Twentieth century English – an overview

By John Ayto

At the dawn of the 20th century, English was still recognizably a single homogeneous language, albeit one with a major distinctive variety, in North America, whose speakers now outnumbered those of its British parent. By the time the century came to an end, it had proliferated and diversified to such an extent that it was no longer realistic to talk of ‘the English language’. There are now many Englishes.

Circles of English

It has become conventional to represent this diversity in the form of three concentric circles (an idea introduced by the linguist Braj Kachru in 1985). The English of the ‘inner circle’ is essentially that of native speakers, used by members of the dominant culture: the English, that is, of countries such as the United Kingdom, the USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. At the end of the twentieth century there were about 400 million native speakers of English in the world, or just over 5.5 per cent of the world’s population. The second or ‘outer’ circle consists of areas where English is widely learned and used as a second language. This typically includes countries, such as India and Nigeria, that were once under British rule, and in which English often acts as a communicative bridge between communities that speak different indigenous languages. Beyond this there is the so-called ‘expanding circle’, encompassing all those who learn and use English, with varying degrees of expertise, as a foreign language.

This expanding circle has been the great growth area of English since the middle of the twentieth century. It has become the world’s lingua franca for business and technology, an essential tool for trading negotiations, academic interchange and electronic communication between those who do not have a native language in common. So crucial has this role become that several attempts have been made to develop an artificially simplified form of English that would be easier and quicker for foreign learners to master; the most high-profile of these is probably ‘Globish’, created in 2004 by Jean-Paul Nerriere, which uses a subset of English grammar and has a vocabulary of 1500 English words (not a million miles, in concept and form, from the ‘Basic English’ devised in the 1920s by the linguist C.K. Ogden with the aim of facilitating international communication). And it should be mentioned in passing that the servicing of this sector of English, with teaching materials, formal examination systems and so on, has proved a lucrative source of income for British educational institutions and publishers since the middle of the twentieth century. It is hard to give a precise figure for the number of people who occupy the third and last circle of English, but it has been estimated that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, English speakers and users of all three categories account for between 20 and 25 per cent of the world’s population.

It should not be imagined, though, that all across the globe other languages are in retreat in the face of a rising tide of English. In some parts of the English-speaking world the reverse is the case. In the USA, for example, 11.4 per cent of citizens now have Spanish as their first language, and the proportion is growing. Melbourne, Australia, now has the third-largest Greek-speaking population of any city in the world, after Athens and Thessaloniki.

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Convergence: the birth of cool

Twentieth-century globalization, then, has been a vehicle for the diversification of English. But it has also had the opposite effect, promoting convergence between varieties of English. Cultural diffusion, particularly via mass marketing and mass media, has facilitated the spread of linguistic features outwards from a high-prestige variety, with which others wish to align themselves. In practice, this has generally meant the English of the USA, and the spread of American usages into British and other Englishes – train station for railway station, for example, can for tin, the pronunciation of the sch- of schedule as /sk/ rather than /sh/, the use of be like to introduce direct speech (I was like, ‘Oh my God!’) and of cool as an all-purpose term of approval – has been a phenomenon widely recognized (and often adversely commented on – though the fuss eventually dies down, as what were originally Americanisms, such as deputize, hindsight and tornado, go quietly native).

Convergence of this type can happen not just between national varieties, but also within an individual variety. In Britain, for example, factors such as mass literacy and a largely centralized broadcasting service led over the twentieth century to a certain levelling out of regional linguistic differences. A high-profile recent manifestation of this has been so-called ‘Estuary English’ (a term coined in the 1980s by the linguist David Rosewarne). Elements of East London working-class speech, perhaps most notably the glottal stop, are found to be infiltrating the utterance of middle and upper-middle class speakers, and have been identified as far from their point of origin as northern England and even Scotland. Fears of an enervating homogeneity in British English are surely misplaced, though. The grip which Standard English, and its vocal manifestation Received Pronunciation, exercised on the language in the early and middle part of the twentieth century has relaxed somewhat, and greater variety in accent, grammar, etc. is now tolerated. And London and other urban centres are constantly having their linguistic resources revitalized by immigrants speaking other varieties of English and other languages entirely.

