Tracking Changes In English Language, Digitally

Linguists have relatively new tools to analyze the tiniest changes in language. Weekend Edition Sunday host Linda Wertheimer speaks with linguist Arika Okrent about the subtle ways the English language is changing.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Language has been changing ever since, well, ever since forever. But scientists have been able to track it more precisely over the last few decades. Linguist Arika Okrent has pinpointed four tiny trends that are creeping into our writing and our speech and our love notes and our dissertations. One hundred years ago, these changes might not be noticed. But with digital analysis researchers can pick up the most subtle patterns. Arika Okrent is here to walk us through these changes. She's at WHYY, our member station in Philadelphia. Arika Okrent, thanks for being with us.

ARIKA OKRENT: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Let's start with new ways - and relatively new ways - we now use I-N-G words. One of them you say is a real shift.

OKRENT: Yes. There's a shift from this verbal compliment we do. So, we can say either they started to walk or they started walking. And both of these forms have been used for hundreds and hundreds of years together, but over time, the started walking form has been winning over to the to walk form.

WERTHEIMER: You have another version of the same kind of thing, which is to use a gerund, a word ending in I-N-G, in order to indicate that something is progressing, that it's continuing.

OKRENT: Yes. So, the progressive form of the verb has been increasing over time, over hundreds of years but it keeps creeping into new areas. So, we have they are speaking versus they speak. But now it's used more in passive verbs. So, rather than saying it's held, you would say it's being held.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I'm not a big fan of got, as in he got fired, they got robbed. Is there something special about the last 50 years that somehow we feel that got has become very popular?

OKRENT: Yes. So, the get passive is on the rise. We don't say he was fired. We say he got fired. It's an old construction that's not like it was just introduced 50 years ago. But it started to creep into more of the texts that we look at, which indicates that it's moving from more casual speech-based forms to the formal written mode. But at the same time, we can see this large growth and get passive. But the be passive, you know, the ones that use he was fired or he was watched - those are still far more common than the get kind.

WERTHEIMER: I think that I can hear the voice of Ms. Ellen Curry, my fourth grade teacher, telling me just use the verb to be. She didn't like get at all.

OKRENT: One thing that causes us to notice something or feel like something's wrong or annoying is because some authority told us it was. So, using a singular they - everyone ate their lunch. Your English teacher told you not to do that. But that construction has been used since Chaucer. He used singular they and it's been around for hundreds of years. But because someone has told us there's something wrong with it, we think, well, it must be new then. It must be part of the general decline of language and the general notion that everything was better than in the old days than it is now.

WERTHEIMER: Arika Okrent is a linguist. She joined us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Arika Okrent, thank you very much.

OKRENT: Thank you so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORDS")

ROY ORBISON: (Singing) It's only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away.

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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