Multilinguish: Language Ch-Ch-Changes

Can people change language? They can! And they do it a lot. In this episode, we explore how that really works.
January 28, 2020
Multilinguish: Language Ch-Ch-Changes

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Language change is one of those hot topics that never seems to go out of fashion. Change is inevitable, and yet people tend to complain whenever teenagers speak in a way that’s different from their parents. While a lot of this evolution is a natural progression, there’s also language change that is driven by humans. Humans trying to change or conserve language is called “verbal hygiene,” and it’s far more common than you might think. From your elementary school teacher telling you to not split infinitives — sorry, not to split infinitives — to Twitter users advocating for more inclusive terminology, everyone has had run-ins with verbal hygiene.

In this episode of Multilinguish, we discuss verbal hygiene and its many uses. First, David Doochin joins Thomas Devlin  to discuss the more technical side of language change. Then, Ally Zhao and Taylor McIntyre join in for a panel about how verbal hygiene can be very personal. Finally, we tackle the question of how much changing language affects the world.

Multilinguish: Language Ch-Ch-Changes

First, David and Thomas talk about how language evolves naturally, leading into the discussion of verbal hygiene. We start with Deborah Cameron’s definition of the term, which she wrote about in her book Verbal Hygiene. Then we go into concrete historical examples. With a focus on the English language, we mention Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, two dictionary-makers who attempted to change language for various reasons. Finally, we list Cameron’s many other examples of verbal hygiene and how they affect us today.

In the second half of the show, Taylor and Ally join Thomas to talk about the personal and political sides of verbal hygiene. We mention examples from our own past when our language has been policed, as well as the ways we try to change the way we talk to be more inclusive. At the end, Taylor and Ally give their views on verbal hygiene and explain why the way people talk about language change is often flawed. 

Show Notes

Verbal Hygiene: How People Can Change The Way We Talk | Babbel Magazine
The Randomness Of Language Evolution | The Atlantic
A Dictionary Of The English Language | Samuel Johnson
American Dictionary Of The English Language | Noah Webster
language: a feminist guide | Deborah Cameron
The Rise Of Y’all And The Quest For A Second-Person Plural Pronoun | Babbel Magazine
Tracing The History Of The Word ‘Queer’ | Dazed
What Does ‘Yeet’ Mean? | Sydney Morning Herald

Transcript

Jen Jordan: “To be or not to be? That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of our…”

David Doochin: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote. The droghte of March hath perced to the roote. And bathed every veyne in swich licour. Of which vertu engendred is the flour…”

Thomas Devlin: “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon…”

Thomas Devlin: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m producer Thomas Devlin. The three samples you just heard are respectively from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Geoffrey Chaucer’s, Canterbury tales and Beowulf. What all those writings taken from throughout history have in common is that they’re all English.Which is kind of amazing if you think about it, that language can evolve so much over time. But how does language change exactly? There are a lot of answers to that question. And in this episode we explore language change in particular, we explore how humans have caused language change through something called verbal hygiene. First we’ll talk about the more technical and historical side of verbal hygiene. Including how two famous dictionary makers, tried to clean up the English language. Then we’ll turn to a panel to discuss the more personal and political sides of the phenomenon.

Thomas Devlin: Before we get started, a reminder to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen and be sure you’re subscribed so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.

Thomas Devlin: To talk about language change historically, I have in the studio with me right now, David Doochin. Hello.

David Doochin: Hey Thomas. Thanks for having me.

Thomas Devlin: So before we go into verbal hygiene and human caused language change. I thought it’d be good to first talk about how language changes naturally because that’s probably the more common way that things change over time. And so one study that was done somewhat recently, that showed a good example of how language changes was done by Joshua Plotkin. And he basically discovered that language change is almost random. An example that he used is that there was at one time, two different iterations of the word clarity. And the other option was clearness. And so they were both there. And then at one point it just went with clarity. Even though you could argue clearness makes more sense as a word.

David Doochin: I’d say it’s more clear.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah.

David Doochin: Hah.

Thomas Devlin: So there’s probably billions of examples of that over the history of the English language. The history of every language. Where it’s just language changes, people use different dialects, somethings win out, there’s no standard, et cetera, et cetera. But what we want to talk about in this episode is specifically verbal hygiene. Are you familiar with verbal hygiene, David?

