Trask's Historical Linguistics

Author: Robert McColl Millar
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by sjcsjc   2017-08-19
Language is constantly changing in all sorts of ways, and lots of people dislike that fact.

This might be slightly off topic, but I highly recommend the first chapter of R L Trask's Historical Linguistics [0] which is a very entertaining overview of how language changes over time.

He starts with the example of the word "bonk" which after 1986 meant "copulate" but prior to then meant nothing of the kind.

He also discusses the modern [ab]use of the word "hopefully", as in for example: "hopefully we'll be there in time for lunch":

"Here is what Mr Philip Howard, a well-known writer on language, has to say about it: he describes this use of hopefully as 'objectionable', 'ambiguous', 'obscure', 'ugly', 'aberrant', 'pretentious', and 'illiterate'; finally, playing his ace, he asserts that it was 'introduced by sloppy American academics'"

He then goes on to point out that "In spite of the vitriol which hopefully has attracted, then, this word provides us with a neat and elegant way of saying 'I hope and expect that', something that we couldn't say before without using a whole cumbersome string of words."

He goes on:

"Lest you suspect that my example of 'hopefully' might be an atypical case, let's look at something quite different. Consider these examples:

"My car is being repaired My house is being painted This problem is being discussed at today's meeting.

"Anything strange here? I doubt it - I don't think there's an English-speaker alive who regards these as other than normal.

"But it wasn't always so. Until the end of the eighteenth century, this particular construction did not exist in standard English, and an English-speaker would have had to say "My car is repairing", "My house is painting", and "This problem is discussing at today's meeting" - forms which are absolutely impossible for us now.

"... when a few innovating speakers began to say things like "My house is being painted", the linguistic conservatives of the day could not contain their fury. Veins bulging purply from their foreheads, the attacked the new construction as 'clumsy', 'illogical', 'confusing', and 'monstrous'.

"But their efforts were in vain. Today all those who objected to the 'illogical' and 'monstrous' new form are long dead, and the traditional form which they defended with such passion is dead with them."

[0] (this is the second edition - my copy is the first and I don't know if the first chapter is changed)