This less rigid adherence to Standard English can be viewed as a manifestation of a process that has been called ‘colloquialization’. Until roughly the 1960s, written English was accepted as setting the standard of what the language should be, and spoken English was viewed as an irrelevant but occasionally annoying or embarrassing offshoot that needed to be kept in its place. At the start of the twenty-first century that is no longer so, and colloquial usages, both lexical and syntactic (for instance the use of contractions such as didn’t and I’ll, and of expletives formerly restrained by taboos), are widely accepted in situations (including quite formal writing) where they would once have been considered inappropriate.

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Restrictions on language

To that extent, English at the end of the twentieth century certainly seemed to operate in a more relaxed and tolerant environment than at its beginning. But this liberality has to some degree been counterbalanced by new restrictions, especially those proposed by advocates of what has been termed (mainly by its detractors) ‘political correctness’. This trend, which began in the 1960s and gathered pace in the 1970s, embodies a desire to expunge words which reflect a discriminatory attitude towards a particular (typically minority) section of society, and replace them with more neutral or non-judgmental terms. The areas in which it has had the most far-reaching effect on English vocabulary are race, gender and sexual orientation: nigger and faggot ‘male homosexual’, for example, now lie under ferocious taboos, and they has gone far towards replacing he as a non-sex-specific pronoun for singular referents.

This phenomenon can also be viewed as part of a wider ‘health-and-safety’ attitude to the English lexicon. The twentieth century could justifiably be characterized as the century of the euphemism. The verbally cautious or disingenuous refer to a problem as an issue, a military weapon as an asset, truculence as attitude, and a mortgage with little chance of being repaid as subprime. Such vocabulary is first cousin to obfuscatory polysyllabic officialese, which also thrived in the twentieth century, especially in military and governmental circles. In this world, a meltdown at a power station becomes a critical power excursion, an attack by paratroops before sunrise a predawn vertical insertion.

Compared with earlier eras, English was fairly stable grammatically, orthographically, and phonologically during the twentieth century. Inevitably there were shifts in the fine detail of the language: the spread of may have into territory formerly occupied by might have, for example; a tendency for American –or to replace British –our in the Australian English spelling of words such as colour and labour; the start of the apparent long-term decline of the hyphen in compound words; the use of a rising, ‘question’ intonation at the end of ordinary declarative sentences. Here, however, there was nothing seismic. To that extent, a time-travelling Anglophone of the late-nineteenth century would find him- or herself in reasonably familiar territory at the start of the twenty-first. The vocabulary, though, might well faze them. The English lexicon has expanded hugely over the past hundred years.

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Lexis: dreadnought and PEP talk

The Oxford English Dictionary records about 185,000 new words, and new meanings of old words, that came into the English language between 1900 and 1999. That leaves out of account the so-called lexical ‘dark matter’, words not common enough to catch the lexicographers’ attention or, if they did, to compel inclusion, words perhaps that were never even committed to paper (or any other recording medium). Even so, those 185,000 on their own represent a 25 per cent growth in English vocabulary over the century—making it the period of most vigorous expansion since that of the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Given the diversification of the English language in the twentieth century, and the sheer increase in the number of people using it, it would be surprising if it had not grown lexically. On top of that, the century’s scientific discoveries and technological developments kept up a constant demand for new vocabulary. In its first decade, for instance, English had to provide the basis of a wholly new terminology for both aviation and the motor car. It responded with the likes of aerodrome, airliner, fuselage, hangar, pilot, plane and accelerator, dashboard, garage, limousine, motorway, speedometer, which are very much still with us today. A significant proportion of this vocabulary was adopted from French, France being a leading innovator in the relevant technologies, but in general English did not rely so much on foreign borrowing to increase its resources as it had in previous centuries.

