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4.2: The Nature of Language

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    Qualities of Symbolic Communication

    Our language is symbolic, meaning it is made up of symbols. A symbol is something that stands for something else. The symbols that we use stand in for something else, like a physical object or idea; they do not actually correspond to the thing in any direct way. For example, there is nothing fundamental about a cat that leads to calling it a "cat." The use of symbolic communication is uniquely human, and it allows us to have abstract conversations about things that are not in our immediate reality. Our use of symbolic language has three distinct qualities: it is arbitrary, ambiguous, and abstract.

    Symbolic Language Is Arbitrary

    We use symbols to encode what is in our heads, the thoughts, emotions, concepts, etc. so we can share them. The symbols we use are arbitrary: there is nothing inherent about the things we are sharing and the symbols that we use to represent them. If symbols are arbitrary, then how do we use them to communicate? Communication is only possible because speakers of the same language have agreed on these arbitrary meanings. We understand that when someone uses a particular word (symbol) that it represents a specific thing. This agreement is what makes communication via language possible. Ogden and Richards (1923) illustrated this idea with their triangle of meaning (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). In this example, the word cat represents both the concept of a cat and an actual cat. Communication is successful when the meaning attached to the symbol is shared.

    Top, concept (four-legged animal with whiskers); at bottom left, symbol (cat, gato); right, actual object (cat photo).
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Triangle of Meaning by H. Rayl is licensed CC BY 4.0

    Symbolic Language Is Ambiguous

    In addition to being arbitrary, symbols are ambiguous because they have several potential meanings. If you are hanging out with a friend and she says “check out that girl” and you respond, “she’s fine.” What do you mean? You could mean, she is alright. But you might also mean that she is really good looking. In this case the symbol alone is ambiguous; we would have to rely on the context to find meaning. Meanings also change over time. One of our authors shares their own experience as an example:

    When I was headed to college I got my first cell phone. At that time, most people still had landline phones—so we distinguished between our “phones” and our “cells.” These days most of us have cut the cord and now our cell phone is just our phone. If I asked my kids to help me find my “cell” they would have no idea what I was looking for.

    You might be asking, “If symbols can have multiple meanings, then how do we communicate and understand one another?” We are able to communicate because there are a finite number of possible meanings for our symbols, a range of meanings which the members of a given language system agree upon. Without an agreed-upon system of symbols, we could share relatively little meaning with one another.

    Symbolic Language Is Abstract

    Finally, symbols are abstract. The verbal symbols we use are not material. Because they are only representations of objects and ideas, a level of abstraction is inherent. In 1941, linguist S. I. Hayakawa created what is called the abstraction ladder. The abstraction ladder starts with the most abstract at the top and then moves toward the bottom rung ,which is the most concrete. For example, we could start with the most abstract (animal), moving to more concrete (fox), to the most concrete (a specific American Red Fox). As we move down the ladder, the symbol becomes more concrete and less abstract. In addition to relying on arbitrary, ambiguous, and abstract symbols, the language we use is also governed by rules.

    Language Is Rule-Governed

    Verbal communication is rule-governed. Remember in order for communication to succeed we have to have shared meaning. One way to help facilitate shared meaning is to follow agreed-upon rules to make sense of the symbols we use. What would happen if there were no rules for using the symbols (letters) that make up different words?

    If placing letters in a proper order was not important, then cta, tac, tca, act, or atc could all mean cat. Even worse, what if you could use any three letters to refer to cat? Or still worse, what if there were no rules and anything could represent cat? (Hahn & Paynton, 2021).

    As you can see, it is important to have rules to guide our use of verbal communication. In this section we focus on three general rules: semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic.

    Semantic Rules

    Semantic rules are those that help us with meaning. We would not be able to communicate with others if we did not have semantic rules. When we look a word up in the dictionary, the definition provides the semantic rules for that symbol. The dictionary definition is the general meaning of the word, but that meaning can also vary based on the context in which it is used. Even though a word has a definition, its meaning can change based on the particular context.

    Take the word run for example. Most of us would claim to know what this word means and we could look it up in a dictionary if we needed to, but on its own we can’t know what it means. We need to know in what context it is being used. “I’m going for a run,” “I need to run an errand,” “He is giving me the runaround,” or “I am feeling rundown today,” all imply different meanings based on the context.

