Language in the time of COVID

UNI professor and linguist Juan Carlos Castillo has been in love with languages since his childhood growing up in Spain. The pandemic has ushered in a host of new or revived words and phrases from “flattening the curve” to “social distancing” to “coronabeard.” In this conversation, Castillo discusses how new words are born (think the power of Cardi B), the growth of gender-neutral language and how advancements in machine learning are changing how we all communicate. 

What new words have entered our lexicon since the pandemic began? 

Obviously, one word that is totally new is COVID-19. Some people apparently thought that this meant the 19th coronavirus, but of course it refers to the year it was discovered. That would be the newest word. And it’s spread all over the world. 

Today, English is the world’s lingua franca - a language that is not the native language of a group of people, but is the one that they use to communicate with each other. And therefore, a lot of these new developments start in English, and then spread to other languages. And in the case of Spanish, for instance, some of the expressions like COVID, which actually is an acronym in English, have been borrowed too.

Other phrases like “flattening the curve”, are not really scientific terms, but scientists use them to make data very easy to understand, and so they have become very popular. It is important for scientists to make science accessible for people. 

How do new words take root and spread?

Well, these days it's really easy to do that. One example is how children and teenagers have always created new words, maybe to distinguish themselves from their parents and to be cool. But, of course, the way that those words spread in the past worked much more slowly. New words might have started in one group, and then little by little would spread across a city, and then maybe a singer would use them in a song. And that's how they became mainstream. 

But these days, with the internet, with social media, all you need is to get one person who has 3 million followers on Twitter or Instagram to use this word and that's it. It’s out there and now you can’t stop it. So we're seeing that revolution. And I think that language is changing a lot faster these days, at least in the sense of creating new words.  

When I teach my linguistics class, I always ask my students to tell me a word that I probably don't know. Of course, every year, the students have a list of six or eight new words (or new meanings) that I have never heard of. They always surprise me with something that I didn't know. And then, when I come home and I tell my children about the new world that I learned, they crack up. 

How do words disappear or fall out of favor? 

Well, there's several reasons. So, one reason could be simply because the topic becomes not so popular, or maybe because other words take their place. That happens a lot with slang. But also we have seen another interesting development, which is political correctness, inclusive language and so on. 

This is becoming a huge issue in Spanish right now, because, finally, many Spanish-speaking countries are coming to the same realization about the need to use gender-neutral language. But of course in Spanish, it's a lot harder to do these things, because Spanish has grammatical gender - all the nouns and their modifiers are either masculine or feminine. And it's very hard to find gender-neutral words. 

So there's the same debate happening in almost all Spanish-speaking countries right now. We still don't know what the solution is going to be, because the grammar of the language creates a harder challenge than in English.

What parts of language can change? And does that change reflect changes in society? 

Well, how language changes is one of the biggest mysteries of linguistics because we still don't understand exactly how it happens. And sometimes we tend to think of writing and speaking as the same thing, but really, they're two different things. 

Obviously, written language is much easier to change than spoken language. So, for instance, we may write our text messages with lots of abbreviations, but we don't really speak that way. Yet, written language can be very powerful. In one very famous case some years ago, the Chinese government changed the writing system, among other reasons, for the purpose of alienating Taiwan. It was a way to isolate them. It’s an example of how you can use language as a political weapon. 

In spoken language, we can create new nouns, new verbs and new adjectives. But when you think about it, other types of words, like conjunctions or prepositions, are very hard to change. It would be like trying to change the way we walk. But the one thing you can easily change is vocabulary. And therefore, you know, you can decide whether a word creates attitudes in people. And again, we're seeing this continuously with issues like race, gender and identity. 

I do believe that words may create attitudes and I don't think that language is necessarily harmless all the time. Words have a history and you cannot ignore it. Changing the language is a good first step. Of course, it’s not going to solve everything. So I understand people who are skeptical about it, but it is a first step.

And actually, I have heard one new pronoun in English lately. It is “themself”, which is really a gender-neutral version to avoid using himself or herself. So maybe 20 years from now we should have this conversation again and see if it’s caught on or not. Maybe it will fall out of favor and people will forget about it. Or maybe there will be a new version that will be more successful. 

Are all generations worried that young people are losing language etc? How is technology changing how we communicate across languages and cultures? 

You know, when we were teenagers, our parents said the same things about us as we now say about teens today. And maybe that’s good, maybe that’s the way it should be. So we need to take it with a grain of salt when people are dismissive of the way that teenagers write these days, or worry they’ll forget how to use the language. No, it’s just a different kind of communication. 

And yes, technology is changing how we write and speak. When you’re writing an email now, many times it starts to suggest how you should end your sentence. And these applications are becoming extremely successful. There are a lot of linguists working on these issues. Having a computer correctly guess what you’re going to say before you even think about, is impressive, although this is a little scary too. 

And translation is another place where advances have really been incredible. I remember when I started teaching my translation class, maybe 10 years ago, those programs were horrible. They gave you awful results. But these days, you put a sentence in with three subordinate clauses and it comes back translated with all the tenses right, all the gender agreements... It's really, really amazing. It’s another way that linguistics is changing the world.