I am old. Very old, my son thinks. He relates it to my wearing saris more often these days. But well, in a certain sense he is right. Even till very recently, I never objected to his listening to loud music. He has good taste, and has a very eclectic taste in both books and music, so he does not go near One Direction etc, but has naturally learnt to listen to Pete Seeger and Beatles and Kishore Kumar and Neil Young etc. See? Just the fact that I like his listening to these explains how old I am.
Every time I want my son to record something for me, I say, ‘will you please tape it”/ and I get a sardonic eyebrow lift in return. “Tape, ma? Really? And how did the dinosaur eggs taste?” And because he does not belong to a generation which used what we called ‘records” – you know, those black round things which had grooves with the music in it and a stylus was needed, and that stylus often needed to be changed – he now calls them by their posh name- vinyl. Because record has already gone into Jurassic age and one cannot keep in it daily conversations. They already have antique value, and he is young enough not to care for that yet, whereas I have already told my dad that my brother can have everything he has, – the flat, for instance, but could I please have all the books – Gateway to the Great Books series, the Second World War by Churchill, the clock which is 150 or so years old which my father still manages to have running perfectly, and his turntable and record, sorry, vinyl collection? I now get excited about old furniture and feel a pain which is almost physical when I see old fabulous furniture in places where people clearly don’t know or appreciate their value. I bought an old gramophone (since I did not belong to aristocratic families which actually had them) which has pride of place in my house. Anyway, I am rambling on about something not related to the post at all, let me get back on track.
Language has changed so much from what it was even when I was young. It is difficult to keep track. When I joined Cognizant, I was assigned a mentor who was explaining things to me. He kept talking about horizontals and verticals. I had no clue what he meant, but of course did not ask him. Even after I found out their meanings, I am unsure about why those particular words were used for those particular services.
I remember once writing to a colleague something he thought funny. This was a very senior colleague with whom I corresponded a lot and met once when he was in Calcutta – he was clearly a gentleman, much older than me. In response to that message from me, I get his message, ‘Oh, that was fantastic! I just love it and don’t know how you come up with these, lol, lol!’. There suddenly was this cold creepy feeling I had running down my spine, battling with my definite impressions about the integrity of the man. But why was he calling me Lol, was he acting fresh? What gave him the gall to be so forward, to use a short form of my name – his position? I then began keeping my distance and only interacting for absolutely necessary office work.
It was almost 3 years before I realized, again by complete fortune stroke of serendipity (because I am a snob and I don’t like airing my lack of knowledge in English), that lol was Laugh Out Loud and not one very nice gentleman flirting with me. I then learnt very quickly the meanings of TFS (and am proud to say my several-years-younger cousin did not know the acronym), ROTFWL and BTW and TTYL and several others. I have learnt – but not understood yet – that k is a short form of OK. Why does one need a short form for an existing shortened word? Don’t ask me why, just accept it. Resistance is futile. And that makes me a bonafide person of the 21st century.
What I see being increasingly used is the term ‘my bad’. I am trying, but it still makes no sense to me, the term is not even right English. Why is it accepted and bandied around so much? How difficult is it to write ‘my mistake’? And if it is, then stop writing altogether, for crying out loud!
One lives and learns. Like I have learnt gay does not mean joyful and happy, without a care, anymore. A fag to even my college-self meant a cigarette. I know, but still don’t understand why toilets in some countries and places are called ‘washrooms’ or ‘bathrooms’, or worse, ‘restrooms’. I mean, who is likely to go have a bath in those 3 feet by 3 feet places in shopping malls and movie halls and where is the shower anyway? Not to speak the complete impossibility of trying to rest in a ‘restroom’?
Cool does not mean cool anymore and means the exact opposite and hot also means cool. When we were taught the language, cool used to be slightly chillier than lukewarm. And in my mining industry background, coke meant a blackish fuel, a coke oven something which had frequent breakdowns requiring my dad to stay whole nights at work. Coke as a drink was something we heard of and only found in the gray market or when some foreign cousins came home. Now it also means a white powder many snort up their noses and get wasted. And in your childhood, which I am assuming for the purpose of my mental peace was at least 25 years back, had you ever heard of the term wasted with reference to the human body? No? Come join my geriatric club.
Taking a fag was taking a few puffs of cigarette. Now it is an impolite word for a special kind of person. It took me years to figure out heavy metal was a form of music and not anything to do with nuclear science. I have often been told by my British friends that they find my usage of thrice very quaint – this was long forgotten by them; they just use three times.