    Syntactic Rules

    Syntactic rules are those that help us with language structure and symbol arrangement. How we combine words into sentences is governed by syntax. These rules are what make meaning coherent and understandable.

    In English, most basic syntax follows a subject–verb–direct object formula. For example, "Charlie kicked the soccer ball." The structure of the sentence is fundamental to how we make shared meaning. The other aspect of syntax that influences our verbal communication is grammar. For example, a comma can make a big difference in how people understand a message. As shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), “Let’s eat grandma!” is quite different from saying “Let’s eat, grandma!” The first implies cannibalism and the second a family dinner.

    Older woman knitting, embedded text provided previous to this figure.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Punctuation Saves Lives by Darin McClure on Flickr

    Pragmatic Rules

    Finally, pragmatic rules help us use language appropriately. What is appropriate in one circumstance may not be in another. While you are working, you are likely to be more formal with your boss and customers than you are with your co-workers. Think about the terms bowel movement, poop, crap, and shit. While all of these words have essentially the same denotative meaning, people make choices based on context and audience regarding which word they feel comfortable using. These differences illustrate the pragmatics of our verbal communication.

    We learn pragmatic rules from our lived experience within our larger culture. A recent anecdote that we saw on Twitter helps illustrate this idea. “In Australia we often have a meal where people are invited to bring some food to share. It’s referred to as ‘bring a plate.’ A friend from Scotland literally brought an empty plate and was very confused, thinking we didn’t own enough dinnerware” (Sarah Harris @sarah_sirrah).

    Language Creates Meaning

    Miscommunication often occurs when individuals assign different meanings to the same symbol. We think about communication in terms of finding the right words— but this view of language assumes that the meaning is in the words, and it is not. Meaning is in us. We assign meaning to the symbols we use, and there are many potential meanings that we could draw upon. As you have learned, symbols are arbitrary and their meaning is not inherent. While dictionaries can help us with standardized definitions—a word’s denotative meaning—shared meanings are not always standard and vary contextually.

    Language Shapes Our Worldview

    Verbal communication helps us define reality. “We use verbal communication to define everything from ideas, emotions, experiences, thoughts, objects, and people”  (Hahn & Paynton, 2021). Think about what you are doing right now. How would you describe this experience? Are you reading, learning, studying? Are you engaged, bored, stressed, motivated? There are a variety of different ways we can make sense of our experiences, and we use verbal communication to label and define our reality.

    Verbal communication helps us organize complex ideas and experiences into meaningful categories. It would be impossible for us to focus our attention on the overwhelming stimuli that we encounter every day. Instead, we use verbal communication to help us make sense of the world through simplified categories that help to establish meaning.

    For example, think about how you organize your physical space. We organize things based on estimates: for example, your friend's house might be close, but a favorite hangout spot is far away. We may categorize them based on another location: for example, perhaps you could walk to the grocery store from your house, but you have to take the bus to get to campus. In the United States, we tend to give directions using egocentric language and coordinates: “From our classroom you go left to the quad, then take a right and you will see the library.” We could just as easily give these directions using fixed geographical coordinates: “Exit the classroom and head east. When you get to the quad turn north and you will see the library.” Both of these directions are correct, but they vary in how the speaker categorizes their physical space with language (Deutscher, 2010).

    One person showing another person directions on a map
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Shelli Getting Directions by Alan Levine on Flickr

    Verbal communication helps us think, and to engage in abstract thought. Without verbal communication, we would not function as thinking beings. The ability most often used to distinguish humans from other animals is our ability to reason and communicate. Animals can communicate about what is present. Many animals have sounds used to designate the presence of food or to warn of a threat. What they lack is the ability to discuss complex ideas. Humans can talk not only about a visible and present threat but also the potential for threat and how to prepare for it. It is this capacity of verbal communication that allows humans to reflect on the past, consider the present, and plan for the future.

    Verbal communication helps us shape our attitudes about our world. The way you use language shapes your attitude about the world around you. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf developed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to explain that language determines thought. People who speak different languages, or use language differently, think differently (Whorf; Sapir; Mandelbaum; Maxwell; Perlovsky; Lucy; Simpson; Hussein).

