How the Digital Age is changing the way we speak (and why verbs have become so important)

25th Sept 2013

I’m a big fan of Stephen Fry’s : Fry’s English Delight, now in it’s sixth series on Radio 4 . Some of the topics covered in the latest round have been – The culture and history of the ‘F’ Word’, ‘The ever expanding lexicon of the English language’ and ‘How our spelling system has become so chaotic’

All the talk about language and it’s development, got me thinking about the English language, and how the internet age is changing the way we speak and why verbs are increasingly the most important words that we use.

The structure and substance of our language today has been shaped by many invasions ….including the Romans, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes and Normans; all of whom provided their own individual inputs and combined to produce a language that is full of variety, as well as a fair amount of complexity.
The English language has been built up across history – modified by these numerous invasions and spread around the world; and has therefore needed to be flexible. This is in stark contrast, for example, to two other major European languages – the regimentation of German and the literary protectionism of French, enforced by the Academie Francaise since 1685.

Technology and our contemporary lifestyles, have impacted on the structure and the basic building blocks of our language. One of the more obvious changes has been the selection of new words, many digitally inspired, that have recently been added to the O.E.D. Some of these include – srsly, buzzworthy, sqee, prepping, omnishambles, selfie and phablet –

My argument here is that, in our ‘always on’ and highly active world , there is an increasing demand for action orientated ‘doing’ words (verbs) at the expensive of ‘naming’ words (nouns) or ‘descriptive’ (adjectival) words.

One of the more irritating manifestations of this trend, is the current obsession with the use of present participles in corporate positioning statements or logos. Witness : Cleaning your streets (Wandsworth Council) , or ‘With you, making Surrey safer ( Surrey Police). The intended suggestion is of course that these organisations are actively and presently holding true to these promises. Even if we do not believe this to be true, the present participle approach is clever in that it does not actually commit the organisation to successfully completing the prescribed task – only saying that they are ‘giving it a go’.

Present participles are, in part, attractive because the present tense is so important to the digital generation. We have less interest in what we have ‘just done’ and much more in what we are ‘doing now’. We have amended our language to suit the urgency and brevity of how we are, and most importantly how we interact with others.

Verbs are taking over and bashing nouns in other ways too. One example is the increasing trend for the ‘verbification’ of nouns.

The changing of nouns into verbs is not popular amongst language prescriptivists, because these new words are mostly seen as neologisms – that is a newly coined term, word, or phrase, that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language. They are however very common in colloquial speech, particularly specialised jargon, where words are needed to describe common actions or experiences.

The verbification of nouns is not however a new thing, and the process has furnished English with countless expressions. Mainstream examples include “host”, as in “host a party”, and “chair”, as in “chair the meeting”. Examples of verbification number in the thousands, including some of our most common words, such as strike, talk, salt , pepper , switch, bed , sleep, ship, train, stop, drink, cup, lure, mutter, dress, dizzy , divorce, fool , merge, and many more, to be found on virtually every page in the dictionary. There are also plenty of new, technology focused verbifications – such as text, email and message.

What is entirely new is the verbification of proper nouns or names . So we do not now ‘execute a search on Google for something’, ‘we google something’ ; we don’t ‘contact someone via Facebook’ – we facebook them.

My supposition is that this all boils down to power. Nouns are perceived as weak. Mere ‘naming words’ they have things done to them – they are the subjects or objects that are described or shaped by adjectives, and bossed around or even made obsolete by verbs. Interestingly the power of the verb as a part of speech is clear from it’s source , drawn from Latin word verbum – literally meaning ‘word’

The moment a noun is translated into a verb, undergoes verbification, it is a clear sign that this word is important to people – that it is being widely employed and individuals are using it to ‘power their lives’. They need a verb to help them to do stuff and Google and Facebook help them in exactly this way.

Verbs are important of course, but so are nouns and I’d like to start a campaign to ‘save the noun’ in the digital age. Despite the rise of the verb, we are still surrounded by naming words and our universe is built upon them – be they chairs,trains, bicycles or trees. They can also be emblematic of a more static and peaceful world. There is much less of this around these days and its worth sticking up for.

Nick Hammond

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