Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fashions change

John McWhorter has a lovely piece on language change - "A Matter of Fashion" - in the NY Times.
An especially enlightening read is William Cobbett’s book-length lecture to his son called “A Grammar of the English Language.” Cobbett’s sense of what good English was in 1818 seems, in 2012, so bizarre we can scarcely imagine someone speaking in such a way and being taken seriously.

To Cobbett, the past tense forms awoke, blew, built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove were all mistakes. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year. In Google’s handy Ngram viewer, using data from millions of books over several centuries, one can see that builded only started falling out of disuse around 1920. Not for any reason; no one discovered that builded was somehow elementally deficient. Fashion changed.
There's more - including his assertion that yes, you should learn the fashion of the day (note his remark about Cobbett being taken seriously) but no, you shouldn't confuse fashion with morals, or intelligence.

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