Monday, June 6, 2011

The beautiful fluidity of language

Grand Tetons photo taken by me

At one point in my life I wanted to be a linguist. At another, an interpreter. I've studied a few languages, and now I'm a writer, so I guess you could say I have a lifelong interest in words. I'm pretty good at knowing what proper grammar is, but I'm fascinated by the way people use the English language in everyday speech.

Those of us who care, know that you can lie down, but you must lay something down. But nobody talks that way! I go in the house to lay down when I'm speaking out loud. It would sound so affected to say I'm going to lie down.

So the present tense of lie is becoming lay. Some day it will be standard English. That's the way standard English is formed, by usage. I love that about words. They are constantly being shifted and molded by the ways we use them.

There are people who want to capture words and set them in stone so that they never change. That will never happen! Language is a living thing. The only languages that are not changing are the dead languages, Latin, ancient Greek, things like that.

Someone mentioned the difference between the words 'that' and 'which'.* The first word is supposed to be used when removing it would make the sentence unclear. The building that is on the right is the one you should enter. Without the clause *that is on the right*, you don't know which building it is. Contrast with this. The building, which is painted green, is on the right. You can removed the *which* clause and the you still know which building it is. It's the one on the right, which happens to be painted green.

Anyway, someday those usages won't matter any more either, because the shifting sands of language will have covered up the difference. And the winds of time will have uncovered brand new words and brand new usages that we don't even know about yet.

It's beautiful.

*I know the single quote belongs inside the period for  Americans, but if the British can do it that way, and if I prefer it that way, I can do it on my own blog. It makes more sense, OK?


  1. Nice post. You might enjoy perusing the Language Log blog ( written by several linguists on topics of interest to the wider world.

    Edith (Linguist, now Writer) Maxwell

  2. Thanks, Edith. I'll look at that if I ever get two spare minutes. :) I did earmark it.

    Mary Ann, YES!

  3. Darn you, Edith, now I've gotten started on that fascinating blog! It's terrific! Like the May 31st topic: is *not* becoming *un-*, as in *I'm very not happy about this.* (Or is *very* being used as *so*?)

  4. I just spent twenty minutes reading comments on Language Log. That is not a good thing. I can already see that blog is habit-forming.

    *That's all right, Kaye. Punctuate any way you like.

  5. Great post. Reminds me of my linguistics classes in college! Thanks for sharing.

  6. I'm jealous you actually studied linguistics, Lacie! Thank you for stopping by.