By far the commonest way of creating new words is to put old ones into new combinations, and close on three quarters of twentieth-century English neologisms originated in this way (double-glazing, dreadnought, dustbowl, Dutch elm disease). One particular sort of compound has been highly characteristic of the post-1900 period: the blend. To create a blend, you concertina two words together, so that the end of the first merges into the start of the second: for example, motor + hotel  becomes motel. They often have the air of journalistic jokes, but several blends (such as chunnel, pulsar and stagflation) have established themselves in the language. The 1980s and 1990s in particular saw a rash of blends for cross-genre media concepts like docusoap and infotainment. But perhaps the century’s most notable new contribution to English word formation was the acronym, which is a string of initial letters pronounced as a single word – for example AIDs (from acquired immune-deficiency syndrome), PEP (from personal equity plan), PIN (from personal identification number). They were virtually nonexistent at its start, but by the 1990s they seemed to have permeated almost every aspect of modern life.

Other high-profile types of word formation in modern English are conversion, in which the grammatical function of an existing word is changed (for example, ‘to garage a car,’ where a noun becomes a verb, or Red ‘a Communist,’ where an adjective becomes a noun), and back-formation, in which a new word is created by deleting a suffix from an existing word (producing, for example, destruct from destruction and escalate from escalator). The latter proliferated especially in US military and scientific jargon.

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Modern English usages

Conversion and back-formation seemed to arouse the particular ire of  those who feared for the decline of the English language, and indeed the twentieth century as a whole was marked by controversy over English usage. Impassioned critics of language change saw impending doom in every departure from Standard English (or at least in any that came to their attention), and groups of like-minded individuals were set up to try and stem the tide, from the Society for Pure English in 1913 to the Queen’s English Society in 1972. Meanwhile, the publication of Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926 provided a benchmark view on contentious topics such as the use of like as a conjunction and the ‘correct’ deployment of who and whom that remained influential for the rest of the century. Linguisticians, who for the most part are descriptivists (that is, they observe language and its evolutionary twists and turns dispassionately), tend to be dismissive of prescriptivists, who seek to lay down standards of ‘correctness’, but there is no doubt that, given a sufficient head of steam, campaigns on particular topics can exercise an influence over the English language – as witness the fate of the so-called ‘split infinitive’, an entirely factitious solecism which has been so consistently and energetically condemned by self-appointed guardians of English grammar that generations of speakers and especially writers have been terrorized into avoiding it.

The most recent scare has arisen from the usage of English in electronic communications, such as emails and especially text messages, blogs and postings on social networks. This is certainly an area of the written language unconstrained by the usual norms of orthography, punctuation and grammar, and those particularly who do not communicate in these ways may fear that linguistic anarchy will ensue. But there is little to it that is truly novel (abbreviated forms such as c u l8er for see you later, for instance, have a venerable history, and have not inflicted any long-term damage on the language in the past), and anyway, at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century there are signs that the popularity of textspeak is subsiding. English, in arguably its sixteenth century of existence, continues to thrive and grow.

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Further reading on twentieth-century English

  • John Ayto, Twentieth Century Words (1999)
  • Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw, The English Language: A Historical Introduction (2nd edn., 2009)
  • Laurie Bauer, Watching English Change: an Introduction to the Study of Linguistic Change in Standard Englishes in the Twentieth Century (1994)
  • Christian Mair, Twentieth-century English: History, Variation and Standardization (2006)
  • Suzanne Romaine (ed.), The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. IV 1776-1997 (1998)

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Where next with the OED Online?

  1. there’s a growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day. As well as this introduction to the twentieth century, you can also read similar overviews of Old Englishearly modern English and the nineteenth century.
  2. other free essays with a twentieth-century theme include Bruce Moore on modern Australian English, Eleanor Maier on Watergate, and Robert McCrum on P.G. Wodehouse.
  3. With the OED Online you can also search for words originating in a particular decade, on a particular subject, or from a designated place: for example, the 25 words, relating to technology, originating in the US in the 1960s, from sitcom to zapper.

How do I search for these? With subscriber access to the OED Online use the Advanced Search option to group entries by time, category and place of origin use Advanced Search/date of entry, subject and/or region. All results can be displayed as timelines (simply click on the link at the top of the results list), or you can browse the OED via the Timelines option.

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