunciate a main language into Morse Code, or Sign is more consciously aware than one who cannot.

Whenever I look up the etymology of any word, and discover new words which mean the same thing, I have become more consciously aware of my world.

linguaphile's avatar

Maybe because people are concerned about losing a vast vocabulary range that gives us more nuances to work with. Losing words can also mean that a certain way of thinking, perceiving and interpreting has been lost. A part of the color of humanity is gone when languages or words disappear from use. Yes, we evolve, but at the same time, with evolving, there IS a loss.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Your assertion is debatable. The field of linguistics is ripe with debate about whether or not knowing more than one language allows you to be ‘more aware’ of something, consciously. I think it’s true that one (to a small degree) can be aware of more ways to describe something or to explain situations but really it’s best if they do it in that language, not in a different language. Anyway, as I said in my details, I don’t think we’re using less words, overall (perhaps there is data out there I didn’t look up, though) – this is just about no longer using certain words.
@linguaphile Right, I see but it’s not like if we’re losing words, we’re not gaining new ones – new words are developed all the time. It’s not like there is an infinite number of words and when one goes away, that’s it. And sure, there is loss, as we’ve lost many things but should that loss be attached to value?

Aethelflaed's avatar

I don’t really get it either. I’d be a lot more on board with it if many of these words were really old, and Brits got to be all “this has been part of our heritage for over a millennia”. But words from the 1800s? For example, “Bally: A British word from 1885 which is a euphemism for bloody” – ok, but, presumably, people just use “bloody” more, because they don’t have a need for a euphemism, and shouldn’t we be celebrating a more open and honest (and less repressive) society than Victoria’s England?

I think, maybe, it’s just part of the natural (or “natural”, I don’t really know) desire to resist all change?

linguaphile's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir It’s true that we’re acquiring new words, yes; however, I did read an article (wish I could find it…) that our total number-of-words usage has dropped significantly over the past 50 years, but our multiple meaning usage has increased. Even with that the loss-to-gain ratio’s lopsided. I also read that our use of language is not as multilayered (i.e. pun usage) as in the past.

I read language articles constantly so I do know about the language-to-experience debate. I come from a linguistic anthropology viewpoint when I say that l do believe that language and perception are indivisibly twined, much like @RealEyesRealizeRealLies viewpoint. Regardless of the ‘righr or wrong’ of that debate, I do feel a sense of loss when unique ways of using language are lost because it means one more variety of usage, and to me, perception, is lost.

Some people don’t value the variety, differences, slight nuances, ranges, etc. but I do, strongly, but I also acknowledge that there’s no right or wrong on both sides.

looking for articles I read in the past to cite…

Jeruba's avatar

To begin with, this appears to be on a website based in the UK, and the article exhibits a British perspective on the language. If Americans choose to apply it to themselves, ok, but it’s not oriented to an American audience.

Second, one reason there are so many articles about the language is that it’s practically a free topic. If you can’t think of something to write about and you have a deadline looming, there you are: pick on something having to do with English. You scarcely have to have a thought in your head to write something about the English language. In fact, a goodly percentage of those I’ve seen were working with less raw material than that.

Third, you can always count on the topic to stir up strong sentiments and controversial opinions because everybody has at least a somewhat proprietary view of his or her own language and an attitude for or against its changing.

Nullo's avatar

It smacks of illiteracy.

I used to command a vast array of words that allowed me to say precisely what I meant, and nicely. But after prolonged exposure to environments where complete sentences are something of a novelty, I’ve begun to lose that edge. My newfound handicap (and my increased reliance on cliches that do not mean exactly what I want them to mean) distresses me. I feel like my brain is atrophying.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Recent NPR last week denoted the savings habits of Easterners vs Westerners as having a direct correlation to the languages they spoke. At end of life, Easterners have saved an average of $200,000.oo more than Westerners.

English… “I will go to the bank tomorrow.” Denotes clear separation between the present and the future.

Japanese… “I go to the bank tomorrow.” No separation between present and future.

Bilingual people called in and many stated that they think about the same thing in different ways depending upon the language they chose to think the thought upon.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

If language changes too much… No one will be capable of understanding the thread you started.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Jeruba Yeah, I know but I’ve read plenty of the same kind of thing from the U.S. perspective. I do find your third point interesting. I wonder what it is about our language that makes people uppity. @Nullo That’s kind of too bad if you think brain atrophying has to do with loss of certain words. I might not know as many words as others do (or maybe I do if I combine both English and Russian words) but it’s not always how many words but how you say something – I know my point always gets across in ways others don’t expect (especially face to face) because language/meaning is more than just words. Perhaps some people need a lot of words and they can learn then but I don’t think we’re becoming illiterate, in any way. @RealEyesRealizeRealLies Well, that is just an example. I can’t read that example and think ‘oh that’s why I need to know more words so I won’t be like the Japanese who don’t save as much because they can’t separate actions and times clearly’ – there are too many Z variables in that relationship. As to your last point, I have no idea how you get from ‘we’re losing traditional words’ to ‘we don’t understand each other.’ Language is always changing – we’re actually, in my opinion, becoming more capable of understanding other people (whose languages and cultures are different from ours) due to global interaction.

