In January, Washington Post reporter Jeff Guo wrote a blog post titled “The totes amazesh way millennials are changing the English language.”
In the post, Guo defines “totes” as an abbreviated form of the word “totally.” The invented word has become synonymous and representative of a new change in direction in the English language. Words like “totes” are cultural phenomena young people find themselves increasingly engaged in on social media. The linguistic trend invovles shortening words by rearranging sounds, and therefore often involves words that “contain unexpected sounds in unexpected places.”
Guo claimed “no entry in the English lexicon is safe,” with plenty of examples to back it up. In spite of the critical light in which most of the article seems to view the changes, Guo’s ultimate assertion is largely positive. His argument is that millennials change language to be expressive rather than efficient. But, their added dimension to words has inspired a slew of harsh and critical comments from linguistic enthusiasts everywhere.
Washington Post subscribers provided their opinions on the controversial changes.
Commenter heirloomtomato asserted the belief that the change in language expresses nothing but “laziness and lack of originality.”
“Yet one more step, America, in becoming illiterate morons,” commenter MJR3 said.
Dave in Dallas argued that change in language is “not any indication of stupidity at all” but perfectly normal and indicative of a living, evolving language.
“Are we really all going to descend to the minimal content in the examples here?” commenter evacarey said, pointing out that it is also common “for much of the population to be poorly educated” and that Guo’s examples “give a strong impression of mindlessness.”
As an english major, I was immediately intrigued by the headline and even more so by the extensive article that followed. I found myself wondering exactly how true some of the commentators’ claims were. What could the results of such massive changes in language be? Is our need to abbreviate language really a sign of lazy illiteracy, or is it simply an inevitable byproduct of using a living language?
As it turns out, the English language constantly evolves, sometimes in minuscule ways.
The Great Vowel Shift in mid-14th to early 17th century England is one commonly cited example. During this period, Middle English evolved into early Modern English, thanks to a massive sound change affecting long, stressed vowels. Vowels shifted upwards and were then pronounced in a higher place in the mouth. This change had long-term implications for a number of things, including the way certain words are spelled.
There have been other deceivingly subtle, major changes to the English language.
According to Mental Floss linguist Arika Okrent, there has been a steady shift over time from the “to” to the “-ing” complement with a number of verbs. For example, more people increasingly say “they started walking” instead of “they started to walk.” There has also been an increase in “get-passive,” or opting to say “they got fired” instead of “they were fired.”
These are just some of several subtle linguistic changes that, according to Okrent, “may not be noticeable for decades or even centuries.”
However, changes in lexicon are hardly anywhere near as subtle today.
Just last year, Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji its “Word of the Year,” and “Chillax,” “Crunk,” “D’oh,” “Grrl,”“Obvs,” and “Whatevs” are just some of the words that have been added to the dictionary in the past five years.
This raises a question: How does our fast-paced, social media-oriented society figure into it all? Perhaps the seemingly odd linguistic changes Guo examines would have been better received if they had occurred over long periods of time, but if recent changes are any indication, subtlety is a thing of the past and keeping up with modern English might require more adjusting than most non-millennials are equipped or willing to do.