People love to talk to me about language change when they learn I’m a linguist. This week, it happened at a bookstore. The clerk ringing up my purchases paused. With trepidation, he said, “I hear that the English language is getting worse all the time. Is this true?”
Often, the questions are framed as laments rather than inquiries, but the sentiment is the same: Is the English language, to use one of my father’s expressions, going to hell in a handbasket?
The short answer is no. English is just as structurally sound, linguistically adaptive and widely used as ever.
But language is embedded into the fabric of who we are: how we represent ourselves, how we view the world. And as with anything that pervasive and moving and fraught, the answer to a question about its status is complex.
Take the slow decline of the hyphen in the English language. What does that mean for a place like Winston-Salem, whose history — not to mention, ostensibly, the name of the minor league baseball team — is captured in this typographical feature?
In case this is news, a bit more detail:
The hyphen, with us since at least 17th Century English, is likely on its way out, at least with words (not numbers). Because many people do not feel confident about its use, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary no longer uses the hyphen in compound nouns. In a local example, the Wellbeing initiative at Wake Forest has removed it from a word commonly hyphenated in the past.
Two traditional rules for hyphenating English words are as follows. First, if the combination of an adjective plus noun functions as a single concept, then it loses the hyphen. Think overtime or threadbare. Second, a hyphen indicates that two words are meant as a single word (or lexical item). In the case of a phrase like “a well-deserved win,” for example, the intended meaning is a single adjective, meaning deserved thoroughly.
It is important to note, however, that as with many English rules (such as no split infinitives, based on hopes to Latinize English and not based on the inherent structure of English), this rule dates back only to 18th and 19th Century grammar and usage guides. So the unregulated use of the hyphen in English has clear historical precedent; furthermore, hyphen rules are not widely known or even wholly consistent today (is it on-line or online?). But that does not mean that its decline is not of interest. In the case of Winston-Salem, people have told me, the hyphen tells a history.
The real question, then, is whether we understand the aforesaid meanings without the hyphen (or despite the language change). Can we understand the history of our city if it is not typographically represented? Do we understand a well deserved win? How about in the second paragraph: Did you understand that I meant English is structurally-sound, without the hyphen?
Language change behooves us to ask these kinds of questions. Not because people do not have strong feelings about language change; they do. But because regardless of how individuals feel about it, ultimately, the English language is changing, and some exciting and productive questions that follow are how and why it is changing, and implications for the same.
There are the obvious answers to why English is changing: the internet is arguably the most revolutionary language-based technology since the printing press (which was considered “the devil” by writers like Victor Hugo, just to put lamentations about language change into perspective). Some online forms only allow me to select “Winston Salem” sans hyphen. But there are many causes for language change. Some road signs for the city do not include the hyphen. Print materials across Winston-Salem do not all agree: Some use the hyphen, and some do not. Finally (as with many examples of linguistic change) one cannot hear the hyphen when WinstonSalem is spoken. A classic language-change lament is that this kind of unregulated use is precisely the stuff of anarchy. But then, there is also evidence that everything is okay. We know where we live. We can visit Old Salem and new Winston; we can ride our bikes across the blurred lines between them. We can name our city and be understood. We can find our way home.
And maybe, the absence of the hyphen reminds us that there are good reasons to consider the towns together, as one entity: reasons to reach across parts of Winston Salem in ways we haven’t yet.
In this way, the case of Winston(-)Salem’s hyphen reminds us that language change is an opportunity to appreciate — in the sense of contemplate and, I think, be grateful for — language change. Not as progress or decay, but as something that is a reality, and one that comes with both loss and possibility.
Laura Louise Aull is an assistant professor of English and linguistics at Wake Forest University who studies patterns in written language. Her recent book, First-Year University Writing, explores distinctions between student and published argumentative writing.