Jeruba's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir, consider my second point.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Jeruba Yes, I guess you’re right.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Retraction… from my last post.

It doesn’t matter if language changes and evolves. But…

If too many words are lost… No one will be capable of understanding the thread you started.

There is no reason for language not to evolve. I truly believe that allows humanity to expand consciousness. But likewise, there is no reason for words to be lost either… or even worse, prohibited.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies How do we know when too many words are lost? Are ‘too many’ words lost? And we’re not talking about prohibition of words. That article wasn’t talking about that. Talking about prohibition of words will open another can of worms that I’d rather open elsewhere.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

When we cannot relate to the past… then too many words have been lost, or worse, butchered into meaning something they were never intended to mean but still understood in current context.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Well that’s interesting…do we relate to our past? Do we relate to our past through language? Do we relate to our past through what’s been written down and isn’t that just a limited portion of what was? How many voices have been lost or never heard because history is written by the victors? I am cautious about ‘relating to the past’ using words we have at our disposal because I know there are experiences, meanings and words that were never allowed to be spoken.

linguaphile's avatar

This isn’t research based evidence, but experiential… as a literature teacher, I find myself defining many, many. many words for my students. They don’t recognize many words, and on top of that, they miss the fact that they don’t understand is how a word they know now used to mean something else in the past.

When I read literature from the 1600’s through 1950’s, there are so many words that aren’t used anymore. Have I meticulously counted them, no, but the whole effect’s there when I see today’s kids not understanding literature from the 1950’s because of what seems to be a drastic vocabulary shift.

To add—we do relate to our past with what’s left from our past, yes, but fortunately, so many works have been discovered by passionate document hunters and reprinted.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@linguaphile Yes, but does your perceived phenomenon have to do with the amount of words or which words we use or about how we educate our children? Words of the 1600s were only available to those who were educated which was a much smaller proportion of people than are educated today. They spent their lives learning because they didn’t have to work.

Mariah's avatar

Just wanted to link to this relevant snippet (#6, at the top of the page).

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I remember my first MG… The manual spoke of lifting the bonnet before changing the oil. I had no idea what a “bonnet” was. Upon discovering that bonnet and hood meant the same thing… my conscious awareness was expanded.

linguaphile's avatar

One article I don’t know if this will interest you but the article talks about the correlation between vocabulary strength and cognitive strength. That, I have to say, also is controversial.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies So then I assume that you spend quite a bit of time anguishing over the fact that there are very few who can read and speak Old English?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies How so? You just learned there were two words to say the same thing. I don’t see how you learned that it was a thing you can now see from two different angles?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Yes @Aethelflaed. I’m in constant anguish about many things.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir
I learned much more than just bonnet and hood were synonymous. That discovery also paved the way to uncovering the etymological connections.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir “How so? You just learned…”

That’s right… I became more consciously aware.

linguaphile's avatar

@Aethelflaed I actually enjoy Old English… and I don’t begrudge others for not enjoying it. Those words have disappeared (except for a few like unlock/onleac) and along with it, the cultures, people and the unique minds that used this language. How did they really see the world? It’s not there with their words, but we can get some glimpse of their views through their language and use/writings.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Well, there is learning etymology, which is always fun (if you’re into that kind of thing and I am) and there is ‘expanding consciousness’. I suppose if you broadly define it by saying it’s learning, then sure.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I define consciousness to the degree one has the ability to describe a phenomenon. My consciousness expands upon every word learned… Just as a building expands upon every brick laid.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Well, I’d be living in one crazy-ass building if I thought that, :). I have specific knowledge of terminology in anything from biology to calc II to tattoos. Knowing a lot doesn’t mean it’s all going into your building. If you know 5 ways to say one word and you’re putting all 5 bricks where there should be one, you’re not utilizing your space. That is, if you’re into that kind of analysis. If you’re into sprawling and winding buildings, that’s cool too.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir
“If you know 5 ways to say one word and you’re putting all 5 bricks where there should be one, you’re not utilizing your space. That is, if you’re into that kind of analysis. If you’re into sprawling and winding buildings, that’s cool too.”

