When was the last time you said you’d “Google” something? Or that you would “YouTube” a video? Or posted a song lyric or movie quote as your Facebook status? You’ve probably done at least one of those things within the last month, or maybe even the last week. Because no matter what, the technology and media of the world we live in seeps into the words we use.
I know, I know. English is boring. It’s all about stupid rules of “i before e” and never quite knowing when to use “whom.” And, yep, there is a lot of that stuff involved in studying language. But! Did you ever stop and think about why we use the words we do? Or where your favorite expression came from? Or the last time you actually spelled the phrase “I’ll see you later” instead of using an abbreviation? No? Well, those probably aren’t the kinds of issues that you ponder in your free time, but I think they’re worth wondering about.
Last year I received a Bachelor’s Degree in English from UVU. Literary Studies, to be exact. Why Literary Studies? Well, for a few reasons, not the least of which being that by the time I was in my coughsixthcough year of college without a foreseeable end date, I decided to get serious about this graduation thing (my reasoning for taking thisundergraduate course post-graduation isn’t vital at the moment) and an English degree was the quickest route. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy my studies. I did. Honest to goodness, I’m one of those grammar-loving, “sure I’ll edit your paper” types.But, in the English department at UVU, I essentially had two choices: creative writing or literature. And I am by no means a creative writer. So, I did what any rational person would do: I simultaneously took multiple classes that each required thousands of pages read and dozens of pages written each semester.
That said, literature itself was not my favorite part of my studies. Yes, I love books (On The Road? Yes, please! The Great Gatsby? Absolutely! Whitman and Thoreau? I love those wacky Transcendentalists!), and I can (occasionally) muddle my way through some Keats or Dickenson if I’m feeling ambitious. But, the classes I loved the very most were just about the language itself. The ones that helped me to see where words came from, what they could do, and how they worked together.
I loved Modern English Grammars. History of the English Language was endlessly fascinating.The work in Introduction to Editing and Advanced Editing was like playing a game with complex, confusing, contradictory rules, but with the prize of a beautifully written paragraph. And Rhetorical Theory…do you know just what you can convince people to do and to believe by using well-chosen words?!
My favorite thing about all of this is that language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s constantly changing as it collides with the cultures in which it is used. It always has, and it always will. The English that we speak in America today is not the same as the English spoken in the U.K. today, nor in Australia, or even Canada. Why? Because our cultures are different. We have different television, different music, different slang, and different histories.
The way we speak and communicate is absolutely a result of the way our culture (and the media of our culture) influences it. As we process the world around us — whether it’s technology, pop culture, or societal issues — language changes and bends so that we can use it to express ourselves about the world we live in right now.