Linguistic weeds

I really like the ABC TV show ‘Can we help’? Obviously other people do too, because other TV networks have ripped off some of the segments on the show and turned them into new programs, for example the ‘Lost and found’ segment where they track down long lost relatives and friends became ‘Find my family’ on Network Seven. One of the regular panelists on the show is linguist Kate Burridge, the Chair of Linguistics at Monash University, who was one of the lecturers in the Masters of Applied Linguistics program that I completed last year. I love how she talks about words and language.

One concept I particularly liked in a paper she wrote about language change called ‘Linguistic Purism: The Tug-of-Love between Standard and Nonstandard’ was the idea of ‘linguistic weeds’. What makes a weed a weed and not a plant? Most definitions come down to them being ‘plants growing where we do not want them’, aside from other criteria such as whether they are noxious or extremely fast-growing. Similarly, linguistic purists often take great exception to new or morphing words being used ‘in the wrong place’, demanding to know which word or usage is right or wrong, or even whether something is a ‘real word’ or not. Some examples of changing usage in English that rub people up the wrong way include:

  • He never did it.
  • What you doing?
  • That’s so much more better than…
  • ‘Bought’ as past tense of ‘bring’ (as well as ‘buy’)
  • ‘Me’ instead of ‘I’ – “David and me were late”

These could be considered ‘weeds’ in our language, at least in Australia in 2009. As Kate Burridge writes:

They are structural features of the language whose virtues have yet to be realized. They are the pronunciations we don’t want, the constructions that are out of place, the words we create but we hate. Like weedy plants they are entirely location and time specific. One speaker’s noxious weed can be another’s garden ornamental. Whether they are in gardens or in languages, weeds are totally centred around human value judgements.

Linguistic weeds today can become cherished garden contributors tomorrow… What many see as slipshod pronunciations, sloppy grammar, irritating coinages and new-fangled meanings are what provide the basis for real change. Some of them will drop by the wayside, it is true. Some will remain as variation. But there will be others that catch on, are used more and more and eventually become established.

Whether we like it or not, English is changing. It always has and always will. In this context arguments about which usage is right or wrong are futile. In many cases, there is no one correct expression, but a range of possible options. Just relax and go with the flow.


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