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Coronaspeak - A Virus Creating Language Change?

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has been impacting us all in many different ways. Some are obvious, like having to stay 6 feet apart from each other and wearing masks to go to grocery shopping. There are others that are just as impactful, but you may not notice them if you aren't paying close attention. One of these features is our own language. 

Think about it for a minute: we are in the middle of a technological culture, and now it has become even more so. We thought introducing texting and FaceBook into our lives added new terms to our dictionaries, but what about these new Zoom calls, Google Hangout meetings, TeleHealth therapy sessions? What about the COVID-19 memes about these new-fangled applications that have become a part of our daily lives overnight? 

Humans are in a constant state of language change. Now that we are social distancing, our lives have temporarily moved over to the Internet, and that is going to impact our dictionaries and mental grammars even more. 

Here is what Dr. Kirk Hazen has to say on language change during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Slang is language where the social meaning is foregrounded over the reference meaning. Anybody who uses 'rona instead of COVID-19 isn't doing so because they are lacking the word; they are choosing to do so because it makes them seem {whatever social attribute is associated with people using 'rona}. Same goes for slang like whip for car. People used to use whip to be seen as part of a group (young, cool, whatever). With this social foregrounding, the creation of slang is highly valued, so newness really matters. Most slang terms have a short half-life, and any slang term's slanginess depends on its newness and how widely it is used. By the time a 50-year-old academic (like me) might use it, it is pretty dead.


1. How does a socio-cultural crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic change language and why does it?
The paths of language change are not predictable, but how it happens is something we have a handle on. One of the things the field of sociolinguistics studies is language variation and change (technically, I am a quantitative sociolinguistic variationist). Words have two main parts: their form and their meaning. One of the basic qualities of human language is arbitrariness. This quality means that any connection between a form and a meaning is just a convention of the society; there is no inherent reason why the sounds of tree [tri] is connected to the meaning of "trunk, branches, leaves, wood, alive". In other languages, that meaning is associated with other forms like Baum and l'arbre. Because of this quality, for any word (form+meaning combo), the form or the meaning can be changed and a new word created.

Most of the change we are seeing at this point is in the realm of words. Shipping a new word from Australia to Puerto Rico only takes a few seconds now a days. Words are easy to transport and tariff free. Changes in sound patterns (phonology) take reconfigured social boundaries (mostly for teenagers and pre-teens), and I just don't see any massive or long-lasting changes there. Maybe, but I doubt it. Grammatical changes (morphosyntax) take much longer to enact and would require split populations (think of the effects of islands on biodiversity).


So, in the crisis, people are creating changes in words because words are the most changeable parts of language. All of the angst, dread, and anxiety are the motivational engine that power people to regain some agency by creating new words and using that slang to socially connect themselves to others.


2. Many of the terms display irony, sarcasm, gallows humor - why is this a feature of this "new" language and is it in fact new?
The entire pandemic is like a group existential crisis. For those people who have never had an existential crisis, the first time is always the most unsettling. By deploying irony, sarcasm, and gallows humor, people are marking their words with awareness, again exerting agency and knowledge of what all is going on. I don't think the impulse to show that level of awareness or linguistic skill is new. Certainly, the frequency of them at this time comes from the specter of an unseeable in the air around us. 

3. When in history in your experience have you seen such shifts in language and what is the purpose of it? What do you make of a virus impacting language in this way - language itself I suppose is a virus or is used virally... do you know if during other "plague times" there were such uses of new words?

I looked at slang terms from the 1910s and 1920s, thinking that maybe the 1918 flu pandemic would have made a dent, but I just can't find anything. I also found nothing from the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. World War I (which was just The Great War at the time) dominates everything. Plus, the official government response (by the US and others) was to greatly downplay the pandemic in 1918 and restrict media on it. One huge difference today is the sheer number of words that have been written/spoken about this pandemic.


4. Will this shift last or is it just a trend? i.e. do you expert any of these terms to enter a recognized dictionary?

Depends on "recognized dictionary". There are many slang dictionaries out there, and I expect those to take note of these slang terms. A dictionary is just a survey of a language's vocab at a certain time. If a term becomes less slangy and finds a wider utility, then sure they could last for a long while. Like most slang, most of these terms will not last that long. They are not designed to.


5. Words that have come out of recent developments in digital technology such as "zumping" have entered the collective lexicon from a situation of pressure - is this always the circumstances in which language is forced to change and new words are created?

Any living language is always changing. There is no period where a living language stops for a while and then lurches forward to start a metamorphosis. (btw, a living language is one with native speakers; a dead language has no native speakers). The design of the human brain fosters language variation which leads to language change. We attach social meaning to some bits of language variation, like knowing who sounds Southern and who sounds like a New Englander. A blend like "zumping" may make it further than this crisis. Think of smog coming from smoke and fog. One thing that has happened over time is that many words have narrowed in their meaning because we have more words now a days than we used to. With zumping we have a context specific designation for being dumped. That is pretty narrow. By the way, did we have tumping before, where someone was dumped by text? I found tumping but not with that meaning.


6. Looking at some of the coronaspeak, what do you observe about the human race at this moment in time?

That it is operating just as it did before. Humans as a species have not changed of late. How human language varies and changes has not changed either. We do have new words, but the pizzaz of creating new words is the same as before as is the social uses of doing so.

7. Any other observations or thoughts you would like to add?

This kind of crisis allows us to reflect on who we are. That focused reflection is valuable, and it is worth the time to check out who we are.