That’s the difference between Poetry and Math. Math can tell us how the sun rises. But only Poetry can explain how we feel about it.

bkcunningham's avatar

I DNT HV A PRBLM WTH TXTSPEAK. I AGREE WTH SMN. TH ENGLSH LNGG MST BE ABL 2 ADPT IN ODR FR IT 2 SRVV. OTHRWS IT WLL GO TH WY OF GREEK.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

We still refer to the Greek in crafting the most specific new words of science.

linguaphile's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir To respond to your comment about whether word usage’s different in the 1600’s and now—unfortunately we have no record of their dialogues and spoken usage of words to ascertain word count and usage. We only have their written language.

A good number of articles talk about word reception/comprehension being much higher than word usage/expression. Along with the multiple-meanings, which do we count? It’s not that simple.

Throw in grammar structures—and it becomes even more complicated. According to one computer reading-grading program, Shakespeare’s only at 7th grade reading level.

@bkcunningham Haha, you mean Latin? Greek’s still around :D

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Yeah, but it’s not that black and white. I’m not making this about poetry v. math. Hardly are you more capable of writing poetry if you know how to say something twice. Even poets will tell you that’s not what poetry is about. As for the reference to Greek, that’s by convention, nothing more. @bkcunningham Again, I don’t think ‘losing traditional words’ means ‘we’re going to speak in textspeak from here on’.

bkcunningham's avatar

Me either, @Simone_De_Beauvoir. I was just kidding around. I found a textspeak translator!

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Convention is root. Without root, there can be no foundation to grow a tree of knowledge upon.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies That’s neither here nor there. Clearly, we’re not losing conventions.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@linguaphile I enjoy Old English as well, I just don’t think that the way to ensure things past is to stop things future. Seems most people who are so into tradition spend more time trying to prevent progress than they do actually enjoying the tradition.

tinyfaery's avatar

Elitism. I can’t explain it any other way.

As an aside, I have a “word of the day” widget on my home page and I often find myself saying, “what an ugly word”. If a word has a usable synonym I don’t see the big issue with losing certain words.

linguaphile's avatar

@Aethelflaed I agree… then there are weirdos like me who love Old English and love to see which words Oxford and Webster have added every year.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@linguaphile I’m with you. I spend way too much time checking out the OED’s timeline feature thingy. But the difference is (between me and the article writer, not me and you), I don’t get mad when other’s don’t follow suit.

lillycoyote's avatar

Yes, language is fluid and ever changing, always evolving, but the primary purpose of language is to communicate so there have to be agreed upon standards of vocabulary, usage and structure so that we can all communicate with each other, so we are all speaking the same language, so to speak. Everyone cannot have their own vocabulary and there own rules unless we want to create a Tower of Babel among people who are all supposed to be speaking the same language. It also becomes increasingly difficult to learn a language and communicate with native speakers if no one can agree on what the rules are.

And that should have been be “fewer words” not “less words.” That’s the proper usage. :-)

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Yes, yes…thanks for correcting me. My consciousness and the fluther black list has now been expanded :)~

lillycoyote's avatar

Just a little good natured joke, @Simone_De_Beauvoir, as the question was about language prudes..

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@lillycoyote Oh no! I know that..hence the smiley face…or are you trying to make an example out of smiley face usage? ‘cause I can expand the smiley face to say ‘I am joking, you’re my friend, I like you a lot.’

lillycoyote's avatar

You’re going to have to hone your teeth on someone else tonight, @Simone_De_Beauvoir, I’m not in the mood for it. Goodnight.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@lillycoyote Pm. You misunderstood me.

lillycoyote's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir I know I did! I see that now; I can be a little thick sometimes. I’m not stupid, I just act that way sometimes ;- D. Anyway, I will be your fluther chew toy any day. :- )

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

thick (adj.)
O.E. þicce “not thin, dense,” from P.Gmc. *theku-, *thekwia- (cf. O.S. thikki, O.H.G. dicchi, Ger. dick, O.N. þykkr, O.Fris. thikke), from PIE *tegu- “thick” (cf. Gaelic tiugh). Secondary O.E. sense of “close together” is preserved in thickset and proverbial phrase thick as thieves (1833). Meaning “stupid” is first recorded 1590s. Phrase thick and thin is in Chaucer (late 14c.); thick-skinned is attested from 1540s; in figurative sense from c.1600. To be in the thick of some action, etc., “to be at the most intense moment” is from 1680s, from a M.E. noun sense.

lillycoyote's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Yes. Thick: Meaning Stupid Since 1590!

ratboy's avatar

If you “speak” Old English as well as any contemporary language, you’re bilingual. A world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter.

ucme's avatar

There isn’t one, as far as I can see.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@lillycoyote ”...Since 1590”

See this is the stuff that fascinates me about words changing. I would never have personally used “thick” to describe a state of mind. However, some of the conversations we’ve had, I would describe us as being “thick as thieves” at times… scoobie doopy doo.

