Evolution of the English Language

200 years ago in 1806, Noah Webster published his very first dictionary. A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language contained 37,000 entries, thousands of which were not listed in any other dictionary. In 1843, upon Webster's death, the Merriam brothers acquired the rights to Webster's dictionary.

Keeping with the spirit of Noah Webster and the Merriams, Merriam-Webster adds new words as it releases new editions. The company just released nearly 100 new words that will appear in the fall in the best-selling Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.They have a quiz that you can take to find out if you know the definition of eight randomly selected new words.

How did you do on this quiz? What words were you quizzed over? (My quiz words and score are below the fold).

I am also curious to know what you think; is the English language evolving gradually at a fairly consistent rate or is it evolving as a series of sudden, rapid shifts?

My score: 8 out of 8.

My favorite new words; coqui, himbo, mouse potato and bling-bling.

I was dismayed to see the quiz meisters use the word "polyamory" incorrectly. In the sentence provided, they used the spelling for the noun, but it should have instead written it as the adjective ("polyamorous").

To answer my own question, is the English language evolving gradually at a fairly consistent rate or is it evolving as a series of sudden, rapid shifts?

My opinion is that the English language has a gradual background evolutionary rate but the language also undergoes large shifts due to jumps in technological developments.



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8 of 8. Mouse Potato, Soul Patch, Polyamory (which also bugged me), Degenderize, Sandwich Generation, Labelmate, Empty Suit, and Himbo (hee).

By skywalkthisway (not verified) on 06 Jul 2006 #permalink

Does "coqui" just refer to the frog, or is it in reference to Puerto Ricans living outside Puerto Rico? (It wasn't in my quiz.) Speaking of which, I imagine "desi" (westernized, foreign-born Indians) will find a place in American English pretty soon.

I went 8 for 8, FWIW. It helped that it was multiple choice, and all the wrong answers were stupid.

I didn't see any new words I thought particularly notable or difficult. I'm pretty sure I was using the term "soul patch" at least 20-25 years ago, although sometimes words take a while to find their way into print. AFAIK, the style itself was started by Dizzy Gillespie in the late '40s. "Empty suit" has been around for decades, too. "Suit" as synechdoche for "executive" goes back to the grey-flannel 50s, and "empty suit" at least to the greed-is-good 80s.

"Degenderize" and "mouse potato" strike me as nonce words. I doubt they'll have real staying power.

Technological shifts can cause large changes in language, but I think historically, human migration is much more significant (cf. coqui, desi). Wait 'til the boys and girls in uniform come home from Iraq and start introducing GWII slang into pop culture. (For that matter, let's look back at Iraqi Arabic in 10 years or so.) Paradoxically, some technological changes in the past (the alphabet, movable type) probably contributed to slowing the rate of linguistic change.

The words: mouse potato, soul patch, labelmates, polyamory, sandwich generation, degenderize, empty suit, himbo.

I got 7 of 8 (missed sandwich generation). Polyamory was definitely misused, which should have been clear just from standard word formation, even without knowing the meaning.

I think that language is changing faster right now due to words for new technology and the speed of communication. New words that used to take longer to spread now move around the world in a matter of weeks.

"coqui" refers just to that specific frog species.

i figured out the definition of soul patch after watching this video that i embedded a few weeks ago.

If English evolved from Germanic dialects, then why is there still High and Low German? Huh? Huh?

I got 8 of 8, but, even though I was not familiar with some of the words or terms, most were pretty self explanatory, especially since, as noted, wrong definitions were usually obviously wrong.

By Mark Paris (not verified) on 06 Jul 2006 #permalink

7/8, same list as the first commentor. I "knew" four from personal usuage or from my kids, the rest were obvious when given multiple choices (except labelmates, I assumed clothes). I also wonder how many of these terms will survive in anything like common usuage.

By CanuckRob (not verified) on 06 Jul 2006 #permalink

Same words and order as first commenter: 8/8. I guess they aren't selecting from the full 100 words. Also stared at "polyamory" trying to understand why they used it instead of an appropriate variation.

I got mouse potato, himbo, polyamory, sandwich generation, soulpatch, degenderize, empty suit, and labelmates. I got all of them right except labelmates, even though the only two I'd seen before are polyamory and sandwich generation.

About language change, there is a general background level of change, but it's on a very large scale. Linguists have discovered that languages lose core vocabulary at a relatively constant per millennium rate, for example.

But the smaller-scale changes work in a punctuated equilibrium way, often without any obvious cause. The grammatical simplifcation that characterized the shift from Old to Middle English was probably due to Danish influence, but the accompanying phonemic changes were not. The Great Vowel Shift has no known cause as far as I know. The ongoing soundshifts in the US, on the other hand, are probably due to the maturation of cities west of the Appalachians (I think it's significant that they are strongest in areas traditionally perceived as accentless), leading to soundshifts similar to these of the East Coast cities.

