Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Language as a Reflection of Cultural Shifts, Part 1

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

A culture doesn’t remain stagnant. No matter how much a people may try to keep it from changing, their culture will inevitably change as time goes by. Even the ancient Egyptians, who passionately believed in the concept of ma’at, that the universe should remain stagnant and that their ways of doing things should never change, couldn’t stop that natural evolution from happening. Witness changes in their architecture, in their religion, and yes, in their language over the three millennia that their civilization lasted.

Being that cultural shifts are inevitable, we can see how English is reflecting some of these shifts. We don’t even need to be objective witnesses at a distance to recognize when these cultural shifts affect the language; we can be right in the midst of all the action. In fact, in just my lifetime I’ve noticed some rather interesting changes which seem to have become acceptable now, even though some of them weren’t acceptable when I was much younger. I’m not here to judge what’s going on, just to report on it, but this is the kind of thing that you as ELT professionals may choose to mention in order to teach language in the most accurate way possible.

The first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the deliberate effort since the start of women’s liberation in the 1960s to substitute nouns that clearly identify men or women with genderless nouns. We already had some like that, e.g., teacher and doctor, but the culture began to change lots of other nouns, especially for jobs that would now be done by women as well as men: fireman to firefighter; stewardess to flight attendant; mailman to mail or letter carrier, and cameraman to camera operator to name just four. There were other changes as well, such as mankind to humankind. And then there’s been the ongoing practice of dropping the female form of certain nouns and just using the male form for both genders: murderer and no more murderess; heir and no more heiress; actor and no more actress. Then there’s that really sexist term, an old wives’ tale. I think that’s been turned into an urban legend. But what do we do with noun phrases like manhole, man hours, and manpower? Hmm … Well, as I said, this is still an ongoing process.

Next, I’ve noticed a change in matters of linguistic “politeness.” I clearly remember my parents and teachers correcting me when I was a kid if I said something like Me and my brother as the compound subject of a sentence (Me and my brother shot some hoops Saturday afternoon.) I would immediately be told to say My brother and I … I was taught that it was polite to show deference to the other person, and that by mentioning that other person first, I would be speaking politely. Yet I hear more and more people say things such as Me and my brother as the compound subject of the sentence, and very few people seem to wince.

Similarly, just the other day I heard a lawyer interviewed on TV who said, “So her and I went over to the appellate court and …” Wow! He botched one personal pronoun, but at least he did show deference to her instead of to himself! More and more people seem to be mixing up the declensions of personal pronouns, using the object form in lieu of the subject form, and then, in the very next sentence, getting the forms right. Amazing! “So her and I went over to the appellate court and she told a clerk that …” There you go! And it’s fascinating that people who tend to speak like this will say things like Me and him were just hanging out, but will never say Me was just hanging out. It obviously has something to do with that construction of compound subject X and Y + verb phrase, but never just subject X + verb phrase. Who knows . . . This may become a new rule of grammar at some point in the future.

Getting back to politeness, there’s also a shift with formality in language. I’ve noticed something going on over the past few years concerning how people making business phone calls address the customers they’re talking to: The phone will ring, I’ll answer it, and the voice on the other end will say something like, “Hello. This is Acme Pest Control calling. Is this Richard?” Or sometimes I’ll get, “Is this Mr. Richard?” “No,” I’ll say, “this is Mr. Firsten.” I know what this stems from. There’s a cultural shift going on to do away with formality and go more with a friendly, chummy approach when dealing with people, even in some business situations. It’s supposed to make customers feel more at ease, more like they’re talking to a buddy. This is actually mentioned in many training sessions for employees who deal with customer service! Back when I was young, nobody from a company would have dared address my parents by their first names during a business phone call, yet that seems to be more the norm these days.

So there you have it. Some cultural shifts reflected in English grammar and usage. For the most part, I’ve tried my best not to judge. As far as teaching English goes, I think we need to keep our ears and eyes open to take note of any changes in how the majority of English speakers say or write things, and to decide whether or not these changes should be incorporated in our lessons or at least mentioned. You’ll have to be the judge of that.


Comment from Waseem
November 15, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Love it

Comment from Keith Folse
November 16, 2011 at 12:38 am

What an excellent post, Richard! I’m going to share this with my students and colleagues for sure. 🙂

Pingback from Language as a Reflection of Cultural Shifts, Part 1 | English Teaching Daily
November 16, 2011 at 2:39 am

[…] Language as a Reflection of Cultural Shifts, Part 1 […]

Comment from Ismael Tohari
November 16, 2011 at 8:17 pm


“But what do we do with noun phrases like manhole, man hours, and manpower? Hmm … Well, as I said, this is still an ongoing process.”

I have got two questions:

1. I was wondering why “manhole” is in your list though its definition in Oxford Dictionary says:

a hole in the street that is covered with a lid, used when somebody needs to go down to examine the pipes or sewers below the street.

Thus it is a hole not a job like the ones mentioned. So, I don’t see where the objection lies.

2. Is there any thing in the horizon that may tell what “manhole, man hours, and manpower” be replaced by?

Thanks a lot for your interesting articles.

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm

It’s called a manhole because only men did the work that required them to use it in order to get down into sewer systems. Now that women can also do such jobs, the term may be considered dated by some.

It’s very difficult to predict which terms will change at all in time or how they may change. Perhaps we can start a campaign to change those terms to “sewer hole,” “worker hours,” and “workerpower”! 🙂

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 16, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Oh, Keith! Thank you so much for the kudos. I’m really glad you like the piece and will pass it on. Part 2 will be coming forth next month.

Comment from Dr.Naquib
November 20, 2011 at 1:47 am

Manhole has nothing to do man just as mangrove. So no worrying about these words. Keep them as they are.

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 20, 2011 at 8:41 am

I’m afraid that isn’t a fair analogy, Dr. Naquib. Even though at face value the word “mangrove” looks like it contains the word “man,” it really doesn’t. The name of that tree that can live in salt water comes from two words. It’s from the Spanish word “mangle” or possibly the Portuguese word “mangue,” which in turn most likely comes from a Taino word (Caribbean Indians) combined with the English word “grove.” So that first part of “mangrove” has nothing to do with the word “man,” whereas the word “manhole” has everything to do with the word “man.”

Of course we’re just having fun, wondering what words like “manhole” and “man hours” may evolve into if political correctness continues to influence such terms.

Comment from Monica Barrios
December 13, 2011 at 12:42 am

Love this!!! Has part two been published yet?

Pingback from Teacher Talk » Language as a Reflection of Cultural Shifts, Part 2
November 1, 2013 at 11:52 am

[…] my previous piece for “Teacher Talk,” I focused on English grammar and usage in the spoken language as reflections of cultural shifts.  […]

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