David Doochin: Yeah, I’ve heard of it a few times.

Thomas Devlin: So the shortest definition is by Deborah Cameron who wrote the textbook book verbal hygiene. And is the champion of this concept really. Though the book is from the ’90s and it’s just the urge to meddle in matters of language. Which is very broad. And we could talk about hours and hours of that urge. Have you experienced any of this verbal hygiene out in the world?

David Doochin: I think of specifically my grandmother who was somewhat of a strict grammarian. And she was one to call us out, myself included, but all of her grandkids for using like too much. For putting prepositions at the end of sentences. To the point where I was like, I mean here I am saying like again, clearly she didn’t have… Her words didn’t effect me so deeply that I was scarred and can never use like again. But sometimes I was like, “This is just, it feels a little too extreme grandma.”

David Doochin: Why go around trying to mandate how we should talk instead of just appreciating the way that we do naturally. That’s my direct experience with verbal hygiene. I’m sure there are plenty others, school teachers I’ve had who tried to do the same thing. Or even I think in the past couple of years this idea of wokeness and PC culture. Especially in environments like college campuses, which I have just recently come from. I’ve heard a lot more discussion around how do we, not necessarily control language but clean it up. To be more respectful for people who don’t necessarily fit within the boundaries of language as it exists. Or as it has existed up until now.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that really covers the gamut of a lot of different aspects of this. I do think most people’s experience with verbal hygiene historically is probably how they’re told to speak by teachers. Because there is, according to them a right and a wrong way to speak English or any other language. Deborah Cameron calls these people language mavens, which is just anyone who thinks that there’s got to be this law and order in language. And I also think that there’s kind of a moral judgment that surrounds it more than other kinds of verbal hygiene. Because I think a lot of people are taught from a very early age, you have to use English correctly. And you can go and find people throughout all of history who were just trying to lock language into place. Which doesn’t really accurately describe how language works. It is, as I mentioned, constantly changing.

David Doochin: I think this touches exactly in one of the key debates that linguistics tries to address. Because a lot of people think of linguistics as grammar teachers, who are telling you the rules of how language has always existed. And the ways that you should obey certain standards that have been around for generations. But I mean, do you recognize when I say the words descriptivism and prescriptivism? I feel there’s a constant pull. I’ve heard those words thrown around so many times in my linguistics classes in my education.

David Doochin: Because linguistics I have been told should focus on describing language as it actually exists. Instead of prescribing how people should use it. I feel verbal hygiene fits so well into that narrative. The conflict of, there are people out there who have learned language a certain way many years ago. And they try to dictate and mandate and govern how it should keep evolving. And there are other people who say, “No language is this organic and natural kind of living being. And it grows and it changes and it’s randomized and there are mutations. So it’s better to capture it and to document it in real time and not try to change it or revert it back to what it was.”

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I think one of the most common misconceptions about linguistics is that a linguist will be on the side of these language mavens. Because people will go, “Ah, you’re a linguist. Then you must know that splitting infinitives is wrong.” And they’ll obviously come back and be like, “Well, why?” What are people actually doing? There’s no right or wrong to anything in language. There are obviously arguments for clarity and when you’re using language in a way that it just doesn’t make sense. Because basically language is just this contract we’ve all entered into. We’ve agreed this is what words mean. This is how we’ll use it to communicate to each other. And so as long as you’re getting meaning across, beyond that linguists aren’t going to say, “Oh, you need to stop that.”

David Doochin: Yeah. To think of linguist as anthropological observers and less like governors or dictators or rule writers. I think often of this really interesting, biological example. It was a quote in some book or somewhere I read. But it’s kind of like those who do anthropological or sociological work or linguistic work. It’s weird to classify when you’re sending people to describe that, something that someone does is against nature or it’s wrong. You would not…

David Doochin: A biologist who is studying whales and hears a whale song. If that biologist said, “Oh that whale is singing the wrong song. Or It’s singing its song wrong.” That doesn’t make any sense because a whale, by nature of being a whale, it’s singing a whale song and therefore it is a correct whale song. So to turn that argument and try to use it against people and say, “Oh well this person is using language wrong. Or this person, their behavior is not natural.” It doesn’t fit into the organic evolution of humanity up to this point. Well it’s kind of like, “Well, it’s how people are using language in their behavior in real time in real life. Who are you to say that that’s wrong?” Does that make sense?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that’s a great analogy. So now I want to kind of set the clock back to hundreds of years ago and kind of go back to where the origins of verbal hygiene come in. Because when language formed and before people were able to write it down or anything. There really was no way to kind of “police language.” It was just, that’s how people spoke. That’s how they agreed.

