Friday, August 13, 2010

Of Words

Words are sneaky little things. Just think about it. They simply won't behave. They start out meaning one thing then they switch to the opposite. Think about 'wicked' which still holds its traditional meaning of something bad but which is also used to mean something excellent. Sometimes they move from the vulgar to the acceptable - or, for that matter, from the acceptable to the vulgar. Words with completely different meanings but with a similar sound can be confused: for example look at 'drivel' that is often substituted with 'dribble'. Instead of clarifying a subject such words can become a tool of confusion. If they are too long they contract sometimes into an unrecognisable form e.g. 'I am not' can become 'I ain't or 'I aren't' instead of 'I amn't'. These might not be grammatically correct but they are often heard. Slippery little things words - and sometimes not so little.

For all that, they remain the best means we have of communicating. We talk together and from that ideas develop - all because we use words. They give us pleasure in the form of poetry, songs and fiction - and we play with them too. Subsets of people invent their own variations on language to distinguish themselves. The recent use of 'fully sick' by young people comes to mind. We create new words - sometimes because we need to name a new invention and sometimes because we just want to. We use colloquialisms for many reasons but mainly because we can't be bothered with formal language. We feel the words flow better with a more casual structure but while many of us allow ourselves these usages we do keep words under control in some areas because, while subsets of language - whether they are local usages, jargon, dialects or slang - are perfectly clear to those in that group, they may be unintelligible to outsiders. We need to have a standard language, one which is understandable to us all. It wasn't always this way. Until recently contracts, for example, were couched in jargon that was almost impossible for the average person to understand. Fortunately we've moved away from that to a less formal ( and less confused ) language so instead of confusing most of us, it is in a form that we can all comprehend.

Put it all together and maybe it's a good thing that words are as flexible as they are. We certainly ask a lot of them so it's no wonder that sometimes they try to escape. We may like the idea of a language that is static and unchanging, but would it really be a good thing? As long as we keep that common framework of words and grammar so we can communicate and understand each other, perhaps it's not always a bad thing to let the words out to play sometimes. What do you think?