What’s the Meaning of Love?
Paul Baker, author of American and British English: Divided by a Common Language? discusses the changing use of English language, with particular attention to the words like and love in this new blog post.
Paul is a Professor of English Language at Lancaster University, has written extensively on his research subjects corpus linguistics, language and identities and (critical) discourse analysis including Using Corpora to Analyse Gender (2014), Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes (2013), Corpus Linguistics and Sociolinguistics (2010) and is the commissioning editor of Corpora.
The last time I was in America I saw a sign attached to a lamp post on a street in New York which said “No parking Wednesday”. I was thrown slightly by the wording which appeared a little odd – did it mean no parking on this Wednesday, or that no parking was allowed on any Wednesday (a bit like adverts that say Buy One Get One Free Wednesday)? It felt that a word was missing. However, the telegraphic nature of the sign is a good illustration of one of the most noticeable trends in the English language – densification – or a tendency to compress information into fewer words.
When I studied change in American and British English since the 1930s to the 2000s, there were numerous examples which suggested that language on both sides of the Atlantic was becoming denser. The way we refer to America and Britain has changed over time to reflect this. In 1931, United States was 12 times more common than writing the acronym US, although by 2006 US was now more common. There’s a similar pattern for United Kingdom, which up until the 1960s used to be more frequent than UK, but by the 2000s, UK was 14 times more likely to be used. Acronyms are not the only form of densification though. In the US, written sentences are generally one word shorter on average in 2006 compared to 1931. This is partly due to the fact that we’re using apostrophes a lot more in our writing than we used to – it takes two words to write did not but didn’t is one word.
The increased use of apostrophes indicates another common trend – colloquialisation – or a tendency for written language to resemble spoken language. Increasingly, we are seeing aspects of speech coming into writing, including words like kids, dad, okay and an increasing number of swear words. Another interesting example of colloquialisation is use of hyperbole – which can be illustrated by the change in the meaning of the word love. In 1931 people mainly referred to loving just two things – family members or God. However, by 2006 the range of things that love could refer to had expanded massively – there are mentions of loving cakes, credit cards, music, sport, beer, fishing, sweating, fresh meat, money and the Labour Party. It seems that the meaning of love is now closer to the way that like was used a few decades ago. This hasn’t (yet) extended to negative forms – so we still tend to say “I don’t like apples” as opposed to “I don’t love apples”, although I’ve recently heard the “don’t love” construction used on American sitcoms lately, so give it time.
One question which my book aimed to address was the extent to which American English or British English were influencing one another. It’s a mixed picture depending on how you slice it. For spelling (e.g. color vs colour) there’s evidence that Brits were starting to adopt some American spellings, but then word processors that can be set to national varieties came along, and that seems to have slowed things down considerably. When it comes to word choice (e.g. pavement vs sidewalk), both countries are still pretty set in their ways, with a small number of cases of British English conceding to American lingo. However, the situation regarding the wider trends like densification and colloquialisation is more complicated – they’re happening to both American and British English but American English is ahead of the trend, with the Brits appearing to be following. Whether this is active copying on the British part or simply a function of much wider societal trends is another matter. However, my book indicates that English is undergoing great change – it will be fascinating to see how the ways that we communicate online will contribute to further transformation across the next century.
Enjoy free access to the introductory chapter of American and British English HERE