Thomas Devlin: And it wasn’t really until the advent of the printing press, that verbal hygiene, which the name I should point out. Can be a little misleading because it sounds like only spoken language. But it also refers to written. But it really needed the writing to kind of set standards over wide spaces. And one of the first verbal hygienists, which I don’t like that phrase because it sounds a little too much like dental hygienists. But one of the earliest is Samuel Johnson.

Thomas Devlin: A very famous British man and he created one of the first dictionaries. I don’t think he has the first. Because there were codices beforehand.

David Doochin: It might be the most complete or the fullest to date. It was from 1750 something. Right? I don’t think there had been as much work put into a dictionary or one that was as codified as Samuel Johnson’s, if I remember correctly. Something about it was revolutionary.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, it came out in 1755 which is a little bit after the advent of the printing press. But his was the first attempt to try to really capture language entirely. And also it was just one guy really who was culling these examples of language from all the classics. And trying to create this record for the language. So people could look at it and be like, “This is what the English language is.” And I have a quote by him and he’s already kind of acknowledging what the limits of that enterprise are.

Dylan Lyons: “Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations, which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence. I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time, one after another from century to century. We laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words. And phrases for mutability shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature or clear the world at once from folly, vanity and affectation.”

Thomas Devlin: While Johnson wasn’t first person to attempt this. He can already kind of see. Even though he’s trying to fix language and keep it in place, it’s not possible. It’s just going to keep changing.

David Doochin: Yeah, he seems to recognize that pretty clearly. I think he’s trying to say that a dictionary can capture a snapshot of language as it exists in real time. And it can be embalmed. But it’s also laughable to think that language has never changed over generations. I think he recognizes that. I mean do you have a different interpretation?

Thomas Devlin: No, I’d probably say the same thing. And dictionaries are also a very big part of verbal hygiene that is almost, you don’t pay attention to it too much. Because I think a lot of people have misconceptions about dictionaries. Like linguists, they’re not trying to tell you how language should work.

Thomas Devlin: There was a point at which the Merriam-Webster dictionary added to its definition of marriage. A meaning that meant that gay marriage was also a concept. And people freaked out. Because it’s almost, they look to this book as this magic guide to how English language should work. And that’s not really what they’re meant to be. But still in their work, they do kind of shape how the language works. Because it tells you, what does this word mean? How can it be used? It’s always a kind of difficult balance that they have to strike.

David Doochin: I’m reminded, and we’ve talked about this book a lot on Multilinguish. But also just within our team. But Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch, she is really clear that she’s trying to use it as a documentation, of how language exists as she sees it on the internet right now. But she’s really open and saying, “This could be completely different 10 years from now or a hundred years from now. If a reader picks up this book and looks back, he or she might think that some of the conventions we use now are so funny and so antiquated and archaic. But this is what they are right now.”

David Doochin: So she took it upon herself to capture that. And I think that’s all the lexicographer, the dictionary creator, the linguist can do right now is present language as it exists. Not try to force it into a box to try to control it to become something. Or to predict this is what will stay the same, this is what will change. That’s why you see dictionaries with so many additions, why Merriam-Webster comes through and updates it. A definition for one word or another, which also can be jarring for people who have known a word to mean a certain thing their whole lives. But are maybe afraid to let go of that definition or that understanding. Yeah. Would you have to say?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that’s definitely a big thing. I feel any times someone writes about language though, there is a secret hope that language will stop changing. Because then their book won’t get out of date immediately. But at the same time you want to sell future additions, it’s an uneven balance. That’s why dictionaries have to keep updating and going. And there was actually a fad at one point, when there was a grammatical movement. Because as the printing press developed, people started making these books that are like, “Here’s how to write.” Because more people were learning how to write. Before it was a privileged thing. Not everyone was doing it. People wanted to know how to do it. And you could make a lot of money by writing guides to the language. And then updating them and then people have to buy the next one.

