English Language Innovation

With all of the current hoo-ha about the negative influence of slang use and the so-called deterioration of Standard English, it’s a perfect chance to look at how language has always evolved and changed. The English language in its early form is barely recognisable to us today. Check out this extract from Beowulf – an Old English classic:


Can you recognise any words? The text is 900 years old, and English has developed a lot since then. The language was originally Germanic , but Norman invasions brought a French influence which slowly evolved into something a little more recognisable in the Middle Ages. Here’s a snippet from the poster boy of the era, Chaucer:


There were no standardised language rules, and language was varied between people and contexts. The printing revolution and the advent of mass production helped to solidify the rules of English language so that by Shakespeare’s time, we had the dawn of Early Modern English.

Shakespeare is held in high esteem by the educational system, and it is mandatory that students in England study a selection of his plays during their time at school. However, don’t let his lofty reputation deceive you – he was a renegade of his time and a master of language. His plays contained many words and phrases which had never been heard before but, through his popularity, have now become a solid part of what we consider to be Standard English. Here are some common phrases that he coined:


Shakespeare certainly wasn’t the only one to influence language, but his influence is arguably the greatest of all of his contemporaries. So here’s your perfect counterargument the next time someone like Linday John’s claims that you sound like you’ve had a ‘frontal lobotomy’ when you use slang – if Shakespeare could invent words, then so can I!┬áNew language is exciting, creative and indicative of context. The Oxford English Dictionary added these words to their dictionary recently:


If our nation’s greatest dictionary can include ‘selfie’, why can’t young people use words like ‘bare’ or ‘innit’ without being scorned upon. I’d argue that criticism of slang says more about those who criticise than those who speak using slang. It may be no coincidence that snobbery often lies around words which come from the MLE dialect (Multi-ethnic London English). The perception that many adults have is rather negative – are they right to feel this way?

The History of the English Language:

hist eng lang

Spoken Language: Attitudes to slang

Many people use slang in order to fit in with their friends and wider peers. Common teenage slang includes words such as ‘bare’, ‘like’, ‘innit’ and ‘coz’. Headteachers at a school in London, The Harris Academy’, have decided that these words are not appropriate and have banned the use of them in school buildings. Their aim is for students to be prepared for the wider working world and feel that a secure grasp of Standard English is important for this.

To some extent, I do agree. Standard English is the accepted dialect of professional workplaces and academic institutions up and down the country. Most adults believe that there is a ‘proper’ way to speak and they look down upon slang – but are they missing out? Youth slang is an important part of youth identity. Teenagers adopt slang words for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important is the building of personal identity.

Let’s take a closer look at the word ‘bare’. It is a word that means ‘lots of’ or ‘many’ and has it’s origins in MLE (Multi-ethnic London English). When listening in on a friends conversation, I noticed that they used the phrase ‘I’ve got bare homework, man. It’s long’ The use of the word bare, as opposed to ‘lots of’ strengthens their opinion about the homework. It is a defiant statement and invites a friendly and informal moaning session about their homework. While adopting the phrase may be sub-conscious, the implication is that they are young and up to date with ‘street slang’. Had that student said ‘Goodness gracious, I have a gargantuan mountain of homework to complete’ their friend might not have been so open to joining in the conversation. In fact, it could even isolate that friend, who may find the tone too formal.

This brings me to the point of code-switching. Instead of trying to suggest that there is only one way to speak, I feel that it is more important to know how to code-switch. Varying talk according to context and audience is a skill that all of us possess – we understand that we should simplify for younger children or be respectful to authority. Additionally, code-switching register is a skill which proves that far from sounding like they’ve had a ‘frontal-lobotomy’ (Lindsay Johns), students are actually far more skilled linguistically than most adults might believe.

I listened to that same student speak in an English class at school and they were able to execute perfect Standard English in a formal presentation towards the class. Their register switched to a confident and sophisticated tone when they spoke about an historical figure who was’ knighted for gallantry’. This successful speech showed that the student was fully capable of speaking formally for over 3 minutes. Listeners, including the teacher, were very impressed and the student revealed themselves to be far from uneducated. The vocabulary is advanced and impressive leading listeners to trust their informed opinions.

However, when I surveyed staff about their opinions on students ability to code-switch, the results weren’t entirely optimistic. 55% of teachers at my school believe that only ‘some’ students have the ability to switch between using slang and Standard English. Many of them are worried about how this could impact the future with one teacher saying that it ‘limits your ability to communicate with the widest range of people’. This suggests that it might be a big problem which schools need to face.


Senior Leaders QUESTIONNAIRE results

Attitudes to slang

Hi year ten!

In order to prepare for your Spoken Language CA, you should collect data from media sources. As well as the newspaper articles that you have been provided with, you could collect opinions from a range of viewpoints in these videos: