“People are too sensitive these days!”
This seemed to be a common mantra of 2020. Sadly, it seemed to be most often used in conversations related to human rights. We have to overthink everything we say, tone down our jokes, or rename our sports teams all because “people are just too sensitive!”
You could take a lot of approaches to debunking this phrase, but I want to take a look into why it’s ultimately flawed in its assumption of language. In short, acceptable language changes overtime. It’s why we don’t all communicate in Shakespearean English. In more recent years, it’s why racist terms — such as the n-word — are no longer tolerated in broader society. I sincerely hope we can all agree that’s a positive move on humanity’s part. So why are some so resistant when they’re living through change themselves? Let’s start with why and how language adapts.
According to the Linguistic Society, language changes for two reasons:
Firstly, it changes with the needs of its speakers. This is how texting, clickbait, and Instagram all became everyday words; they came about from new technologies and new experiences that required new words.
Secondly, language changes because no two people have exactly the same language experience. We all have slightly different vocabulary because we all grow up in different countries, states, or even communities; therefore, we assign meaning to different words. This is how I’ve picked up so much cool slang from watching Love Island. It is what it is, innit?
These differences are magnified between generations, often causing tension between what is or isn’t appropriate anymore. If you come across this argument most often with your parents or grandparents, there’s a reason why.
These trends confirm the following: language is not static, and language is not objective. And my ultimate theory is this: the people grumbling on their Facebook status about the sensitivity of others are trailing behind progress and will be on the wrong side of history. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we can all learn to be more empathic learners and listeners. And if we hope to create a better, kinder world, we should all be open to being wrong, learning new things, and changing with the times... small changes like language included!