Thomas Devlin: And every household in England would need these books. And that continues kind of to today. And people still use Strunk and White, Elements of Style even though arguably it’s not the best guide to writing. And it has some outdated tips and some things that just aren’t true. But another example of a dictionary that kind of more forcefully tried to change language specifically was Noah Webster’s. And he came out with his dictionary in 1828 and he really wanted to create an English for Americans. Because the United States of America was not too old at that point and they didn’t want to keep speaking the same “language” as their former “oppressors.” So he was trying to change things specifically. And there are things that he did that survived like when you spell theater, E R at the end instead of R E, that was Noah Webster.

Thomas Devlin: But there are things that did not work at all. He wanted women to be spelled W-I-M-M-E-N, which didn’t catch on.

David Doochin: But didn’t catch on? That’s how I spell it though.

Thomas Devlin: Oh, well I’ve got bad news.

David Doochin: Oh my gosh.

Thomas Devlin: Anyway, I have a quote from him to explain how he wrote his dictionary.

Alex Breaden: “It has been my aim in this work, now offered to my fellow citizens, to ascertain the true principles of the language in its orthography and structure. To purify it from some palpable errors and reduce the number of its anomalies, thus giving it more regularity and consistency in its forms, both of words and sentences. And in this manner to furnish it standard of our vernacular tongue, which we shall not be ashamed to bequeath to three hundred millions of people who are destined to occupy and I hope, to adorn the best territory within our jurisdiction.”

Thomas Devlin: This is kind of a different approach because he’s specifically saying that he does want to change language. He’s literally purifying “palpable” errors. I’ll stop saying quote unquote now. But what we were saying before about dictionaries trying to be more descriptive instead of prescriptive. That’s not always true. There are people who will write books that are like, “I want language to be like this.” For some reason.

David Doochin: Yeah. And this is a clear example of that. And it’s also, if you look at the historical context, it’s informed by the fact that no one’s ever written a completely codified American dictionary before. This is kind of a radical nationalist experiment. And Noah Webster is saying, “We want our own American vernacular. Our own version of the language that is uniquely ours. That represents our interests, our history.” To the extent that language can really represent a people’s history and culture and their whole nationalist mythology.

David Doochin: But Noah Webster is saying “It’s entirely possible and I’m going to do it right here.” He’s trying to make the spelling fit. Like you said with the women example, like sound. The spelling should reflect the sound and therefore be more accessible to people. He wants language to be kind of a tool for the people. And if it’s going to be for the people, it needs to be for the American people. And he wants to make it as American as possible with the spelling reforms.

David Doochin: I also know… I don’t know if you did any research about this. Not to flex on you. But when I was writing this paper many years ago, I was also fascinated that he and his new dictionary included a lot of words for resources and crops. Especially in the new world, which isn’t so much the new world at this point anymore. But concepts for things that didn’t exist in British English. Like a moose, there are no moose in the British Isles. So Noah Webster had to include an entry for moose in his new dictionary. Same thing with squash. The Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to plant squash. Because they didn’t know, they hadn’t had it before. And so he included words like this to kind of reflect an American history that was informed by the context of what was physically present there in front of them. Does that make sense?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Because there is the language that changes just because you need words to describe things that you didn’t have before. And then there’s the language that you create just because you want to specifically complete. As you said, it’s kind of a nationalist goal in a way and if that sounds weird it shouldn’t. Because there are actually some languages that are even more kind of specific with nationalists in their enterprise.

Thomas Devlin: Not to use nationalist in the white nationalist way, but like l’Academie Française is a very good example. Because France has a specific governing body that decides what language is good and which language is bad. And they have guidelines they famously have for swearing and the kind of way you’re supposed to swear.

Thomas Devlin: One of the things they’ve had the fight against a lot is English words coming into French. They didn’t have to fight against it. They just would rather a French natural term filled the gaps in the language. Like “le week-end” is very popular in French now, even though that is clearly from English. But there are so many different ways to do verbal hygiene. And it’s really, I don’t want to do a disservice, Deborah Cameron has a pretty good list just of general things. So here’s a quote, from I’m verbal hygiene, just explaining the many, many ways that language change can come about.

