Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lady Gaga and the Evolution of English

The English language is extraordinarily flexible in terms of how it adapts over time. Pick up a copy of some Chaucer if you don't believe me. Not only do spellings change, but the words used to describe the same underlying concept change over time too.

Lady Gaga, a women not obviously conservative in most respects, is nonetheless fighting a culturally conservative battle in one arena - resisting the increasing disappearance of the word 'telephone', and its replacement with the abbreviated 'phone'.

'Telephone' had two main forms - as a noun, to describe the device itself, and as a verb, to describe the process of using the device to contact someone. The noun form is probably in 'endangered' territory. The verb form ('I telephoned John this morning') is almost 'extinct in the wild', having been thoroughly supplanted by its evolutionary successors, 'phoned' and 'called'. These have the obvious reproductive advantage of requiring only one syllable, rather than the clunky three, and in present tense form requiring 5 and 4 letters respectively, rather than 9. Thus does survival of the fittest operate in the language world.

Lady Gaga uses both forms in her song 'Telephone':
Call all you want but there's no one home
And you're not going to reach my telephone. 
Stop telephoning me...
Truth be told, it was probably a year since I'd heard the noun form in the wild, and perhaps a decade since I'd heard the verb form. And they sound odd and slightly jarring, in a way that you can't quite pin down. In fact, it was the Lady Gaga song itself that made me realise how long it had been since I'd heard the word used.

If you look at Google search results, 'phone' returns about 1.1 billion results. 'Telephone' returns about 211 million results. The top news result for telephone is from Pakistan:
 'Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Chief Altaf Hussain had a telephonic conversation with the Chief of Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) Maulana Fazalur-Rehman on Tuesday.' 
The subcontinent sticks to old-world English long after the originators have given it up. I remember my uncle talking about reading a plaque in India saying that a particular king had 'no male issue' (i.e. had no sons). When did you last hear that from a native speaker?

I suspect that even the Lady Gaga rearguard action won't be enough to save 'telephone'. Most of the steps in the evolution of language happen too slowly for most people to notice. But this is one you can witness yourself. If you wondered how Chaucer became modern English, this is the answer.

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