Why you most definitely can make up words in English

“Children can’t use word x because it doesn’t exist, and you can’t just make words up.” So said a teacher once on a forum I was following at the time.

My reply was, “Why can’t you?”

Shakespeare is one of the most respected writers of all time, and he invented a whole pile of words! He probably didn’t invent all the 1700 he is often credited with, but there is little doubt that he made up more than a few, including giving new meanings to old words. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

People have been making words up for millennia. Some of the words made up never catch on and are forgotten about; others are used and repeated – and if enough people use and repeat them they enter the hallowed pages of the OED and become an accepted part of the language. I have to wonder whether anyone who claims you can’t make words up has ever taken a selfie (first recorded usage 2002).

Think about it – if you can’t make words up, how did we end up speaking English anyway? Without words ever having been invented we’d still be walking round grunting at each other. We probably wouldn’t have such comfortable lives either, because without the means to record their findings, scientists wouldn’t have been able to keep a record of their successes and failures, and they wouldn’t have been able to pass the baton on to future generations to refine and improve. And what about those inventions? Without making up words, telescopes, televisions, lightbulbs, electricity, football, matches, chocolate and wellington boots would all be referred to as “things”. That would make life confusing!

One of the things I love about the English language is it’s richness: we don’t just have ‘big’, we have ‘huge’, ‘enormous’, ‘gigantic’ and ‘gargantuan’. Another thing I love is the fact that you can play with it: if I told you that my road was really carparky in the mornings, you’d know exactly what I meant, even though the word doesn’t (yet) appear in the OED.

In my opinion, instead of telling children, “You can’t just make words up,” we should educate them about when it’s appropriate to make up words (informal speech, creative writing) and when it’s not so appropriate, and then we should leave them to be creative. After all, who knows? One of them might grow up to leave the English language an even greater legacy than Shakespeare did.

English podcasts

As I said in my last post, I’m a recent convert to podcasts. I really like the fact that I can slip my phone in my pocket, plug my headphones in, and learn something new while I’m washing up or cleaning the windows! It makes the munane tasks seem a bit more bearable!

I’m not a GCSE teacher so I can’t vouch for the quality of the podcasts mentioned in this post, but you may find them useful.

GCSE Revisionpod – I really like this one. The banter between the two presenters keeps it light-hearted.

Revise GCSE English Literature

Approaching Shakespeare – this one isn’t GCSE specific, but there are some really interesting insights into Shakespeare’s plays.

Mr Bruff podcast – I know lots of people really like Mr Bruff’s website as I see it recommended quite a lot. I didn’t find this podcast as engaging as GCSE Revisionpod (above) but everyone has different tastes.

The Golden Apple

King Peleus and the goddess Thetis were getting married, and everybody was invited. Everybody that is except Eris, the goddess of discord. In true storybook-villain fashion, she had a hissy fit and got her revenge by throwing a golden apple amongst the guests announcing that it was a gift for the most beautiful amongst them.

Of course all the goddesses started squabbling about who should have it, and the wedding celebrations were quickly forgotten. The “competition” was soon whittled down to three finalists: Hera (wife of Zeus and queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom), and Aphrodite (goddess of love).

Unable to decide amongst themselves they agreed to ask Paris, a Trojan prince, to be the judge. Desperate to win, each of the three goddesses offer gifts to Paris to tempt him to choose her. Hera said she would make him the king of the whole of Europe; Athena offered to make in the most skilful warrior the world had ever seen; and Aphrodite promised him the hand of her sister Helen – the most beautiful woman in the world – in marriage.

Not stopping to consider that by naming one goddess the winner he would be making enemies for life of the other two, Paris immediately proclaimed Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess, and he claimed Helen as his own prize.

Unfortunately Helen was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta, who vowed to get his wife back, and thus the Trojan War was begun.

Echo and Narcissus

Echo was a chatterbox. She was a beautiful nymph, lively, and generally good-spirited, but she could talk and talk.

Zeus, always one with an eye for the ladies, enjoyed spending time with the nymphs. Hera, his wife, didn’t enjoy him spending so much time with them. She felt he should be spending more time with her and doing little jobs around Olympus.

“You’ve got to help me!” he groaned to Echo one day. “Hera is driving me mad – on at me to fix a leaky tap and redecorate the kitchen. I’m a god – and the king of the gods at that. I shouldn’t be expected to do the decorating!”

From then on, whenever Hera passed by, Echo kept her talking, giving Zeus chance to slip away. “Hera! I love what you’ve done with your hair… What divine earrings! Where did you get them from?… You simply must give me the recipe for your nectar cookies – the other nymphs and I were all talking about how delicious they were were…”

Hera, enjoying the attention and flattery, would stop to chat twirling her hair and whispering about her secret ingredients. Eventually, however, she realised what Echo was up to, and cursed her. She took away a Echo’s gift of endless chatter, and condemned her to a life where she would only ever be able to repeat the last word she had heard.