Jen Robustelli: “A random list of verbal hygiene practices in which present day speakers of English are engaged might include, for example, campaigning for the use of plain language on official forms, belonging to a spelling reform society, a dialect society or an artificial language society; taking courses in communication arts or group discussion; going for elocution lessons, sending for correspondence courses on good English or reading self-improvement literature on how to be a better conversationalist; editing prose to conform to a house style; producing guidelines on nonsexist language or opposing such guidelines. And these are only the institutional cases. The group of school children cruelly mimicking a classmate’s posh accent are also practicing verbal hygiene. As are the workers who insist on a swear box and fine one another for using bad language.”

Thomas Devlin: There are lots of options. Editing prose to conform to house style sticks out. Because as someone who’s been writing for most of my life, that’s been a lot of the verbal hygiene that I’ve experienced using Associated Press Style for example. And the important point here is that sometimes verbal hygiene, depending on who you are, gets associated with being purely good. As in we need to make sure kids are speaking English the right way. Or purely bad people are changing language and to fit their own needs and ends. But it’s not black and white. There’s so many different options for why someone might want to change language. Sometimes it will be for certain reasons that are serving their own ends. Sometimes it’s just this makes more sense. This is clearer and sometimes it’s just people want to try something new with language.

David Doochin: I imagine it’s often people who are insecure about not being able to keep up with the pace of language growth and change. And so they say, “Oh, it’s always been this way for me and so I’m going to require that you speak this way as well.”

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I mean that’s definitely the conservative movement in verbal hygiene that would keep people wanting to stop language from changing. But there are people who do want it to change and they want it to change the way that they say so.

Thomas Devlin: When we get back from the break, I’ll be talking to two other people about how verbal hygiene is kind of at the center of a lot of battles over language. And to use a word or a term that a lot of people don’t like political correctness. Yeah. Stay tuned.

Dylan Lyons: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Babbel’s the app that gets you speaking quickly and with confidence. Choose from 14 languages including Spanish, French and Italian. Thomas, what’s the biggest challenge you face when you’ve learned languages?

Thomas Devlin: Whenever we’re learning a language, I feel like I’ve talked about this before. It’s always just talking to people in that language, especially if they also speak English. Because it’s so easy to slide back into English. But I try to work through that. I mean, it’s part of just working through my own fear of talking to people, but there’s a new level. But finding a supportive community or just finding someone who’s friendly and willing to put up with my mistakes has been not as challenging as I thought it would be. And it really helped me advance my skills.

Dylan Lyons: Great suggestions. Thomas. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three months subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting Babble.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L dot com slash podcast. Now back to the show.

Thomas Devlin: And we’re back. Before the break we talked about verbal hygiene on these very national scales and various language authorities and how they’ve tried to shape how language is used. But now I want to kind of step back and look at language as more of the personal level. Because people are the ones who use language and we all have these choices we make every day and I’m joined by two of my other colleagues, Ally Zhao and Taylor McIntyre. Thank you for being here.

Ally Zhao: Hi Thomas.

Taylor McIntyre: Hey.

Thomas Devlin: So I’ll start with an example of verbal hygiene in my own life. It’s the phrase you guys, which I think is a kind of generally inoffensive phrase. But I decided that I would try to limit my own use of it because the phrase guys is in a way gendered. And lots of people use guys. I don’t yell at people when they say you guys. But I’ve found it is just an example where the male took over to be the generic person and that’s just an example. I mean I don’t think I’m changing anything hugely in the world. But I just prefer using y’all. Though I know also y’all has certain things around it and I am not a southerner. And people will tell me, “Why are you saying y’all?” And I’ll say, “It’s better than you guys and the you is too general. So if you have any thoughts on that or your own examples, feel free.

Ally Zhao: I mean my own example is very similar to that in that instead of necessarily gendering someone when referring to them by specific pronouns. I’ll use they, them, pronouns if I don’t know a person’s pronouns. And it kind of goes in the same bucket of using non-gender-specific language as the example of you guys and you all.

Taylor McIntyre: Yeah, I, too agree with what you guys were saying. I think one big thing for me, I always say the word dude a lot. And I know dude definitely, it sounds masculine. And I think its origins come from that type of sense. So I think… And I won’t call someone a dudette because I think that just makes it worse.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I don’t like those because any ads or thing is like they’re smaller.

