General Question

ubersiren's avatar

Is there an absolute correct English language, or is it ever-changing?

Asked by ubersiren (15031 points ) June 16th, 2009

I was having a discussion with a friend about the plural word “crab” vs. “crabs” and “fish” vs. “fishes.” She said what I’ve heard a lot, which is that certain words are accepted as correct only after continuous misuse. I understand, and agree somewhat, but I think this is how language evolves. I think there are some boundaries, but they’re personal as I think language usage is. Rarely do I tell someone he’s dead wrong about grammar and spelling because there are so many variations. Thoughts?

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37 Answers

Les's avatar

Well, with the example you gave, both “fish” and “fishes” are correct. Fish can refer to a plural form of one type of fish (“I went salmon fishing and caught a lot of fish”), but “fishes” is the plural form or many different kinds of fish (“There are many fishes in the ocean”). “Fishes” or “crabs” didn’t arise because of misuse, they are words in themselves.

Alright, rant aside. I agree with you, to a point. Language does evolve, so there are many instances where terms and grammar may be correct, but were not so 100 years ago. But there are some things I can never accept as “acceptable”. For example: disorientated. That’s not a word. I don’t care if it is in dictionaries, it is awful.

basp's avatar

Language constantly changes. Frequent use, regional acceptance, and new inventions/technology are some factors that contribute to the evolution of language.

mammal's avatar

The English language seems to me more dynamic than others, which seem more conservative, that may have something to do with the diversity of people that speak a universally recognisable version (who appear to add their own cultural signature to it)

ubersiren's avatar

@Les: YES. That’s totally what I mean. Some things I can accept, but if it changes the core form of the word or the meaning, like “irregardless” I just can’t get behind it.

Les's avatar

@ubersiren: Shudder. Irregardless. I’m with you all the way on that one.

DominicX's avatar

English is ever-changing and changing faster than most other languages. Like it or not, no language has an absolute-correct form except I suppose an artificial language or a dead language. It’s up to the people speaking it if they want to have an absolute form or not. When there’s millions of people speaking it around the world, it’s kind of hard to come to a consensus on that. However, that doesn’t mean that there are certain changes that I will not try to stop. Irregardless being one. The other being the pronunciation of the word “poinsettia” going to shit.

Vincentt's avatar

This is just the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Language changes. You make mistakes yourself that you would never tell are mistakes (I can’t think of English examples, but in Dutch nobody will notice you saying “per ongeluk” which that in fact is a contraction of “bij ongeluk” and “per abuis”. It’s just become normal).

jfos's avatar

There is a difference between evolution of a language and widespread grammatical failures. Many people neglect to speak English correctly, namely American citizens.

On a different note, as English becomes increasingly more influenced, new words/phrases/compound words/abbreviations will inevitably develop. I think that English is interesting, in that it is quite simple to create new words.

morphail's avatar

If common usage doesn’t make something correct, what does? How do we determine what words mean other than by looking at how they are used?

tinyfaery's avatar

Let go people. Words are just strings of letters given meaning by others.

oratio's avatar

English is a soup of languages since it’s been invaded by half of Europe, and since it’s been spread all over the globe with the empire, there are so many varieties of english that I am not sure how to spell things.

wundayatta's avatar

More is going on in language than most of us, who are not linguists, probably know. With respect to “irregardless,” it occurred to me that there are various ways of emphasizing a word, using the prefix “ir” might be one of those ways. I can’t think of another word one might apply that to to achieve a similar effect, though.

Still, even if it’s only one word, it seems appropriate, if that’s how it’s being used. And, as many have said, the language is evolving, and usage on the street, so to speak, determines what it is, not grammarians and dictionaries. As such, “proper” English or French or whatever becomes a status symbol as much as anything practical, communicationally speaking. Never used “communication” as an adjective before—do you think it’ll catch on?

morphail's avatar

The “in/im/ir” prefix seems to be used for emphasis, or maybe adds no meaning, in some other words besides irregardless: irradiate, imperil, impose. And as Michael Quinion notes, the duplication of negative affixes used to be quite common in the 1500s and 1600s: unboundless, undauntless, uneffectless, unfathomless.

http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-irr1.htm

Jack79's avatar

It is ever-changing.

andrew's avatar

Here’s the thing. Let’s talk about an underlying aspect of this question, and that’s the people who correct other people regarding language usage.

I see two classes: those who correct because they are nitpicky and closely adhere to the thought that there is a correct way to speak—and this applies to dialect, to spelling, to grammar, to punctuation, to usage. In my experience, these are the people who look for the “right” way, the black and white way. It’s the type of people that remind you to use the subjunctive when saying “I wish” because it’s a rarified bit of knowledge that separates some people as being “right” and “educated”. I don’t have much capacity for tolerance about this class of people.

