A Contemporary Approach to the Development of the English Vocabulary. Factors Enriching the English Language

John Ayto, the famous English lexicographer, stated that “words are a mirror of their times. By looking at the areas in which the vocabulary of a language is expanding fastest in a given period, we can form a fairly accurate impression of the chief preoccupations of the society at that time and the points at which the boundaries of human endeavour are being advanced.”  Moreover, John Algeo also writes that :”Wars, political scandals, international relations, terrorism, Eurounification, economic shocks and revolutions, technological developments, medicine, space exploration, scientific theory, The New Age, family structure, social stratification and integration, the women’s movement, an aging population, lifestyles, ethnic identity, pop culture, sports, drugs, sexual mores, merchandising, communications, transportation, entertainment, the green revolution and ecology – these are some of the areas that have been lexically active during the past half-century. In such words as these we read the values, concerns and preoccupations of our time.”

Language change has spread via several paths. New words have been pouring into English for decades. They come from every corner of society: mass media, computers, mobile phones, Internet, science, medicine, entertainment, sports, business, politics, fashion, food etc. We find them mainly by reading publications in various fields, in both print and electronic form.

The internet has placed many people before a keyboard who would never have sat down behind a typewriter. As a result, in so many ways we have become dependent on computers in our daily lives. We use computers to do our banking, shopping or to make telephone calls. In other words, we use computers for recreation, to do our homework, to connect to the internet, to communicate with friends and family, to transact business. It is common knowledge that one of the largest influxes of words came from the technological revolution of the late 90’s, with the Internet. It is no longer a paradox, as the internet gave birth to a large number of neologisms, either connected to the persons using the digital technology, facilities or to refer to different computer problems or accessories. Indeed, the internet has given in a fantastic outpouring of new words. Among these is of course a spate of new “cyber” and “web” words. We now have cybercafés, cyberworld, cyberterrorism, cybersickness, cybercrime, cyberkidnapper;  weblogs, webcam, webcasts, web head, web designer, web master, web page, web site, webzine etc. The cyberworld has brought about a number of sense shifts with handy words like bookmark, browse, spider, bug, visit, web, window, icon  taking on new meanings.

Thus, the digital world has created change. E-mails, chatrooms and web pages have made new words on the screen almost as common as on the printed page. So familiar are these words that it is hard to believe that they may one day disappear.

On the other hand, the e-mail is revolutionizing how we communicate. Individuals who never wrote an ordinary letter before now spend a lot of time online composing and sending electronic messages. Moreover, many internet enthusiasts claim that online community operates on a clean slate. They see the net as the equalizer eliminating visual cues such as race, gender, physical handicap, body shape or age. However, we see great changes taking place as onscreen language becomes more and more informal. Words get shortened (electronic mail – e-mail, which eventually became email). Abbreviations, symbols, emoticons, acronyms (LOL – laughing out loud; IRL – in real life) have become a common feature of internet communication.

Unlike text-messaging, the language used in e-mail, chat rooms is not restricted by space conventions, but users may want to keep messages short to save disk space. These forms of communication are often limited by time. The problem of indicating tone, attitude is solved by the use of capital letters, punctuations, emoticons (arrangements of keyboard characters to represent facial expressions) to “comment” on one’s text, to indicate the writer’s feelings about something they have just mentioned.

In addition, email communication is often ungrammatical, very informal, personalized and conversational in nature, but less abbreviated than text messaging. Sentences often follow patterns typical of speech, with features including: a) the omission of subjects (Going back to her every Sunday instead of I’m going…); b) the use of fillers such as like or innit (you can’t miss the link INNIT, there must be like one in 15 letters); c) full stops in non-standard places (S’ never gonna pass it next month. Not without learning); d) disregard of sentences breaks and full stops, reflecting the sender’s thought process as they compose the message (As I know nothing a web site is better save asking different stuff here every two seconds).

Furthermore, informality or light-heartedness is also signaled by the user’s choice of spelling, correct forms often being less favoured than phonetic spellings (the shop seems to have bin closed for a cuppla daze innit). Other features of spelling and punctuation include the writing of 2 or more words as one (alittle, alot) or the omission of the apostrophe (dont instead of don’t, isnt –isn’t) etc.

Vocabulary is typically inventive and informal and is often aimed at creating or reinforcing the feeling of belonging to a particular community of people with shared interests, attitudes and language styles. Shortenings of existing words and phrases are commonplace and continuously being coined, e.g: probably is often shortened to prolly; people to peeps. To strengthen further the sense of being one of a close–knit group, code words are sometimes used. A code may be used as a way of ensuring secrecy or avoiding some words (some chat rooms or e-mail servers contain software to filter out obscenities, racist terms).