Taylor McIntyre: Yeah, exactly. Just reminds you that, “Hey you’re a dudette and not a dude.” So I think maybe with common slang terms it’s like, you may not know it but it’s kind of gendered from there.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I mean dude is a very old term. Which I always just like to think of people in the 18th century saying, “That dude over there. What’s he up to?” But I always think with dude of Broad City because they use dude a lot to refer to each other. And that’s kind of where a complication comes in. Because you can make the argument both that you don’t want to use dude because it is masculine and it’s refers to other people et cetera. But you can also say like, “Oh I just use dude. It’s a reclaiming.” Especially if you are a woman and you’re into Slate. I don’t care about that. It’s complicated.

Ally Zhao: Yeah. I think the thing generally to watch out for in these situations is using specifically gendered language with people you don’t know. In groups of friends or in certain scenarios, I think use your best discretion based off of what you understand about the group. But I as a general rule for strangers or for people I don’t really know very well, I will try not to use gendered language in those cases.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. So that’s a good example of where personal and political meet very closely. Because some would call that, as I mentioned before the break, political correctness. And I want to get a little more into that in a second. But before that I kind of want to pull up a few other examples of things that just affect us in everyday life. So just people telling you that your accent or anything is wrong or anything. Have either of you ever changed the way you’ve talked in response to how you’re either expected? Or if you’ve actually had someone explicitly be like that’s not how you should talk?

Taylor McIntyre: I feel yeah, sometimes… So I’m a person of color, I am Black. So in case you guys didn’t know because you can’t see me. But yeah, I don’t know. I feel that happens to a lot of other Black people. When you’re in spaces where you’re kind of the only one. People are a little surprised by maybe a dialect that they may be expecting. And then you give them something else. And it’s just, I don’t know a lot of code switching maybe. Or just people just being, “Oh wow, you’re so articulate. Which is the worst thing you can say to a Black person because it’s just like, “what do you expect?” I too am hearing stuff. So I think, I don’t know, maybe sometimes if you’re not used to being around a certain person, you basically fall back on these stereotypes. And what you expect them to sound like. And then when they don’t sound like that you’re completely mind-blown in a sense.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. It seems like kind of a double-bind. Because you’re expected to sound one way, but they also want to have you not talk that way. Because they want everyone to sound exactly the same and follow the rules of standard English. Which as we’ve established in this podcast hopefully many times is…BS. I don’t want to bleep it later.

Ally Zhao: That’s really comforting to hear. Because I think for me my example would be, there are a lot of words that I grew up reading instead of ever hearing out loud, pronounced. And so when I used them for the first time, I remember I thought, banal was pronounced banal. Things like that. Because I had never heard it out, in a spoken context. And so when I set it for the first time I got laughed at for pronouncing it wrong. But to that point, who decides what something is pronounced like and how was I supposed to know?

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. When I was reading Harry Potter in eighth grade because I started then. There was a one word Q, U, E, U E that was used many times. And I thought it was pronounced cue for a very long time. Because it looks like that. Q is spelled cue. And then I finally realized later on I was like, “It’s funny that this word cue that I see written down and this word that I see Q spoken aloud mean the same thing.” And then I put it the together.

Thomas Devlin: But I know. I think also a popular example of “verbal hygiene,” that we see in colleges a lot is just accents disappearing. I had the slightest of Boston accents when I first came to NYU. And I still got made fun of because of the way I said comfortable and yesterday. And then I was just, “I’m going to stop doing that because I don’t want people to laugh at me.” I still can’t say water bottle though because it’s very hard because it’s a combination of features and I just want to say water.

Taylor McIntyre: I have that. When I moved here from the Midwest, I used to say pop all the time. And everyone in this city attacked me for that. And now I’ve just accepted and I’m just like, “You know what? I’m just going to say soda. It’s so much easier.” And it was just yeah… I guess it was a weird thing that I was just wasn’t expecting people to—

Ally Zhao: Wait. So did you call it a vodka pop before?

Taylor McIntyre: Yes. One pop please. I don’t know pop just sounds better. Soda makes me think that we’re in the olden times. “Hand me a soda over there, boy.” I don’t know.