    In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish. The same goes for clock, apartment, fork, newspaper, pockets, shoulders, stamps, ticket, violin, the sun, the world, and love. Apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so is chair, broom, butterfly, keys, mountains, stars, table, war, rain, and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks, and violins to have more "manly properties" like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are masculine in German but feminine in Spanish, the effect was reversed (Deutscher, 2010).

    Those of us who speak English are entirely oblivious to this phenomenon because our language does not create these associations; nonetheless our language still shapes our attitudes and impacts how we perceive the world.

    Language Is Impactful

    One of our authors shares this example:

    At the end of the day, I ask my children what they want for "supper." If it is my husband asking, he will inquire about what they want for "dinner." If we are going to have eggs or pancakes or the like, we might comment that we are having "breakfast" for dinner.

    The language choices we make help us make sense of our world. As we explained earlier in the chapter, meaning is not in the words that we use, it is in the people. The author's children know that supper and dinner both refer to the last meal of the day, but in the case of "breakfast for dinner" they are more interested in the kind of food and not when we are eating it. In this section we focus on how verbal communication defines reality, shapes relationships, evolves, and conveys power.

    Language Defines and Labels our Reality

    Verbal communication helps us define reality. If you ever played organized sports as a child, you know how difficult it can be to process a hard loss. It is easy to be sad and frustrated that your team was not victorious, but a good coach will redirect those feelings by reminding the team of how hard they tried and the fun they had playing regardless of the outcome. We have choices in how we use verbal communication to define our realities. We make choices about what to focus on and how to define what we experience, and those choices shape our understanding of the world we live in.

    One area of language and identity that has taken on prominence is the use of pronouns. A pronoun is a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g., she, it, this). Pronouns are essential in our communication with one another. In English we have historically relied on gendered pronouns that reference someone’s perceived gender (he/him/his or she/her/hers). When we use gendered pronouns, we are identifying someone’s gender and those part of their identity.

    "Pronouns are basically how we identify ourselves apart from our name. It's how someone refers to you in conversation," says Mary Emily O'Hara, a communications officer at GLAAD. "And when you're speaking to people, it's a really simple way to affirm their identity." (Wamsley, 2021).

    Pronouns have historically related singularly to a person's gender. Over time, with the help of language, this has evolved to be more inclusive.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Pronoun Table (by Tiffany Ruggeri, licensed CC BY 4.0)
    Subject Object Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
    She Her Her Hers Herself
    She has a tree. Her tree is in the yard. Her tree is tall. The tree is hers. She planted the tree by herself.
    He Him His His Himself
    He has a tree. His tree is in the yard. His tree is tall. This tree is his. He planted the tree by himself.
    They Them Their Theirs Themselves
    They have a tree. I saw them water the tree. Their tree is tall. The tree is theirs. They planted the tree by themselves.
    Ze Hir Hir Hirs Hirself
    Ze has a tree. I saw hir water the tree. Hir tree is tall. The tree is hirs. Ze planted the tree by hirself.
    Ze Zir Zir Zirs Zirself
    Ze has a tree I saw zir water the tree. Zir tree is tall. The tree is zirs. Ze planted the tree by zirself.

    Using someone’s preferred pronouns demonstrates respect and acceptance. If you are unsure of what pronouns to use, simply ask. Start by sharing your own, for example, “I’m Kristine, my pronouns are she/her. What about you?” This may seem awkward at first, but the more we do this the more regular it will become. How someone presents their gender doesn’t indicate their gender identity, so asking about pronouns helps us get to know someone better and ensures that we are affirming and respectful in our interactions with others.

    Consider This: “What’s the Deal with Gender Pronouns?”

    “And just because my family loves me, does not mean they are not confused, okay?”

    —Che Diaz

    This quote comes from Che Diaz, a nonbinary character played by actor Sara Ramirez on the 2021 Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That… It captures the essence of the recently resurfaced debate about gender pronouns. Sociolinguist Archie Crowley, who identifies as nonbinary, dedicated their research to identifying harmful and incorrect beliefs about language that create barriers to building and strengthening relationships with people in the LGBTQIA+ community.

    In Crowley’s TED Talk (2020), they discussed three mistaken beliefs that have contributed to the difficulty in embracing new pronouns and new uses of familiar pronouns.

    Grammar Rules Don’t Change

    Today we use you as both singular and plural. However, back in the 1600s thou was used as the singular and you referred to more than one person. When some began using you to refer to a single person, many people had a problem with that because it wasn’t grammatically correct. Sound familiar? Nowadays, people are having a hard time wrapping their minds around using they to refer to a single person, which is the exact same problem people had with thou and you. Here we are today, comfortable using you as singular and plural—proving that grammar rules can and have changed.

    Dictionaries Provide Official and Unchanging Definitions

    Dictionaries are actually “living documents that track how some people are using language. Language doesn’t originate in dictionaries. Language originates with people and dictionaries are documents that chronicle that language use” (Crowley, 2020), Living documents are continually changing and updated. Therefore, dictionaries not only record a history of how a word has been used, but they also show the fluidity and adaptability of words by reflecting their most current usage and meaning.

    You Can’t Just Make Up Words

    Language is like music: there are endless combinations of notes (letters and sounds) that create all sorts of utterances. These utterances become words, and words are assigned meaning by their users. Consider these new words that have made their way into dictionaries: binge watch, mansplain, twerk, upcycle, and vlog. They didn’t exist when 1999 turned into 2000.

    Crowley has established that pronouns and new vocabulary represent a way for trans people to “understand their own identities” (Crowley, 2020). Language, like life, is ever-changing. Right now, it may still be confusing: we are all learning to adapt the tool of language to help us define who we are and appreciate everyone around us. The biggest takeaway from Crowley’s TED Talk? When in doubt simply ask, “What is your preferred pronoun?”

    Discussion Question/Journal Prompts
    1. What is the role of pronouns in recognizing/acknowledging someone’s gender identity?
    2. What is your appropriate pronoun(s)? How does this help define who you are? This short video on “Why Pronouns Matter for Trans People” might give you some further insight.

    Language Shapes and Reflects Relationships

    How we use language shapes and reflects our relationships. Our group affiliations are evident in the language choices we make. For example, if you were catching up with a friend at a coffee shop and complaining about an upcoming assignment that wasn’t clearly explained or not included in the syllabus, your verbal communication demonstrates that you are a student. In addition to highlighting the groups that we affiliate with, our language also shifts depending on who we are communicating with. We can see this in action through convergence/divergence, the use of idioms and slang, and a phenomenon known as code-switching.

    Communication accommodation theory (CAT), developed by Howard Giles, focuses on the ways in which individuals adjust their communication with others. When you tell the story of a college party to a friend andto a parent, do you tell it the same way? Do you leave out or highlight certain details? The kinds of decisions you make when telling a story reflect the ways in which you accommodate your communication to your specific audience.

    In general, there are two types of accommodation: convergence and divergence. When we converge our communication we make it more like the person or persons with whom we are speaking. We attempt to show our similarity with them through our speech patterns. When we diverge, we attempt to create distance between our audience and ourselves. Here, we want to stress our difference from others or our uniqueness.

    Sometimes our ability to decode others' language is dependent on our relationships. Take, for example, “cat got your tongue?” If you understand that this question is not literally asking about a feline holding the large muscular organ in your mouth, then you are likely part of the larger US culture in which this idiom is used. An idiom is a phrase or expression that typically presents a figurative, non-literal meaning attached to the phrase. In this case, if someone is asking you this question, they want to know why you are being unusually quiet or disengaged. The ability to engage in this kind of verbal communication is dependent upon your participation in the larger culture in which it is used. Similarly, slang is informal language used by members of a particular group. One of our authors shares this example:

    “Are you a Blackpink stan?” The only reason I can even ask a question like this is because my Gen Z students have shared their K-Pop obsessions with me in class. Otherwise this is not the kind of language I would use or understand.

    There are some additional examples of regional slang in Table \(\PageIndex{2}\).

    Table \(\PageIndex{2}\): Examples of Regional Slang

    Region and Saying

    What It Means

    What Other Regions Say

    West Coast: “Animal Style”

    The famous In-N-Out burger chain started out in California. Ordering something “Animal Style” meant ordering your fries or burger with cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and grilled onions.

