This article in The Atlantic caught my eye last month. Seeing as how I spend a number of my waking hours working as a so-called “language maven” (which this article would have you believe to be much lowlier than working as a linguist), I thought it was worth discussing. All told, it’s an excellent little assertion. In the piece, author Edward Tenner claims that with AP’s recent acceptance of the term hopefully into the official lexicon of its style guide, we’ve now cast aside a single language standard and, much like clothing trends, anything goes. Wear white after Labor Day! *gasp* Split your infinitives! *gasp* But his point isn’t whether that’s right or wrong: his point is that the idea of right or wrong is debatable. Dress codes and grammar, it seems, are both malleable.
This is not a groundbreaking realization. Even we language mavens know that words are living things that change and grow. The really interesting thought here is the broader comparison of evolving language trends to evolving fashion trends and what these changes might say about how we communicate and what we are saying.
If you accept the premise that language is part of our appearance alongside our wardrobe—an image we create for others to interpret (more readily, or not, depending on the word choice or shoe choice or, heaven help you, the choice to wear extreme corseting)—then it becomes a very short leap to the idea that we are what we say and read and write (and wear and eat, of course).
When you select your attire for the day, you’re likely considering weather conditions, events, people you’ll encounter, your personal comfort level, and perhaps even a general attitude you want to portray. The outstanding series Dressing a Nation: The History of U.S. Fashion dives into this exploration of our evolving look. It examines the trends that have come and gone as well as the reasons for those clothing choices (available materials for an era; economic hardship during wartime; social upheavals and self-expression). In a sense, it examines how we edit our attire, whether that edit be by choice or by force.
Similarly, when using words, we choose them according to our audience, our vocabulary, our means of communication (email, personal conversation, hand-written thank you), and an idea of what we want to portray about ourselves. To me, the ideas and looks explored in Dressing a Nation are similar to the idea Tenner explores: our language changes alongside our available means of communication and what we’re trying to express. Technology has brought us unrestricted means by which to express these messages in emoticons, acronyms, and punctuation marks. In the same way we currently raise an eyebrow to hoopskirts and pumpkin breeches, years from now, we’ll likely reflect upon the antiquated ways in which we once wrote full sentences, capitalized proper nouns, or even had to type to send a message.
Where do the remaining grammar rules lie within that mix? Some days, it’s honestly difficult to say. Fashion rules have been broken constantly over the years, and the trends that have come and gone are fascinating and often liberating. So, too, are the rules of language.