Another Lost Cause, Hopefully

a cop

Languages change every day. Itʼs inevitable and evolutionary. Language adaptation can occur so rapidly that the same language can diverge into two or more over just a few generations, as spoken Latin decayed (or developed, depending on your point of view) into the distinct Romance tongues in the earliest middle ages (as English evolved from German, both languages changing differently under different circumstances once those fifth and sixth century Angles, Saxons and Jutes had made the big voyage from southwestern Denmark and northern Germany to the old Roman province of Britannia). English accepted a lot of Latin influence fairly quickly, especially after conversion to Christianity about 700, that German did not undergo, then came the Vikings and the Old Norse repercussions and of course eventually Norman French. Meanwhile German went through a whole history of its own changes (unknown to me, by the way: I was an English teacher).

New words (slang and other neologisms), novel grammatical constructions (“me and him went downtown, bro”), misuse of grammar and syntax through simple ignorance (same example?), and the impact of other languages (as in Spanglish or the history of English in any period) all contribute to continual change. Add to that, novelty for its own sake (and subcultural exclusion — the need to appear “cool” and have usages that uncool others donʼt get, which personally I think is the essence of all slangisms) and contemporary txtsp3lln (a small sample: “not 2 cauz fiten& its nice 2here ppl say nice thngz back or put thngz n2 prspectiv”), and you get linguistic evolution slamming up the conversational highway today at well over the speed limit of mutual (fuhgeddabout universal) comprehension.

the evidence for the permissive…

And who is out there to try keeping all this wild growth in check (so we can actually understand each other — as best as that is possible at all)? English teachers — oops, apologies: language arts facilitators (I forgot to mention deliberate obfuscation among the multitude of semantic impediments), although that oneʼs pretty dated, “so last century.” The language cops are the language teachers, tirelessly (thatʼs a lie) devoting their lives to restraining freewheeling linguistic experimentation, judiciously pruning the sap-draining exotic growths forever leaping from the basic patois. Just like actual cops, some English teachers (itʼs my blog, and Iʼll use my own terms, thank you kindly) are loose and permissive while others are stern watchdogs ceaselessly snarling at the smallest linguistic innovation, clitic or contraction.

Just as everyone knows that theft is wrong, even the folks who regularly say it know that “ainʼt” is incorrect (which is pretty strange for a construction  originating among effete uppercrust snobs a few hundred years ago), such is the impact of the language cops patrolling their tumultuous linguistic beats. On the other hand, although there is no legislature to determine when itʼs time to change the language laws taught in classrooms, if enough people make a mistake without self-conscious hesitation, then the language has undergone another tiny evolutionary tick, and the educators just have to give up on the once dubious usage. A few hundred years ago, that happened with “mob,” originally so shuddersome to the educated elite for its ignorant truncation of the Latinate mobile vulgus. But the mob won, and the wordʼs legit, even a little old-fashioned nowadays (and of course, “legit” is boating the same muddy waters, apparently with equal success).

…and a fop

Sometimes the lingo cops just have to give up and accept the change. (Maybe that sentence should start with “often” or even “usually.”) And for me, one such lost cause in the language slow-volution wars (gotta love those neologs, huh?), is the word “hopefully.”

Somewhen I got trained that one should not use “hopefully” to mean “it is hoped that” but instead limit the word to indicating only “full of hope” (like the suffix -ful is meant to mean). I donʼt remember who taught me that lesson or when, but plenty of other authorities disagree: the word may have begun by meaning just “full of optimism,” but it now has the other meaning, too, perfectly legitimate at this late date. Merriam-Webster considers the first, “evil” use a sentence adverb (as you can read for yourself in todayʼs little image I created from the Dictionary entry), so clearly M-W (or Appleʼs New Oxford American Dictionary) is one of those permissively easygoing coppers. But the rigid restrictors have lost the war, whether they wish to admit the defeat or not. Everyone uses “hopefully” at the beginning of a sentence to mean “I/we hope,” almost all without hesitation or self-consciousness (maybe I should point out that I am a periodic exception there) — the indication that the change is complete. (And besides, check out those dates in the Dictionary entry above — this one should have been declared over back when only Restoration fops were nasally “ainʼt-ing.”) When the language cops come up with a name for a usage (in this case “sentence adverb”), you know the usage is accepted. After all, no one misunderstands when someone says, “Hopefully, FoxNews will one day tell the truth.” (And thatʼs completely unlike trying to read far too many choices vapid nitwits make texting!)

Hopefully, we can all agree on that.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.