    No such thing as “Animal Style,” but In-N-Out has been expanding east...

    New England: “Clicker”

    Remote control for TV or other entertainment units.

    “The remote” or remote

    South: “It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

    Whatever you’re talking about isn’t worth much.

    “Don’t waste your time.”

    Midwest: “Puppy Chow”

    Homemade sugary snack like Chex Mix with peanut butter and chocolate

    “Muddy buddies” or “Monkey Munch”

    Finally, we occupy many different identities and cultivate a number of different relationships in our lives, so our language choices are constantly changing depending on the context and who we are talking to. This process is referred to formally as code-switching. Code-switching involves changing from one way of speaking to another between or within interactions and includes changes in accent, dialect, and language (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Code-switching can also refer to the process of multicultural individuals using more than one language in conversation or other communicative acts. When you use different languages at the same time, your brain switches back and forth between transmitting and receiving messages. Code-switching among multicultural individuals creates a dual communication system in which people are able to maintain their identities with their in-group but can still acquire tools and gain access needed to function in a larger dominant society (Yancy, 2011).

    People who work or live in multilingual settings may code-switch many times throughout the day, or even within a single conversation. Some cultural linguists have argued that, as a result of social media, the majority of Americans engage in code-switching regularly. Words like text, tweet, liked, and googled, and communicating with symbols (e.g., emojis) are used every day, across technological platforms and by individuals of all ages. Also, within the United States, some people of color may engage in code-switching when communicating with dominant group members because they fear they may be negatively judged. Code-switching may minimize perceived differences; it may also signal a shift from formal interactions to more informal interactions. Individuals may code-switch to reinforce their ingroup identity (Heller, 1992).

    Language Conveys Power

    As you can see there is a strong relationship between language and identity, including in our relationships. One additional aspect that we want to talk about in this relationship is power.

    Language conveys power in a variety of ways, including who gets to speak, to whom they may communicate, how we address others. Withholding speech also conveys power. Children should only speak when spoken to. Did you ever hear this when you were younger? This view of language is all about power, in this case the power dynamic between adults and children. Denying children the ability to speak is about emphasizing their place in the larger societal hierarchy. This is also evident in our primary school classrooms where students are required to raise their hands if they wish to speak, then wait to be acknowledged. They are shushed and at times punished for speaking out of turn. In addition to who gets to speak, we can also see power dynamics in our relationships when we examine who gets to speak to whom. As we have just explored, adults may speak to children but children need permission to speak to adults. Can you think of other relationships that have explicit or implicit rules about to whom we may communicate? What about work: re you allowed to speak directly to the owner or CEO?

    Beyond whom we may speak to, we also see power in how we address others. When we go to see a physician, we generally refer to them as "doctor." Doing so is a sign of respect, and it also highlights the disparity in our relationships. In the classroom our students may call me "doctor" because we have a Ph.D. in our field, but when we go to our primary-care physician we don’t introduce ourselves as "doctor": in that setting, our professional credentials are not relevant the same way that our physician's are. The United States is considered a low-power-distance culture, so generally speaking we are not very formal in our use of titles. However, the military is a high-power-distance culture within the United States, and you can see that in the formality of rank and greetings. When in uniform, you salute when you meet and recognize an officer entitled to a salute by rank, except when it would be inappropriate or impractical. Generally, in any case not covered by specific situations, a salute is the respectful, appropriate way to acknowledge a superior officer.

    Finally, withholding speech is another way we use language to convey power. Sometimes we are silent because we don’t have anything to say, but to be clear while silence is the absence of speech, it is not the absence of communication. Deliberately withholding our verbal communication is a choice and one that can convey power. Not speaking is a point of privilege and doing so to deny others the connection that comes from communication is only possible when we have power and we choose to employ it. Giving someone the silent treatment is a way to deploy power even when we have very little.

    Consider This: The Last-Name Game—Defining Women’s Identities

    In many cultures, traditionally women take on their husband’s last name when they marry. This is a historically patriarchal act where upon marriage the woman becomes the man’s possession. Even as we are becoming more gender aware, and the idea of “owning” wives has been antiquated for over a century, most women still adhere to the tradition of taking on their husband’s last name.