Thomas Devlin: That’s funny because I’m the exact opposite where when someone says pop. I’m imagining, It’s a Wonderful Life with George Bailey, being like, “Give me a pop ma’am.” That’s a different movie anyway. Yeah, I mean there’s very light things like that.

Taylor McIntyre: At least we’re not calling it Pepsi or Coke.

Thomas Devlin: Coke is the one. Some parts of the country just say Coke. There’s a great New York times quiz that you can take that will pinpoint exactly where you’re from based on how you address things. And I think that kind of comedic prodding is especially interesting. Because it’s like, even if you’re not necessarily meaning to insult someone. Just making fun of someone for the way that they refer to something. As say, people from Massachusetts called water fountains, bubblers.

Taylor McIntyre: Weird.

Thomas Devlin: To talk for a moment about my own personal language journey in my relationship to language. So when I was younger, as you both can imagine as you’ve worked with me. I was very anal, not a-now, about language. And just tried to conform as much to standard language as possible. And be like, “This is grammar.” And I’d be the annoying person on forums online who had, “You used the wrong there. So your whole argument isn’t valid.”

Thomas Devlin: And I have come I think a little bit of a ways. And a lot of it has been, I studied linguistics in college. And I have been working here where we talk a lot on the magazine about, you can almost call it linguistic acceptance. And it’s realizing these things that you’ve been taught are wrong, by elementary or middle school teachers are not wrong, they’re just not standard English. So did you have any kind of shift in your relationship? Maybe it’s just me and I’m alone in this and a weirdo.

Taylor McIntyre: I think… So I was the opposite kid. I really just didn’t pay attention to grammar or anything like that. It was just, whatever I do to get by. But I think being on the internet… One thing is I love social media and being in social media and kind of seeing how language has changed. So a lot of times you have phrases that are so cut in half or short or abbreviations and now that’s a way of reading a complete sentence.

Taylor McIntyre: If you were to show a standard tweet now, 10 years ago and people wouldn’t know what it meant. But I think, I don’t know. The internet, watching people kind of bringing together different communities and people from all over the world. And seeing them kind of adapt this internet meme grammar in a sense. To me it was a really cool linguistic journey because you have your standard English. But also there’s a whole internet culture of language that pretty much, I think it’s kind of universal. And just watching that evolve and using those grammar rules and creating new rules. It’s interesting to see language evolve in that way.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, the internet is a very good example because I think another important thing to point out verbal hygiene. Is that not all of the language we use has to be the same. And also the fact that people online are saying yeet does not mean the English language is collapsing. And literature is failing. It just means it’s a different type of thing. So before we start sliding back gracefully to our conversations about political correctness, I just wanted to ask if either of you had any other examples of verbal hygiene?

Ally Zhao: Well, I think a really prevalent example of verbal hygiene is the way that the meaning of the word queer is changing in our modern lexicon. Because it was reclaimed by the punks in the ’80s and ’90s after previously being a slur. And I am someone who is queer and I once in my life in sixth grade was called queer as a slur. But it never really registered to me as something that I should really think about. And so I kind of buried that in my subconscious for many, many years. Until I was starting to figure out myself. But it is an interesting example because it’s something that for a lot of people, is a word to be reclaimed and it is something to be proud of. And living a queer life is something that has a lot of pride and joy in it and community.

Ally Zhao: But at the same time there are a lot of people in the LGBTQ plus community that don’t feel comfortable with the word queer. Because for them it is reminiscent of a slur and it still hits like a slur for them. And so it’s kind of this tricky water of trying to respect the trauma that people will face at the hands of derogatory language. But also celebrating the way that we reclaim derogatory language and make it into something else.

Taylor McIntyre: Yeah, I agree with that. I think a lot of communities have done that with certain words just at one point it was a very derogatory thing and they take it back. And use it in all types of ways. And I think it’s definitely very sensitive subject and it’s something you should always be careful with. And if you’re not a member of that community, definitely make sure you do your research. And don’t just outright say those types of words and stuff just because they can offend someone.

Ally Zhao: And especially don’t reference other people with it. If you don’t belong to those communities.

Taylor McIntyre: Yeah.