‘Some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever……it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing’. That was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s travels. We hear that sentiment a lot, maybe not as direct, but definitely there, – about language being frozen in time somehow shielded from the ravages of fashion, social trends and adaptation of alien cultures. I don’t really agree – language changing is not necessarily a negative thing, even though I will continue to lift my nose up snootily and scoff at people who use them ‘wrong’. Any sensible contemporary linguistic commentator will agree that change in language, like change in society, is an unavoidable process- sometimes regrettable but more often a means of refreshing and reinvigorating a language, providing alternatives that allow very subtle differences of expression.
Language changes substantially but very subtly whenever speakers come into contact with each other and there is almost an osmosis which happens. My Welsh friend, because we used to practically spend half our waking hours together in various settings, one day told me that she had gone home and frustrated at something, said ‘uff ho’, and she saw folks looking at her wondering what it meant. She had said it without thinking, but realized she had got it from me – this was a very Indian equivalent of damn or drat and some not so polite words. I am not talking about accents – that is normal, but of specific words one uses. She learnt from me the term murgi or murga, which would and does mean chicken, but when we say someone has been made a ‘murga’, we don’t mean he/she is chickening out of something or is scared but someone who has been royally had. She agreed there was no term which quite correctly spelt that out. Most Bengali youngsters will tell you not to take any ‘chaap’, which in our generation was ‘load’, which my parents’ generation did not understand at all. Imperfect understanding of the differences can often create confusion.
I did English Literature as my higher studies subject, and we had to learn Beowulf. One sentence I clearly remember, -and I don’t have the energy to Google and see if it’s right, so do forgive minor mistakes, – was, grendel gongan godes yirre baer. Explain to me how this is English and I will show you how my ancestors belonged to the family of Marie Antoinette’s mother Maria Theresa of Vienna. English language did go through some seismic changes after the written forms of many words had been more or less settled. Various cultures used words differently. For instance, in Norwegian sk is pronounced sh, so really skiing should be said shiing. But then, most did not actually go to Norway but read about skiing, and read it as it sounded, and the word ski became accepted worldwide. Did I tell you about how in Class 4 I was asked to conduct the school assembly (everyone had to do it in turns, I ain’t no genius) and I said the word debut not as deboo but exactly how it was spelt – de-but. But it absolutely does not mean it all makes sense. For instances, why is sliced bread such a wonderful invention, to validate the phrase ‘ best thing since sliced bread?’
Language changes because the needs of its speakers change. New things, new experiences require new words to refer them clearly and succinctly and efficiently. What we call sms here is called text messaging in UK. And as sms-ing became a word here, texting became a word there, even a verb – I will text him right now. As people interact, their own language – or lingo (I told you I am trying to conform to my teenage son’s needs )– develops. This happens especially with the youth, and yes, sadly I do not belong in that bracket, hence my judgmental attitude. As the young interact with folks their age, a sub-culture of language grows, including words and phrases and constructions quite different from those of the previous generation. A few words have a very limited life-span- (Do you hear the word groovy much nowadays? It used to be so cool during our salad days.) but others stick around and get included in the parent-body language.
Older people always tend to think English was more elegant in their days; more logical and correct. That is not necessarily right. Change is not always for the worse – although there are some words which I would rather not see in existence. Speech patterns of young people often grate in the ears of the older generation, but they are just newer. There is no such thing as a sloppy or lazy dialect. They all have rules – the sort of rules that tell us ‘the dog slept’ is a sentence but ‘slept dog the isn’t’. These rules actually tell us what a language is like rather than what it should be. We cannot pass judgment and say something was wrong simply because we do not notice the evolution.
Think of this. Over the past few decades, three new ways of reporting speech have appeared:
- So Lolita goes, “Wow – I wish I’d been there!”
- So Lolita is like, “Wow – I wish I’d been there!”
- So Lolita is all, “Wow – I wish I’d been there!”
In the first sentence goes means pretty much the same thing as said; it’s used for reporting Lolita’s actual words. In the second one is like means the speaker is telling us more or less what Lolita said. If Lolita had used different words for the same basic idea, is like would be appropriate, but goes would not. Finally, is all in the last one is a fairly new construction. In most of the areas where it’s used, it means something similar to is like, but with extra emotion. If Lolita had simply been reporting the time, it would be okay to say She goes, “It’s five o’clock”, but odd to say She’s all, “It’s five o’clock” – unless there was something exciting about it being five o’clock.
All this has done my head in. Suffice to say that an effort towards correct English is not such a bad thing after all. One might not succeed completely, and ‘like’ and ‘you know’ and ‘guess what’ will creep into your sentences. But see, they really don’t add to the language. And if they don’t, in this day of speed and efficiency, why use them?
Just saying. My personal opinion.