Technological changes certainly do affect language change, as do social changes. It's widely accepted that written languages change more slowly than unwritten one. Looking at languages that are written even though their speakers are mostly illiterate, like Quechua, confirms this. On the other hand, the mass media seems to have exactly zero effect on language change, contrary to popular belief.

8/8, although half of them were guesses.

Same words as Dendroica, in the same order. Which are also the same words, in a different order, as everyone else who reported their word list in the comments thread...

Same eight words, different order ...

As to your evolution question, it depends on what you mean. If you mean acquiring new vocabulary, it's happening pretty quickly. But that's not really language change. English is changing - though our standards (especially our written standards) act as a brake (as for all languages). English is trying to recover its indefinite-reference pronoun (they) which was taken away from it, as well as its notional agreement.

But more importantly, English is trying to level its pronouns (as it levelled its nouns), having succeeded so far with two of them. Simultaneously, leading to some confusion, it's trying to decline only the head word bound-phrases (thus, "give it to John and I", only John declining - or, more obviously, "give it to him and I") - a phenomenon that can also be described as turning nominative pronouns into clitics. Some dialects of English are turning "be" into a lexical verb instead of an auxiliary (hence, "do you be" instead of "are you").

Now, that's evolution. But I don't think English is currently evolving very quickly. It's just trying to catch up the massive changes that removed most of our inflections and turned it into a word-order language instead of a (primarily) inflected one, and produced our rather wacky do-support...

I got the same 8 words as Dendroica, and also got the same 7 right.

Dendroica - I would be worried if I were you.

I've no idea if language is changing any faster now, but it would make an interesting research project: get data on the first use of words from the OED, and try and work out a model for them. A bit like paleontological analysis. Hmmm. I feel a grant proposal coming on.

Dendroica - I would be very worried if I were you.


Americans have a great line in imaginative coinage. "Soul patch" and "empty suit" are wonderful. I think we Irish use English imaginatively as well, but coinage is rarer. Maybe it's that instinctive American confidence that allows "y'all" to present your newly created phrases to the world as a fait accompli. I suppose this means the American dialect is growing faster.

Isn't it funny how American and Irish Englishes both have a unique 3rd person plural pronoun (y'all say "y'all", we say "ye"). Gaping hole in "official" English if you ask me.

Anyway, judging by the haphazard use of apostrophes and commas these days, I'd say English is in a state of badly punctuated equilibrium.

I'll let myself out.

D'oh! I mean 2nd person. BTW, I think "do you be?" is a Hiberno-English phrase. It apes the structure of the equivalent Gaelic phrase (an mbÃonn tú?). I suppose it was a naive mistranslation by the first generation of English speakers in Ireland that somehow caught on. Similiarly for "I'm after leaving" instead of "I have left" (táim tar éis imeacht). Isn't Gaelic fun?!

Well, adding vocabulary is hardly evolution. I recall seeing some quote to the effect that English doesn't just "borrow" words, it ambushes other languages in dark alleys and empties their pockets....

That said, there's surely some real evolution going on. A shrink I know was complaining that several of his teenage patients are consistently saying "'member" for "remember" -- no idea if that one in particular will stick, but that's the sort of thing that does on.

Along the same lines, I've been seeing certain misspellings/misusages that seem to be getting more and more common, even among people who I'd think would know better. Things like "affect" vs. "effect", and "principle" vs. (adjectival) "principal".

By David Harmon (not verified) on 07 Jul 2006 #permalink

Also certain slang usages, (from typos or pure mischief) look like good candidates for persistence. "Teh" for "the" could well take hold, as in some dialects it's a single-phoneme change, between adjacent phonemes. Then too, we have comments like this, coming from the surgeon/scientist Orac:

"We're talking some serious dubiosity here. (OK, I mean "dubiousness," but I just liked the sound of "dubiosity." In fact, I may just use the term "dubosity" in the future.)"

This mutation is characteristic of "old-school hackers" (that is, computer geeks of my and the previous generation), and several others of our slang usages have been drifting into the mainstream. It doesn't even break "the rules" (much), as there are plenty of similar-sounding cases such as "grandiosity". Note that his spelling error in the second reference leads towards yet another "simplifying" mutation, but that one does grate as an error. He wrote that just today, at:


By David Harmon (not verified) on 07 Jul 2006 #permalink

I thought I'd offer this quote from Grant Barrett:

[It's important to understand that the core English common to all Anglophone countries changes very little and very slowly. We modern English-speakers--or at least our journalists--pay a great deal of attention to new words, but they are just foxfire on the banks of the great river of English that has run its course for centuries.]

He's discussing Language Evolution in the Digital Age

I got the same eight words as practically everyone else (and got them all). I don't know where they came up with "mouse potato"; that sounds more like a joke that some writer used in one article or something. I have serious doubts that has any widespread usage, and "himbo" is probably in the same category. The M-W people should treat their jobs more seriously. I'm betting you won't see those words in the OED.

"Soul patch" is a real word. Just a repulsive trend. But that's just my reaction.