Changing Nature


Disability Studies for Teachers

Center on Human Policy
The Changing Nature of Language1 Kevin Walsh Even a half-hearted onlooker cannot help but realize that in this fast-paced world, most aspects of popular culture are constantly changing, including that particular "subculture" that we know as the field of developmental disabilities. As our world changes, our words, and the way we use them to describe the world, change as well. It is not far-fetched to say that changes in our language are among the most obvious indicators of overall societal change. Although names for most things survive over an extended period, a great many do not. New terms are created or enter from other cultures (astronaut, e-mail, day trader, website, salsa); old terms fall from common use (doughboy, ice box, neurasthenia, feeble minded); some words acquire new meanings and usages (e.g., link as a click-point to a related web page; input as a verb; and rap as something you listen to instead of something you do with your knuckles). Sometimes the names of things do not change, but what they refer to, their referents, change dramatically. For example, the particular collection of tasks, duties, skills, abilities, and knowledge that give meaning to the term nurse in today's operating rooms or trauma centers, is immensely different than what the term nurse may have meant on a battlefield during the Civil War, Similarly, principals still manage schools; however, today they often need to have the savvy of a business person, the persistence of a labor negotiator, and the fortitude of a police commissioner in addition to their abilities as educators. Over time the referents for these two words (nurse and principal) have shifted. Indeed, much of our world is now a swirling cacophony of changing words and referents, driven in large part by all of us, we who, for better or worse, make up a highly charged, media-savvy, corporate-logo, politically sophisticated world. It is in this climate of...