Discourse is the New English

“What is the purpose of language then, if not to communicate in a way that another person will understand?”

I must admit– I didn’t have an immediate answer to that one. I had playfully critiqued my friend’s practice of using nouns as verbs in a way that I saw as an affront to the English language, and he replied, half-jokingly to hide his embarrassment, with that surprisingly thoughtful question. The habit I refer to is strange, but I am sure you have heard it before. Turning nouns into verbs means that instead of saying “I’m going to do art,” one might say, incorrectly, “I’m going to art,” or even worse, “I feel like arting.”

I stuck my nose up at such contortions. He said that my legalistic perspective lacked understanding of the fluidity of language. “Just as words have gone obsolete and new words are added to the dictionary every year, just as words take on new meanings and new cultural contexts,” he continued, “so do grammar, syntax, and colloquialism constantly morph the English language.” His point was that the new-style colloquialism that bizarrely converted nouns into verbs was part of the natural progression of language, and the natural progression was something to be embraced. I understood what my friend meant when he used a noun as a verb, so who was I to say that the rules of English were sacred and unalterable?

That conversation was two years ago.

Here at SMU, one part of the University Curriculum is called “Discernment and Discourse.” When I first encountered this class, I thought it would be a lot like AP Literature and AP Language. I expected canonic British literature and Greco-Roman epic poems and 20th century American rhetorical prose and, in general, the stuff that most students dislike. I think I expected English as I knew it. I ended up being very wrong. I may not have realized it before coming to college, but discourse is not necessarily the same thing as English. Discourse involves English and English involves discourse, but they are distinct in important ways. Depending on one’s career, the two disciplines will highlight themselves differently. English is an academic subject: retrospective and rule-based; English calls for handbooks on writing and handbooks for citations. Discourse is communication, which finds purpose not in what the speaker or writer says but in what the listener or reader hears. English means publishing papers in distinguished journals; discourse means writing an effective email to your colleague.

But there’s another part of discourse that describes the everyday interaction we engage in: the lively group chat, the conversations we have over a meal, the way we express ourselves online. This day-to-day discourse is just as important as the academic writing we do for papers or lab reports because while our academic lives are governed by academic rules, our social lives are governed by social rules, and the social etiquette of language is constantly evolving. Both written and spoken English have adapted over the past millennium, morphing and borrowing words from other languages and manufacturing words to keep up with changes in technology and innovation. “Texas” finds its roots in the Caddo word tejas, “algebra” was adapted from the Arabic word al-jabr, “tweet” found a new definition with the rise of the social media platform Twitter, and “swag” was a term invented by thirteen-year-old American teenage boys. I make fun of it, but it certainly has its place in the English language, especially after its addition to the Oxford English Dictionary along with “Youtuber” and “yolo,” and with Merriam-Webster adding “binge-watch,” “NSFW,” “photobomb,” and “throw shade.” They may not have been official English words before their introduction into the dictionary, but they were certainly part of our discourse. Discourse is about communication, and these words communicated something between a speaker and listener before they were ever considered officially English. In this way, discourse is the precursor of the future, since this “something” was an idea that couldn’t be verbalized adequately given the available language. The fact that the words became widely used showed that a significant number of people felt the same important gap in lexicon, paving the way for a new term to bridge the discrepancy between language and thought.

So I go back to my friend’s original question: Why was I so critical about the new fad, “verbing,” if it was a communicable way of speaking that exemplified the ever-changing character of language? At the time I held on to the belief that English was a static system, governed by correctness, and evaluated from an objective standpoint. That was incorrect of me. If parlance evolves with the people, then it achieves its purpose. It has even been argued that limited word choice limits thoughts, so the natural addition of new words allows for new thoughts and an expanded marketplace of ideas. Neither English nor discourse are better than the other, but using English as a meter for worthiness of language ignores the value of realistic discourse. Sometimes the formalistic black box threatens to inhibit language adapting to culture, time period, and tongue. The concept I didn’t understand two years ago was that language that was created for people, not people for language.

This article was written by Amanda Oh. Click here to see more of Amanda’s work.