Consciousness and how it got to be that way

Sunday, February 10, 2019

American English: Examples of Within-Our-Lifetime Language Change

I once saw a translation of Beowulf from the early twentieth century, which used "throve" as the past tense of "thrive." Interestingly, this means that even the "modern" translation is now outdated, since during the twentieth century "thrived" replaced "throve." Language waits for no one.

I have noticed one particular shift in American English: "buck naked" has become "butt naked." No doubt readers younger than mid-30s will have never heard "buck naked" and wonder what I’m talking about. The explanation for the shift is that in some varieties of Black American English, the "k" sound at the end of buck becomes a glottal stop, which is then heard and reproduced as a t in most accents of American English. In conclusion - it’s BUCK, not butt, and you kids get off my lawn.

Also, many Californians pronounce the "-ing" verb suffix as "-een"; it's more prominent the further south you go in the state (Think Blink 182 - they’re from San Diego), which suggests it's from language contact with Spanish. When asked about this, people who clearly produce the morpheme this way, some people have insisted to me that they say it it the same as an -ing; this is common for people who speak non-received dialects that differ subtly, since they actually cannot hear the difference between the two phones. I once saw a young student learning to spell, write out a verb phonetically that way, ie "bildeen" for building. I mention this because as California becomes more prominent in American culture, I expect its dialect to become more prestigious, and people elsewhere will start imitating it - so by mid-century, people in e.g. the Midwest may be saying -een instead of -ing.

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