The Uncertain Boundaries of Modern English

Did you know that the word ‘bants’ has now been added to the Oxford English Dictionary? When I first read this online, I initially thought it was someone’s poor attempt at some ‘bants’ (banter, in other words). I have always held dictionaries to be compendia of the most used words in the serious and formal aspect of any language, rather than stores of the latest colloquialisms. Those who administer to the collection of new words for the dictionary have suggested that this is but another example of the modern, creative use of language: finding and developing new words to describe some of the oddities of modern life.

Personally, I’m all for using language creatively to express things that we cannot otherwise express in modern language. I’ve always enjoyed looking at the nuances of certain words, and then choosing an appropriate word to use in a piece of writing based on that; a slightly left-field example is the various words used in Latin for the act of killing (a common word in A-Level Latin military texts): interficio (a very general word), neco (specifically murder), occido (death in battle) and trucido (much more violent – the English ‘slaughter’). I’ve also found myself intrigued by (and even using) phrases like ‘my bad’, in which an English adjective is used as a noun, which appears to be our modern version of ‘mea culpa’. Following on from this, there are the brilliant near-untranslatable words found in other languages, such as ‘schadenfreude’ – taking pleasure in other people’s misfortune, a feeling which isn’t exactly unheard of in the UK.

‘Bants’ just seems to be a bit different though. Creative as it may be to shorten the already reasonably concise ‘banter’, it also seems completely unnecessary. I genuinely find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to use such a word (and I’d welcome attempts to persuade me). It almost seems too colloquial, too casual to have a place in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Awesomesauce’ is another one that I struggle with: the suffix added to the common word ‘awesome’ doesn’t clearly appear to emphasise the intensity of the feeling being described. Again, it is a highly creative use of modern linguistics, but it seems somewhat superfluous at times.

Who, or rather ‘What’,  do we have to thank for this spate of new vocabulary? Social media is probably the answer. Whilst Facebook is no longer littered with the juvenile text speak of old, it, along with Twitter and Tumblr most notably, has become a breeding ground for inventive uses of language. The frankly terrible word ‘bae’ (which apparently means ‘before anyone else’) most likely became more widespread as a result of its ever-increasing use on Twitter, most notably. As I have mentioned above, I have no issues with using language creatively per se. I do, however, feel, that there exist certain boundaries. Any language is made up of a combination of its more formal aspects (those that may be found in formal writing and speech), and colloquialisms (words and phrases used only outside a formal context). Both are vital: the formal aspects set out the basic rules upon which the language functions, whilst the colloquialisms offer an insight into the everyday culture in which the language is rooted (which is perhaps why many North Americans struggle with the concept of a ‘cheeky Nando’s’). With the addition of more and more colloquial words into dictionaries, it seems as if formal vocabulary is being strangled to a certain extent.

It is natural in any language, particularly one as widespread as English is today, that some words will fall out of usage, new colloquialisms will come up, and some less formal words will be adopted into formal speech. Yet as someone who has studied some form of language (whether dead or ‘alive’) for the past nine years, it is slightly sad to see some formal vocabulary being jettisoned (case in point) at so fast a rate. I am not suggesting for one minute that we should revert to archaisms, and religiously say ‘shall’ instead of ‘will’ in the first person of the future tense. It has, however, become apparent that some of the discipline that comes with formal English is being lost, particularly when it comes to writing. Granted, the dialect of social media is not entirely to blame for this; fingers may be pointed at our education system too. Language cannot survive without creativity, and I am sure that social media will bring out some brilliant new words in the years to come, but I still believe there is room for some apparently stuffy old conventions, to maintain the rigidity needed in our formal writing. With the constant creation of new colloquialisms, the boundary between the formal and informal aspects of English is becoming less and less clear. It is my hope that this wall does not entirely fall.


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