Then, there is the laudable pursuit of precision in language, and the justifiable lament over people’s imprecision with it. It’s the broadening of semiological referents. Academic terms-aside, I see quite a bit of difference with being disappointed in the carelessness—or really the mindlessness or non-mindful way that people use their language. It’s less about “right” and “wrong” than it is about choosing and using words purposely because they have meaning—and seeing that meaning stripped away is frustrating.

I reject the argument that “language is ever-changing, so just get with the times”. Yes, we know language is ultimately a social contract—many many semiologicians in the ‘70s proved this. But Language, to me, is a gift; a sublime gift, and I am saddened when people simply don’t care enough to put effort in the way they communicate—since there is so much for us to delight in.

tinyfaery's avatar

@andrew I see no difference between your one and two, aside from semantics, that is.

morphail's avatar

@andrew Language has been changing for thousands of years and we can still communicate with the same amount of precision now as we could thousands of years ago (at least, I’m not aware of any evidence to the contrary). If a meaning is “stripped away” from a word, then if we want to communicate that specific meaning, we use different words.

rexpresso's avatar

I’ve read a while ago about Chinese English being given an official name of Chingrish and accepted as an actual language, namely because of the enormous amount of people speaking it.

I think most things are ever-changing, and language is definitely one of them.

Even mathematics, I’ve read some time ago that there was discovered a new way of doing that thing (I don’t remember the word) that uses the sines, cosines, tangents etc… and it’s a much simpler method.

But maths is different… it gets sharper, easier. Language is subject to creativity, like arts. Even if in practice, it becomes simpler and simpler, too.

andrew's avatar

@tinyfaery The difference is between saying “there’s a correct place to put that comma” (which, many times is subject to whatever style guide you’re following) and saying “well, the comma doesn’t really mean anything anyway, so it doesn’t matter, where, I put it”.

It’s part of the reason “acrosst and heighth” bother me, but the quotative like doesn’t.

See also lol4rl.com.

tinyfaery's avatar

Don’t forget Spanglish. Most people in L.A. know how to speak it.

wundayatta's avatar

@andrew Language is a “sublime gift,” eh? Waxing poetic over the native tongue? Isn’t that kind of metalinguistic?

Frankly, I think you are using language, or “correct” language in exactly the way that most people do: as a status indicator. You’ve had a fancy edification, so you know how to tickle the keyboard and tease out eloquence. Your implication is that if people don’t speak the way you do, then they haven’t put “enough effort” into it, and it doesn’t delight you.

I have no problem with elitist attitudes, but I think it’s better to acknowledge you have them, then to dress it up as some aesthetic norm. You may delight in a certain kind of language, but others may take equal delight in language you consider to boorish and pedestrian. What is going on here is the definition of class distinctions, which is the function that delineation of “proper language” has always served.

This is what annoys me so much about these “proper English” discussions. It is a well-cloaked form of classism. Now, I’m as elitist as the next well-educated person, and I fancy myself perfectly capable of wielding the pen fairly decently, but I’m not going to make any normative statements about how language is used.

Language is used to communicate, and when people don’t understand a language that is supposed to be their own, they often take it as a personal affront. As if, if they can’t understand it easily and well, then no one else could possibly make any sense out of it, either. That simply isn’t true. Very few people bother to babble. If someone uses language in a certain way, you can be damn sure that it works for them, and successfully communicates to the people they want to communicate with.

andrew's avatar

Ah! You misinterpret my point!

Yes, I absolutely agree that it’s an elitism thing. But nowhere did I talk about “correctness” in my argument—in fact, I argued against correctness for that very reason. I lovelovelovelove lolcats. I love new colloquialisms.

Let me reiterate, I’m not talking about education level—there are plenty of brilliant actors who wield language brilliantly and have very little formal education. I’m not deriding pidgins or mashed languages, either.

Where I draw the distinction is about the argument that there’s no point to grammar, or word usage, or anything else because “language is fluid”. That, to me, is a cop out—an excuse for being lazy and a failure to recognize how much we communicate when we write and speak.

An example.

And yes, there is a classist undertone to discussions like this. But I’m not talking about “proper english”, I’m talking about acknowledging the fact that language is, in fact, a powerful thing.

f4a's avatar

language do evolve, and they do adapt with other languages. english borrows and takes words as its own.

wundayatta's avatar

Language is a powerful thing, but I don’t think that we can judge whether someone else respects or doesn’t respect that power based on how they use it. Since communication is so important, I believe that everyone uses it to the best of their ability. No one is tanking it deliberately (well, with the possible exception of fiction writers).

morphail's avatar

@andrew I don’t think anyone here is claiming that anything goes because “language is fluid”. I’m not sure that Grassey’s tweets demonstrate laziness or a failure to recognize how much we communicate, since his tweets are understandable – especially considering that twitter has a character limit so abbreviations are useful. Also there’s no reason to hold all kinds of English to the same standards (for instance computer-mediated communication vs essay writing).

Meribast's avatar

I believe that there is a standardized version of British English that would be the most correct, but language is changing as new concepts and inventions get added to the lexicon. Slang becomes mainstream. I imagine even many Brits don’t speak completely standard English.

