How and Why Language Changes Over Time

Oct 25, 2017

It might seem as though the definitions of words are etched in stone, never to be changed. But language is fluid.  On this Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with language expert Patricia O’Conner about linguistic quirks, including differences between "can" and "may."

"'Can' and 'may' were both used in the permitting sense, but 'may' wasn't used in a direct question to ask for permission until the mid-19th century," O'Conner says. "If you tell one of your kids, 'You may leave the table when you clean your plate.' That implies a decision made by you, the speaker. But if you say, 'You can leave the table,' this implies that this is a customarily permitted policy, not a decision you've made. The subtle distinction implies authority."

O'Conner also more broadly discusses the ever-changing nature of the English language, what words are currently being fazed out or incorporated into our lexicon, and she answers listener questions.