To commemorate its twenty-fifth year of publication, Duke Magazine asked twenty-five Duke leaders and scholars to project ahead twenty-five years and imagine what life would be like for their discipline in the year 2034. Here is my contribution:

No group of adults has ever said, “We sure do like the way the kids are talking these days.” But the fact is, the way the kids are talking now will determine how English will be spoken in twenty-five years. Urban teens in Baltimore are reported to be using the construction Peep yo to mean Look at this/him. I mention this mostly because it delights me but also to make the point that innovations occur in specific places among specific groups of speakers.

If you are not experiencing delight with the Baltimore innovation but rather distaste or puzzlement, let me remind you that speakers in the seventeenth century would have experienced similar feelings upon hearing The house is being built (the “proper” verb form at the time being The house is a-building), while a sentence such as We are being reasonable would have been downright strange and probably unthinkable. (The construction present progressive of “to be” + adjective was an innovation of the twentieth century.) Will the construction Peep yo become a form of Standard English twenty-five years from now? Probably not. But stranger things have happened.

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