As for fish and fishes. I completely disagree that they are both correct. He caught several fish. There are many kinds of fish in the sea. There are many fish in the sea. Never: There are many fishes in the sea. (shudder). Same for crab. Crabs is the slang for a venereal disease/parasite.

Language is unfortunately the medium we have to communicate with. Sloppy, imprecise language=misunderstanding. It’s what we’re stuck with until we all develop telepathy or some other form of direct sensory input/output.

In a way, I agree with language as being contrived. If I sit on a table, is it a chair? If I put my feet on it, is it a footrest? It is serving those functions, so why is it not?

It’s an artificial way of ordering reality, to be sure, but again, we need common ground to communicate and standardizing language is a way of providing it that common ground.

Meribast's avatar

@morphail I hardly think that neanderthal and cro-magnon, nor any developing civilization with their own unique language or writing system was very complex in its infancy.

There are no living languages that have existed in their present forms for thousands of years. Each pretty much developed as their society developed. The more opportunity for leisure and luxury to pursue more scholarly/artistic endeavors developed and refined them.

Anyone learning a language is pretty much in the same boat except for having access to dictionaries. They are often unable to express complex thoughts or concepts because they don’t have a vocabulary to do so. It’s fine if you have a simple mind but if you’re more intelligent being limited in such a way is frustrating.

morphail's avatar

@Meribast All languages that we are aware of, both living and dead, are equal in complexity and expressive power. Maybe the earliest forms of language were simpler, who knows. You seem to be saying that your language puts constraints on what you can express. There is no evidence for this.

Zen's avatar

@morphail As English is also a phonetic language at times, the prefix “un” meaning “not” evolved into various phonetically-easier prefixes, e.g., ir before r (irregular) or il before l (illiterate) and im before m (immodest). It simply sounded better and was easier to pronounce them than “unregular, unliterate and unmodest.”

morphail's avatar

@Zen No. There are two “un-” prefixes in English. One expresses negation, as in “uncompleted”, and the other expresses reversal or deprivation, as in “untie”.

The prefix “in/il/ir/im” is from Latin. There are two of them as well. One meant “in, into, within” and its sound assimilated with the word it attached to, as in “irradiate”. The other expressed negation or privation, and it also underwent assimilation, as in “irregular”. The assimilation happened in Latin, not English.

the100thmonkey's avatar

There is no absolute, correct version of a language: there are dialects; and dialects with an army and navy.

There are a few of attendant issues with this:

1. Language varies, and varies considerably – an apocryphal example that I’ve heard is that when Trainspotting was shown in the US, parts of it were subtitled. Yet to me they were clearly speaking the same language (I’m from Edinburgh, where the film is set). Another (definitely true, I promise!) example of variability within language can be seen here. I understand this language (if we choose to call it that), although I never produce it.

Is Scots is a separate language from English, or is it an Anglic dialect? The answer is essentially political, as modern British RP must also, therefore, be an Anglic dialect if we are to argue that Scots is a dialect.

2. The primary driver for variability within a language is, in my opinion, social – the way we speak and write is arguably the single most important way through which we express our identity. For example, the way we speak when we are working is markedly different from the way we speak with our colleagues when we are in the pub with them. Compare this with the way we speak at home, or socialising with the people we grew up with. The question is, then (if we accept the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis): Are we the same people at work as we are at home?

3. “Correct” varieties of language are the varieties of language spoken by the √©lite – those with either the money or power (arguably both are the same thing) to be considered as socially attractive, and therefore are in a position to impose linguistic norms.

I feel it follows from what I wrote above that “correct” English is a preference – how we want to be perceived, and why we want to be perceived that way.

Fundamentally, it’s a matter of taste.

oratio's avatar

@the100thmonkey
The real Scottish language is Gaelic isn’t it? I would assume people speak English in dialect in Scotland, as well as they do in Ireland and Wales.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Well, Gaelic is certainly spoken in Scotland, but it’s a minority language. It’s also mutually comprehensible with Irish Gaelic, I understand from a couple of my friends (I don’t speak it), so the same issues as I posted above arise.

In my opinion, there is no – can be no – “real” language of a place. There is historical practice and the attendant cultural and social norms. English is the language of the people who conquered the British Isles, and as such it is the language of power within the British Isles. People appropriate and modify it, as is done with any language, to suit their social needs.

ItsAHabit's avatar

All languages change. Read a newspaper or magazine that is 100 years old and you will notice this fact. There is a branch of study called glottochronology that tries to understand the process and measure it.

zenele's avatar

English, indeed, is ever-evolving and beautiful that way.

Not sure about the examples you gave, though: one crab, two crabs. We’re having crab for lunch, we’re having pie for desert. We are eating four crabs and two pies.

One fish, two fish, three fish blue fish. But there are many kinds of fishes in the sea.

(Haven’t read the thread – please excuse any redundancy.)

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