Osmosis

Remember how people used to get annoyed when kids made a statement into a question by adding an interrogative upturn at the end? Well I just did that? While explaining to a waitress what happened to my pot of tea?

How did I get infected with that shit?

And how did I get infected with the term that shit?

The dictionary on my mac gives osmosis as: “the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.:”.

This is how children learn language. They hear stuff and then they repeat it. You can often hear children using words and phrases that they clearly don’t understand. Meaning is the last part to be added, sometimes way behind pronunciation and articulation. If you’ve learned a foreign language by immersion, you’ll be familiar with being able to recognise the sound of a word, and eventually asking what that word means. And once you’ve found out the meaning you don’t forget.

And that makes sense. At some neuronal level in the brain you need to create a network of receptors that can recognise the sound. If you haven’t got this network to recognise the sound, there’s nothing to hang the meaning on.

But there’s more. The sound has a context. So when someone smashes a bottle of milk, the two-year old says “Oh, shit!”1 That’s what you say when you have an accident. The kid didn’t need to be told this. She learned it by osmosis.

And that goes on with adults too. Words, phrases, alternative usages, pronunciations, alternative spellings and inflexions come into circulation, and most of the population learns them by osmosis. Language is something that happens to us. It doesn’t ask for our consent. It’s a living thing and it’s beyond the control of any authority.

So it amuses me when the King Cnut’s of grammar command the sea of language. Who the fuck do you think you are? With your grammar and your spelling. Go and colonise somewhere else. It’s our language, and we’ll use it how the fuck we like. Or perhaps how the fuck it likes. Innit.

 


  1. The most frequent last words on a cockpit voice recorder tapes are ‘oh shit’. See Black Box: Why Air Safety Is No Accident, Nicholas Faith 

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