    In 2015, The New York Times conducted and analyzed three Google Consumer Surveys and almost 8,000 opposite-sex wedding announcements from selected years between 1985 and 2014 (Miller & Willis, 2015). They found that about 70% of women who married adopted their husband’s family name. While the statistics for this romanticized tradition is still rather high, it is lower than it was a century ago.

    Woman staring moodily into the camera
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Thinking by Starlit Beaches from Flickr is licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    There are many reasons why a woman might want to shed her last name for a new one when she marries, from disliking how her maiden name sounds to wanting to distance herself from her family. Simon Duncan (2019) from the University of Bradford, UK, is a professor in family life who has done extensive research on name-taking after marriage. He and his team have identified two core reasons women continue the tradition of taking their husband’s last name. The first being the “persistence of patriarchal power.” The second perpetuates the idea that it’s good for the family.

    The “persistence of patriarchal power” can be found idealized all over the media in the form of romance novels, rom-com movies, social media postings of fancy proposals and men asking a woman’s father for her hand in marriage—just to name a few. Depictions of these traditions help to maintain the romanticized dreams that girls can be swept away by a knight in shining armor for their "happily ever after." The second core reason is more about maintaining the public optics of commitment to the family. Everyone having the same last name represents family unity. Duncan’s study also found that parents were concerned their children would be confused if parents had different last names. However, Davies (2011) found children to be much more adaptable and accepting than adults.

    Women who choose not to adopt their husband’s last name also have a variety of reasons. Back in 1855, Lucy Stone, a pioneer for the women’s rights movement, made headlines by deciding to keep her maiden name upon marriage to make a political statement. Since then, keeping one's last name upon marriage has become a symbol of the women’s rights movement. Other factors influencing women’s decisions to keep their maiden names include becoming better educated and gaining professional careers. As a result, women are marrying later in life and have established careers that identify them by their maiden names.

    All in all, even though the tradition of assuming the husband’s surname is antiquated, it is a relentless and persistent social norm that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. However, as is reflective of the times, people have become quite creative with their names. Some women hyphenate their maiden name with their married name, while choose to use their maiden name as their middle name. Yet others merge their last names with their husband's to create a whole new name. For example, the married actors Alexa Vega and Carlos Pena both go by the last name “PenaVega.” Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was Antonio Villa prior to marrying Corina Raigosa. Do men adopt their wives family names? Yes, but only 3%, according to Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer and Mackenzie Christensen (2018) in a study done at Portland State University. This result supports the strength of this archaic gender social norm.

    Discussion Questions/Journal Prompts
    1. Regardless of your gender, would you change your last name if/when you marry? Explain why/why not.
    2. It’s a “patriarchal tradition” to adopt the husband’s last name upon marriage. How do you think the issue of last names is negotiated amongst same-sex couples?
    3. What is the origin or back story to your last name?
    4. Is there a difference in the importance placed on last names in different cultures? For example, Chinese culture is collectivistic, therefore your surname/last name is placed first. In the individualistic US culture, you’re identified by your given name first.

    Language Evolves

    As you may have noticed through much of what we have already discussed, language is not static: rather, it evolves as it is used. Language that was once used regularly is now rarely used, while new words come into popularity all the time. One easy way to see this in action is to look at the difference in language use across age groups. Think about some language that your parents or grandparents still use that you would never hear from a peer. One of our authors gives this example: "My mom still refers to her purse as a pocketbook. Even purse is starting to lose footing in my experience, as most of the time I and those around me would just say bag.” Another change we see is the evolving definition of individual words. The word literally used to mean “in a literal manner or sense; exactly.” For example, “Until I get paid next week, I literally have no money.” Now the word is used more regularly in a figurative sense, to add emphasis. For example, “I’m literally starving.” This use has become so common that it was added as an accepted definition for the term, much to the chagrin of older generations. Language does change, and young people are the drivers of that change. Language evolution is random; it is not objectively better or worse, just different.

    A father with his young son on his lap, holding out his smartphone.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Father Taking a Selfie with His Son, by August de Richelieu on Pexels