No longer so much fun to be around, the other nymphs didn’t spend so much time with her and she took to wandering alone through the woods.
One day she saw a handsome young man sitting by a pool, and she fell instantly in love with him…

Narcissus knew he was a handsome young man because everybody told him so. People stopped and stared as he walked past, and all the girls secretly hoped that he would notice them. He never did. No mere girl was good enough for him – not such a handsome man as he was. Only a goddess could ever make him a suitable wife.

One warm summer’s day, he sat at the side of the pool to rest and to enjoy the feeling of the sun on his face. As he glanced around, he saw the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Surely this must be the goddess he was destined to be with.

Echo stepped out of the woods and walked slowly towards Narcissus. Once upon a time she could have captivated him with her wonderful stories; now she could only hope he would be equally captivated by her face. She gazed at him longingly.

Narcissus felt her presence behind him and turned. “Who are you?” he demanded, irritated at being dragged away from the beautiful face in the pool behind him.

“You,” replied Echo, smiling hopefully.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” he snarled.

“Ridiculous!” repeated Echo, smiling rather less hopefully. This wasn’t going well .

“Oh go away and leave me alone!”

“Alone!” cried the heartbroken Echo, heading back to the cover of trees to hide her tears.

Peace at last. Narcissus turned back to the face he had fallen in love with. “Will you be with me forever?” he asked.

Although he saw the lips moving he heard no reply from the beautiful face.  “Can’t you speak?” he asked, and he reached out to touch it. The water rippled and stirred, and the face disappeared. “Oh don’t go!” begged Narcissus. “I promise not to try to touch you again.”

As the water settled, the face returned, and Narcissus settled down to gaze at it. Unwilling to leave without his true love, Narcissus stayed by the pool, never eating, never sleeping, until he took his last breath and expired.

Soon there was nothing left of him, but on the land where he had lain, beautiful white and yellow flowers sprung up, and these flowers still bear the name of Narcissus as a reminder of that vain young man who fell in love with himself.

As for Echo? She has never been seen since that day, but she can still be heard, repeating the last words of passers-by. You may have heard her yourself… yourself… yourself…

Linguistic Predictions

Last year my husband and I downloaded several linguistics courses from the Great Courses. I know I know – this is my idea of a good time. I’m so rock and roll! Anyway, a lot of the lectures were about how language changes and evolves, and one of them was about predictions of how English will continue to change. I’ve decided to write and publish my own predictions as I think it will be interesting to look back on this in 30 or 40 years’ time to see how accurate I was.

First of all, I believe that ‘would of’, ‘could of’ and ‘should of’ will become an accepted alternative to ‘could have’, ‘would have’ and ‘should have’. It may even become the standard. This is one Professor John McWhorter, who wrote the course we listened to, disagrees with me about. I’m not as convinced as him, and this is why:

It’s a common mistake. I already see it in writing as often as I see the correct version – amongst the younger generations more than amongst the older ones. I’ve seen teachers using it, which means it is probably going uncorrected in some classes, which means it is likely to continue taking hold amongst the younger generations. Some of those who grow up believing it is correct will go on to become teachers and the error will continue to be passed on to future generations.

Self-publishing is becoming more widespread. There are lots of aspiring writers out there, and the publishing companies don’t take them all on. But it’s easier than ever to self-publish and still get your books out there. Some self-published writers still put their work through a rigorous proofing and editing process, but some don’t. Some books I’ve picked up have contained a shocking number of errors – ‘could of’, ‘would of’, ‘should of’ amongst them – and I’ve deleted them from my Kindle reader in disgust. I’m sure there will be a growing number of people over time who see these mistakes and think, “It’s published so it must be correct.”

Another change I’ve noticed sneaking into our language is a confusion between the past tense and the past participle. Instead of saying ‘I wrote’ / ‘I have written’   or   ‘I ran’ / ‘I have run’   and ‘I rang’ / ‘I have rung’,   people are saying, ‘I have wrote’ (I’ve wrote a letter to parents about the school trip), ‘I have rang’ (I’ve rang his parents several times about his behaviour), and ‘I have ran’ (I’ve ran after school clubs for the last 3 years). Again I’ve noticed lots of teachers using these so they are clearly being passed onto the next generation via the classroom.  ‘I have wrote’ occurs quite frequently in Jane Austen so it looks as though this particular grammatical construction has changed direction and is now heading back to how it used to be. I’m not sure what the linguistic explanation for this phenomenon is, but if anybody knows I’d be really interested in hearing it.

What else do I think will change? Punctuation, and the apostrophe in particular. There seems to be an increasing number of people who not only fail to place them where they should be, but also litter texts with unneeded ones and even confuse them with commas. A perfect example of all three of these errors is the sandwich shop near me called “Sarahs Buttie,s”. I think eventually there will be a law passed to abolish apostrophes completely.

I don’t think our government will follow our German and French cousins with spelling reforms, as quirky spelling is far too ingrained in our culture, but I do predict one spelling change. As names come in and out of fashion, I think the name of the good professor I mentioned at the beginning of this piece will fall out of use and John will be replaced by Jhon. This seems to be the most common name chosen by children to use in stories and I’ve never yet come across one who has placed the ‘h’ in the correct place!