Science | Why language needs a twerk

Perhaps some of you have missed the recent media storm around American pop sensation Miley Cyrus. To enlighten you, the recent VMA awards provided this young starlet with an opportunity to showcase the world’s latest dance craze… twerking. A combination of the words ‘twist’ and ‘jerk’, this portmanteau demonstrates the evolution of the English language. Whilst some self-titled guardians of English language may weep, this word was added to the Oxford Dictionary Online in 2013. Why do people so adamantly defend an ideal of the English language, spewing heated letters to Radio 4, writing lengthy letters to editors on the correct use of grammar?

Some linguists argue that ‘correct’ language is a form of cultural capital, that the professional or middle class shape the ‘correct’ linguistic parameters. Other linguists would argue that a form of standardised language is useful, for example in the medium of print. Linguists state whether a certain form of language is good or bad is irrelevant, change is inevitable and if not, language will cease to exist.

Steven Pinker, the experimental scientist and linguist, stresses the importance in the development of cognitive science, particularly in linguistics, in understanding humanity and human affairs. He explains language as a “biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating [humans] from other animals.” For him the idea that the working class speak a coarser language is a “pernicious illusion arising from the effortless of conversation.” There is no right language, all language is a paradigm of engendering excellence. If we apply this to the criticism of words such as ‘twerking’, perhaps we are ignoring the beauty of the complicated machinery that enables words such as this to develop explain new concepts and developments.

Most would agree that all perceived change in language seems to be degenerative. Alas, it is not a recent phenomenon. In 1848 the linguist August Schleicher deduced solemnly that English was likely to “sink into mono-syllablicity.” One of the nation’s most revered personalities, Stephen Fry, has much to say on the subject of language, “the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way.” It is his belief that the evolution or change is language is to be celebrated, not condemned. Fry compares the multiculturalism and architectural diversity of London to the brilliance of the English language, every phrase “a mongrel mouthful.” So perhaps when the subject arises next we can tell the haters to chillax, embrace our ever changing, wicked awesome language.


Camilla Middleton

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