Nevertheless, this highly informal vocabulary used in electronic communication is not yet acceptable as standard English and it should not be used in formal contexts. However, they may become part of standard language in the future; some of them are already gaining acceptance in the general language.

Thanks to the internet, we are witnessing a 2nd great age of neologisms (besides the Norman Conquest), a fantastic outpouring of words and phrases to describe new ideas in novel forms of language. Today, a word does not need the slow spread of verbal usage or literature to gain acceptance. If a word works, the Internet can breathe instant life to it. Nowadays you do not have to be Shakespeare to forge words, anyone can be a wordsmith. As a result, we can admit that the web has changed English more radically than any invention since paper and much faster. The web has revived the possibilities of word – coinage in a way not seen since Shakespeare, when the language was gradually assuming its modern structure. Then, as now, the lack of control and the rapid absorption of new terms and ideas enabled a great flowering of words.

It is also usually assumed that mass media appeal has influenced the popularity of some new words. However, it is sometimes believed that the language of the media is homogenizing English. After all, everyone watches the same TV networks. Thus, lots of new phrases and words come from TV, especially comedy shows. Catchphrases used on these programs enter the language. A recent example is a character from the “Little Britain” comedy series, whose name, Vicky Pollard, has become synonymous with teenage girls with attitude who are rowdy and disrespectful. Another Little Britain-ism is “yeah-but, no-but”, now heard in response to questions in schools across the UK.  Another recent top comedy is “The Catherine Tate Show”, which has led to the catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” – infecting the country. Even people who have never watched the program know this one: “Do I look like I’m bovvered?’, “Does my face look bovvered?” In addition, certain tabloids or magazines contain catchy neologisms, that are immediately used by teenagers or youngsters, while the elder are more reluctant.

Moreover, celebrities such as Camilla Parker, David Beckam and his wife Victoria, who are so famous around the world, have also made their appearance in the Collins English Dictionary lately. Furthermore, their ever-increasing popularity has led to the creation of adjectives or verbs such as: Bechamesque (to describe his hairstyle and way of dressing), to beckam one’s wife, to beckamize.

Thus, the English lexicon is continuously updated from sources including books, newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, websites and conversations. However, although TV shows and written publications have clearly contributed some words to the present-day vocabulary and facilitated the rapid spread of some popular expressions, media influence is greatly exaggerated because people do not model their everyday speech after media personalities.

Furthermore, the field of entertainment welcomed a series of new words, since new extreme sports/games have been invented (extreme ironing, free running, zorbing etc.).  Some other new words were coined to refer to different types of shows, social events etc.

On the other hand, work is very important nowadays, with more and more people (especially women) giving priority to career rather than to their family life. Thus, new words have been coined to denote new jobs (barista, technology butler), new workplaces, new ways to refer to the action of “being sacked” (RIF-ed) etc.

Moreover, new types of food and drinks have been created to satisfy the needs of vegetarians, flexiterians, pescetarians or meat-eaters. Slow-food appeared as a reaction to “fast-food” harmful effects, which led to the problem of globesity.

Last but not least, medicine is also a field in which words have been created, coined to refer to new diseases (underload syndrome, fat-finger syndrome, cyberchondria etc.), new medicines (polypill) or therapies (chocotherapy), surgical operations (trout-pout, voicelift, body lift etc.) or other global health problems.

In conclusion, language change has spread via several paths. New words have been pouring into English for decades. They come from every corner of society: mass media, computers, mobile phones, Internet, science, medicine, entertainment, sports, business, politics, fashion, food etc. We find them mainly by reading publications in various fields, in both print and electronic form. “The rate of change of English has speeded up”, said Robert Scriven, editorial director of dictionaries at the Oxford University Press. He also adds that “language is much more available than it used to be. There are so many books and periodicals; the Internet moves language around faster.”


John Ayto, 20th Century Words, Oxford University Press, 1999
John Algeo, Vogue Words through Five Decades, English Today, 1991
Robert Scriven, www.opusnet.co.uk.
Maxwell, Kerry, From Al Desko to Zorbing – New Words for the 21st Century, Macmillan, 2006
Kerry Maxwell, Brave New Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the 21st Century, Macmillan, 2007


prof. Laura Delighiosu

Colegiul Național Ana Aslan, Brăila (Brăila) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/laura.delighiosu

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