A few days ago, a friend sent me a message:
There’s a whole vocabulary that has come to the fore because of the events, words which you never think will apply to you: infection. Ventilator. ICU. Mild to moderate. Asymptomatic. Heavy droplets. And also some weird calls to action: stay at home, wash your hands, save lives, practise social distancing, self isolate, flatten the curve, clap for our carers. All fair enough but also quite shocking in a way, the kind of things you might expect to see on a Soviet propaganda poster but not here and now.
As a writer, I’m fascinated by the way that language changes constantly, and the way these changes reflect societies’ preoccupations and prevailing beliefs.
Broadly, these alterations tend to take two forms. There are the vocabulary-focused shifts, such as the ones my friend highlights above. Although these can occur by a sort of unspoken common consensus (as with the shift of the word ‘mortify’ from meaning ’embarrassed’ to ‘horrified’ in everyday discourse) they often arise in response to specific events or developments.
In recent decades, the internet has provided the most obvious example. Since the information superhighway (remember that?) opened for business in the 1990s, a whole raft of new terms have moved into, and sometimes out of, the lexicon: broadband, bandwidth, website and dongle among them. Some words from previous eras have also been dusted off and repurposed. (I imagine a timetraveller from the 1930s might be rather perplexed by our interpretation of the word ‘wireless’.)
The second category of changes has more to with the nuts and bolts of language: grammar. These are the sorts of shifts that you sometimes see people writing furious rants about, bewailing those who misuse Oxford commas, for example, or those who don’t understand the finer points of the subjunctive.
While I can sympathise with how jarring it can feel to see a rule broken, I tend to regard such pedantry as pointless. Language has never been static and where grammatical shifts become widespread, they are usually indicative of a need that the previous structures weren’t answering.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, during which, until a few weeks ago, life seemed to be speeding up, the primary need was for efficiency. With a huge percentage of the world’s communications being typed with thumbs (in 2018, humankind was sending around 65bn WhatsApp messages a day), few of us have had the patience for cumbersome formulations when quicker – albeit less elegant – alternatives are available. So, we have seen the proliferation of split infinitives, sentence fragments and hanging modifiers. While these are still generally regarded as wrong in formal English, I suspect some will creep into accepted usage over time.
Other changes have reflected shifts in attitudes. The rise of the singular pronoun ‘they’, for example, may indicate a better understanding of equality issues and the growing number of circumstances in which people prefer not to have to specify someone’s gender.
So what of Covid-19? How is this global pandemic infecting and reconfiguring our use of words?
Obviously, it’s too early to make definitive statements. However, here are a few things, in addition to the words and phrases my friend highlights above, that I’ve noticed in recent weeks:
- The widespread deployment of active verbs to describe passive states. Examples include: ‘Stay safe’ and ‘keep well’. This is partly to do with the impulse to propagate the idea that we are all doing something heroic by staying in our houses so as to make us more compliant with government restrictions. But I think it also signifies the sense of impending disaster many of us feel. Faced with the prospect of losing friends and relatives to the disease, as well as the possibility that society may never be the same again, we no longer desire progress so much as stasis, the stopping of time and the maintenance of the status quo.
- The increasingly paternalistic/schoolmasterly tone of government ministers. ‘I say this to the small minority of people who are breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries: you’re risking your own life and the lives of others and you’re making it harder for us all,’ health secretary Matt Hancock told us yesterday, sounding for all the world as though he were scolding a rabble of naughty children. This is a marked shift from the desperate slogans of the Brexit era, during which politicians with slim majorities bent and scraped, and did whatever they could to be seen to be honouring ‘the will of the people’.
- The dusting off of wartime vocabulary. As mentioned in a previous post, there has been a rise in the use of phrases that recall the propaganda and speeches of the world wars. Again, the immediate reasons for this are obvious. It remains to be seen whether or not much of it will stick.
A notable exception to these observations, however, was the Queen’s rare address, broadcast last night. She avoided the schoolmasterly tone of many government communications and opted instead to thank her subjects. Rather than sticking to the present, she looked to the future: ‘better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again.’ And although there were war references – both in terms of her recollection of her first address to evacuees in 1940 and in her use of the phrase ‘We will meet again’, which recalls Vera Lynn’s famous Second World War hit (embedded at the top of this post) – these were personal and subtle, as opposed to bombastic. Indeed, she seemed at pains to keep nostalgia at arm’s length: ‘The pride in who we are is not part of our past, it defines our present and our future.’
In terms of its tone and the structures it employed, the speech might have been delivered at any point during the Queen’s reign. That is no doubt one of the reasons it has been warmly received in many quarters: in eschewing the words and fomulations that have embedded themselves into common discourse since the start of the pandemic, Her Majesty allowed those listening to feel a sense of timelessness and continuity. Strangely, for one so far removed from the daily life of average UK citizens, she spoke what felt like our language.