“One cannot step in the same river twice,” states Heraclitus; “Panta rhei (transl. all flows).”
Paradoxically, change being a predictable constant in life may be one of the most prevailing elements that unifies us humans, especially when it comes to communication. With language, change is an inevitable phenomenon occurring in every culture, in every dialect, in real and perceived time; slow as a snail, fast as fire. Language in flux proves that language is living.
How do we know this? Do we even notice it, or see it happening? When and how do these changes remain?
The Phenomenon of Language Change
Myriad variables, catalysts and contexts contribute to language change. Something like a pandemic, let’s say, creates a unique need for a certain subset of new terms—neologisms (from the Ancient Greek neo, meaning “new,” and logos, “word”)—to be coined and become embedded in culture, observable locally and globally. Words enter mainstream usage in phases: first by innovation, then through dissemination. Whether or not permanent alteration ensues is dependent upon the relationship to longitudinal, ingrained change.
Language change can be sporadic, such as the creation of a new vocabulary word from a technological invention; or systematic, suggesting a change brought about by context or environment (linguistic or otherwise.) Often, even before awareness sets in, users lock in these new expressions, born of need, crisis, or medical framework, as in now.
Additionally, the wave model of language change can be viewed as the distribution of regional language features through geographical space over time: a change is initiated at one locale at a given point in time, and spreads outward from that point in progressive stages, so that earlier changes subsequently reach outlying areas.
Language variation can both construct and reflect social meaning and influence change. Consider how teenagers in the 1980s used “radical” or “tubular” in Washington State and New York City at the same time. Sitcoms fashioned cultural schema that appear to be static references, at least in a generation of a certain age and demographic. Constantly intercepted by autocorrect, will “you’re” someday be accepted and standardized to “your?”
In the 21st century, the speed at which novel language changes and additions can be virally transmitted and observed is lightning-fast, as with memes and GIFs. The word meme, itself, coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, comes from the Greek mī́mēma, meaning “imitation, copy, or artistic representation” and is defined as a cultural item transmitted by repetition and replication, in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes. Dawkins, in fact, wanted the word for these units to sound like “gene.”
A time of social and economic disruption, 2020 and 2021 have brought us profuse new framing for words and concepts. The world has seen the entry and registration of dozens of new terms. Targeting the English terms that have most recently entered our global lexicon, such as the most recent items in the OED, this type of language change does seem truly unprecedented.
We are now more aware than ever of experiencing and describing the same event, as it occurs synchronously for humans all over the planet, because of the ubiquitous, interconnected, and viral nature of the Internet, social, and mainstream media. In describing, and perhaps identifying, the collective character of this era, “when you add languishing to your lexicon,” says Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant, “you start to notice it all around you.”
Ironically, although we may describe how we feel, the utility and accuracy of new terms is questioned more infrequently; instead, these expressions are tacitly adopted. Hearing their repetition may induce their passive usage as a comfortable coping mechanism. Similarly to how a child acquires language, we may not be consciously learning, either; through repetition, terms are desensitized and normalized, a word itself that has become, well, normalized. According to Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky, ”…the viral spread of ‘normalize’ could be happening because it strikes people as genuinely useful…it refers to things that are newly of significance.”
An example of this unconscious embrace is social distancing, arguably one of the most frequently observed and utilized expressions from the past three years; when in fact, a more accurate term might be physical distancing.
The recommendation to rebrand “social distancing” as “physical distancing,” is an important distinction in enhancing communication when preparing for future pandemics. Highlighted in recent research, “while ‘social distancing’ measures date back to at least the 5th century BC, the earliest reference in English can be found in the 1831 translation of Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne’s memoirs of his friendship with Napoleon” and was later a euphemistic term used to describe social class. Significant voices, such as the World Health Organization, agree that physical distancing, on the other hand, is less about social segregation and more about actual physical space and separation from others, with the aim of preventing the transmission of disease.
Beyond the concept of distancing, could we ever have conceived of “Mask up!”; seeing a sign on the door of the local cafe: “Treat your servers kindly—they came to work today;” “When COVID hit, I was…;” or “Are you boosted?”
At the outset, the raft of new words in this context seems to have been filled with a more anxious tone, based in uncertainty and a lack of grasp on the situation at hand. Since, it seems to have crested, eddying into more of a bank of resignation (Great or otherwise) acceptance and even humor, while still cloaked in the question of when “this will all be over” and we can go back to where we were. The domain specificity of the “experience effects,” the events that shape our behavior, could be seen as a parallel to how older terms that have been in our lexicon have been influenced by and “rewired” to fit the current climate.
Greek Letters Skipped
Nuancing, as influenced by strategies of sociocultural and political sensitivity, appeared during this era as well, in response to the emergence of new variants of concern (VOC), which generate reactivity in humans, close borders, create drastic plunges in the stock market, and reveal extreme cracks in equity and agency across domestic and global demographics. “Yet another variant,” we hear—so how did the WHO name Omicron as such, and skip Greek letters to get there? “Nu,” for example, is too easily confused with “new,” and “Xi” is a common last name. COVID itself, even, is a created word from Coronavirus disease, which is not new, but novel.
The New Familiar
Will the “new” language stick around? We’re now aware that going back to the way things were isn’t an option…so the terms that suggest long-term, fixed behavioral change may be more permanently embedded in our collective language (remote/hybrid work and school, return to work, Zoom fatigue). Others (virtual happy hour, triple vaxxed, quarantine and chill) may disappear as quickly as they emerged. The new normal? Perhaps this phrase is really heralding a new familiar instead. Humans are built for change and resiliency, but are also wired to desire the familiar, control their environments as they can, to gather data and knowledge, and to be reassured by this compilation. These are the rivers of change, and language change, in which we are now wading.