Thomas Devlin: That’s a great segue into the last thing that I want to talk about which is, a lot of the times people who are not against verbal hygiene in general. But against let’s say, political correctness modes of trying to get people to stop saying certain non-inclusive phrases or start saying other phrases. Is that, what does it matter? It’s just language. What does it actually mean? How much does language matter in shaping the world that we have? And I can say Deborah Cameron at least has the argument that, “Well, no matter what you’re arguing for when it comes to language, you’re arguing for some side.” Even if you say that you would just want language to “stay the same,” doesn’t stay the same. So if you’re trying to keep it the same, that is in itself an ideology that you’re kind of putting on the world.

Thomas Devlin: But she’s also on the side that language is not the only method. And I think that’s a place where a lot of people can get caught up. Where it’s, if you’re only arguing for language to change and you don’t actually address the things that the languages are referring to, then that’s also not great. Because it can be kind of just a changing of a facade. It’s like when you only want plastic straws to go away. And you don’t get to the greater point that’s like, “Oh no, plastic in general is a problem and the straws were trying to just be a small reference to the much larger problem.” Do you have any closing thoughts on that?

Ally Zhao: Oh, do I. Boy do I. You earlier said this idea of what does it even mean? Which I think is kind of the root of my problem with the phrasing verbal hygiene and political correctness in general. Because when you really look at it and I am on the side of language effects all languages. The basis for communication and communication is the basis for human interaction I think. And whether that’s language or body cues or whatever, communication is how we self-actualize. And so I think about the way that we use words and language to define these terms like verbal hygiene or like political correctness. And when you really get into it, it’s kind of, it bothers me. Because verbal hygiene is a way of cleaning up your language. And I don’t really think about using for example, non-gendering language in that way as something that is clean and something that could be dirty.

Ally Zhao: And the same way that I think of political correctness in that when you say that using inclusive language is a act of political correctness. I think that really waters down why inclusive language is important. Because it looks at the term political correctness, I think kind of treats language as something that is incredibly scarce. So if we can’t say that, then what can we say? Is a lot of times the argument for it. And I think the opposite of that. I think language is very abundant and I think there’s a lot of room to make new words or to make new language to be able to be inclusive. Right? And so political correctness for me is kind of a phrase wrought with fallacies, in that when you position the act of treating people with respect in your language. Then you’re kind of putting it as something that has an ulterior motive or has an agenda. And I don’t agree with that because I think it is important to use people first language. I think it’s important to center a person’s humanity when you talk about them.

Ally Zhao: And if that includes changing your language so that you don’t use derogatory phrases. Or don’t use slurs. Or don’t talk about people in a certain way that excludes the fact that they are a human. Then I don’t really see why that’s so difficult. I don’t really see that as hygiene or political correctness. I think that’s seeing people as people.

Taylor McIntyre: Well said. Snap, snap.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I don’t have anything else to add to that. Unless you do Taylor?

Taylor McIntyre: No, I agree with everything she said. Literally everything. I think just in general, language is constantly evolving and you wouldn’t talk the way we were talking 300 years ago, 400 years ago. Because that wouldn’t make sense. And there’s so many new cool words out there now and I think-

Thomas Devlin: Yeet.

Taylor McIntyre: Yeah, exactly. I can’t wait to yeet out of here. But no, just in general though, language is constantly evolving and for people using the argument that, “Oh I can’t, what, I can’t say this phrase.” Or something like that. I mean grow up, times are changing. This is how we want to be addressed and get used to it. That’s all I have to say.

Thomas Devlin: Thank you so much for joining me. Ally and Taylor.

Ally Zhao: Thanks Thomas.

Taylor McIntyre: Yeet.

Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are Thomas Moore Devlin, David Doochin, Steph Koyfman, Dylan Lyons and I’m Jen Jordan. Ruben Vilas makes us sound good. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. You can read more about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel magazine. Just visit B-A-B-B-E-L dot com slash magazine. Say hi and social media by finding us @BabbelUSA. All one word. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it.

Taylor McIntyre: Who’s editing this by the way?

Thomas Devlin: Rubi.

Taylor McIntyre: Hi Rubi.

Ally Zhao: Smack that, all on the floor. Smack that, until you get sore. Smack that, give me some more. Smack that. Oh.

Taylor McIntyre: Do you think he hates when we do this?

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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