The Evolution of English and the Joy of Language

by Camille Isaacs

Published at 2010-08-25

I have a 2-year-old son, and every day I find joy in the way he makes meaning of his world through words. Often I am just so pleased that he’s managed to express himself with words, rather than tantrums, that I don’t bother to try to turn his heartfelt statements into “proper English.”
I remember quite distinctly one of his first complete sentences. It was a dreary day and we were stuck in the house. He had been acting up, throwing his toys around the living room, through boredom, I imagine. Then, you could see the cogs turning in his head, and he said, “Mommy, chase you me?” It took me a while to understand what he wanted, the placement of the verb in relation to the object and subject confused me momentarily. But when I finally understood him, his joy at being understood, and mine at his attempts at language, resulted in a joyful chase around the house.
I also have a friend whose first language is not English. She comes up with phrases that show how awkward English can be, but also how wonderfully adaptive it is, if we are prepared to listen to what someone means, instead of what they say. As with many ESL speakers, she often misuses prepositions. I laughed when she said, “I was walking on the sidewalk, when some strange man bumped onto me.” But bumped “onto me” makes perfect sense, of course. The man was literally “on top” of her. How is that English developed the way that it did and that “into” became the accepted preposition here? She is also fond of using the expression “fronthead” for “forehead,” which I have adopted because it makes so much sense.
As an editor, I am required to daily take stock of another’s person English, to make decisions about what is or is not acceptable grammatically. For a long time I waged what seemed like a one-person battle against the use of “impact” as a verb. I can even remember one of my editing instructors warning us students to use “impact” as a noun and “influence” as a verb. To this day, the Oxford English Dictionary includes an informative note about the use of impact as a verb, which it describes as chiefly a North American phenomenon. But times are changing, every year new words and phrases are added to dictionaries, impacting (it still hurts to write it, but I’m trying) the shape of the English language.
What my son, various friends, and additions to the dictionary have shown me is that yes, I need to apply the rules of proper English when proofreading and copy-editing (and in daily life, for that matter). Clarity of message is paramount if we are to take any meaning out of the words that we use and avoid confusion. But adaptability, innovation, and the inherent fun in language are equally important. I would have lost so much had I merely corrected my son’s English, rather than chase him around the house.