Thick skinned… highly recommended. In the Thick of it… always.

So your use of the word and the meaning applied was interesting enough for me to look it up… and whaddaya know… I’ve been enlightened to another meaning. I would have said “dense”.

And most interesting, I see that “dick” has something to do with “thick” with the meaning you attribute to it. Fascinating. Though it may not be written, let it be known… I have been a dick. And what better kind of dick to be than a thick dick?

I cannot wait to cast that new abrasion upon an unsuspecting drunken friend.
“You are one Thick Dick”!

linguaphile's avatar

In Semantics class today, I started a lecture on how Latin is a ‘dead language’ because the academics wouldn’t allow Latin to evolve (no relation at all to this thread)— this sparked a discussion on how new words are assimiliated into our language and old words fall out of use. I gave some examples from popular culture (Daddy-O, Rad, Gag me with a spoon, I’m Down) and technology (information superhighway/Internet, tweeting, Google/googling/googled) I made no comment about whether our vocabulary range is dropping, but…

One of my students brought up a very interesting point. Her view is that we have so many canned or routine statements that have become acronyms and, in her view, we have too many acronyms, cliches or abbreviations. She feels that this number shows how much of our conversation is rehearsed, repeated, and, again in her view, devoid of real meaning. She asked me, “Is that where we’re going? Towards a language that’s just routine, repetitions and is devoid of any real or deep meaning?”

Good question.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@linguaphile Is it a good question? It’s just one of those kind of rhetorical questions that sounds serious but we have no real answer to it, you know? That’s aside from the fact that what’s ‘meaningful’ is in the eye of the beholder.

linguaphile's avatar

It’s a question that comes up every now and then. Ray Bradbury asked it. For me, it’s a valid question, regardless of the answer.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@linguaphile Well, let me answer it for you. No, I don’t think we’re heading towards a language that’s devoid of meaning because no language can be devoid of meaning.

linguaphile's avatar

Have you seen corporate-speak lately? A good book to read on this topic would be Death Sentences.

This guy disagrees with your answer. I agree that no daily language usage can be 100% devoid of meaning but our corporates have mastered the art of saying things that essentially mean nothing.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@linguaphile Ah, that’s true – but that language has a purpose, to obfuscate. And, if anything, it’s a proliferation of language rather than erasure.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@linguaphile I think the real question becomes, is our language becoming more routine, more repetitious, and more devoid of any real or deep meaning than it always has been? Because, fine, so corporations deliberately do that – isn’t that a tried and true rhetorical tactic of those in power? Aren’t there always people who talk a lot but never say anything? I’ll worry when someone shows me that things are drastically worse than they were. And in the mean time, for those that think as this student does, I’m sure there are some books out there that are quite different from what they normally read and how they normally thinks that would give them pause.

Nimis's avatar

It’s not about using five bricks when you only need one. It’s about having the choice between five bricks when you only need one.

Even if you only need one brick, every option you have gets you closer to the optimal brick. The simplest word that does the best job.

Which is why words like pulchritude annoy me. I have yet to find a situation where that word does a better job than beauty. I think it exists just so people can make those stupid word-a-day calendars.

But I think that’s the exception and not the norm. For the most part, each word has its own particular nuance and adds depth to our language, culture and cognitive experience.

It’s about more than just getting your point across.

Nullo's avatar

Language can also be used to control. Look at the Pee See. I don’t suspect any party of driving the loss of language with this in mind, but I’d bet that there will be someone who’ll try.

And it’s already hard enough to read Hamlet and the KJV Bible. I don’t want to be cut off from those old works.

Aethelflaed's avatar

Just to balance things out, here’s a post from today about how Twitter and the like are spreading regionalisms out of the region; that we’re also gaining “traditional” words from other areas.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I’m glad this conversation is going. @Nullo So the “PC movement” which (I’m assuming) to you is synonymous with crazy liberals trying to gain rights and shit for people is leading to a loss of words? I thought the problem with the movement was that they’re inventing all these new words that are just so damn hard to remember when instead you can just say ‘nigger’ and move on like your granddaddy. (not yours)

Nullo's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Way to misread my post, kudos.~
I had gathered that the point of PC was to get people to think differently by changing the words that they use. Not that far-fetched; it’s just marketing, after all.
This may or may not tie in with the apparent need to periodically re-brand at-risk minorities.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Nullo Well, I said I’m assuming…so…anywho, though that may be true, what does it have to do with loss of words overall?

morphail's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies “A Bumblebee is not consciously aware of a coffee cup because it has no words to describe such a thing.”

Or maybe because it’s a bumblebee.

There’s no evidence that there is such a direct link between language and consciousness. French has two words that are translated by English “know” (savoir and connaître). So are French speakers better at knowing than English speakers?

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