Today's topic is "What's with those people who talk weird?"
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Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is “What's with those people who talk weird?” or regionalisms.
Language is constantly changing, and a lot of people have asked me about how and why it happens. This isn't my area of expertise, but I've done a lot of reading about it lately and it's an interesting topic.
Standardization, Cross-Cultural Influences, Discoveries, and Inventions
The development of the printing press led people to think about standardizing the English language (1), especially spelling (2, 3), whereas travel and trade led to interactions with people who spoke other languages and was a catalyst for adding new words (1). When we encounter new things, whether a new spice long ago or a new technology today, we need new words to describe them. Also, when people are bilingual they sometimes create new words that are a combination of the two languages. I remember interviewing the founder of the magazine Latina when it first came out and she talked about her decision to use “Spanglish” words in the magazine, or words that are a combination of English and Spanish such as marqueta [mar-ke-tah] for supermarket (4)
In the same way that people in social groups tend to wear similar clothes, people create slang and new words to show that they're all part of the same group (5). Think about the Valley Girls in California; they had, like, a totally particular way of speaking, and you can usually spot MBAs by their phrases such as “paradigms for incentivizing key FTEs.” In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of a strong group that doesn't have its own jargon or slang. The separation of American English from British English was an important part of the early American identity, and the first dictionary of American English was published in 1828 by Noah Webster (6).
Soda Versus Pop
Regionalisms are words that are associated with a particular region. A classic regionalism is seen in how people refer to fizzy sugar water. Is it soda, pop, coke, or something else? I grew up in Seattle and we called it pop. When I moved to California, I noticed that everyone called it soda. If you're from the South, you probably call it coke.
Dialects vary in different geographic regions at least partly because there is less interaction between groups that are physically far apart. A new word or phrase may arise in one group and not have a chance to spread to other groups because interactions are limited. When groups of people don't interact with each other, their language tends to change in different ways. Because of my background in science, I've always thought of this as a process similar to genetic isolation, where groups that are separated accumulate different mutations in their DNA, so I was happily surprised in my research for this episode to see that some linguists use natural selection as an analogy for how language changes (4). Of course because of air travel and the Internet, it's much easier for people to interact these days, so there is less language isolation. I regularly read the BBC news on the Internet, whereas it would have been much more difficult for me to do that 20 years ago.