Learn a new language while you are in lockdown, they said. Or how to play an instrument. Make the most of this gift of time. Learn some new skill. Bake sourdough or become a yogi. Read those books lying covered with dust on your shelves. Zoom your friends and family. Yes Zoom is a thing, and the world now functions on this new thing. Stay up till midnight for three nights running to try to secure a Tesco delivery slot. Weep each time you fail.
It seems I have been learning a new language. Some words I had not heard of ,or expressions made up from a string of known words forming to create a new expressions which have suddenly taken a very clear and specific meaning. Not a foreign language, the words are already familiar. The meaning, however, is not. This is the language of Corona, incomprehensible before spring 2020. Now it is the basis of most of our conversations.
I imagine parallel conversations pre and during the corona weeks. Pre Corona, I imagine to be something like this …
Pre Corona – Have you been furloughed?
Pre corona response – blank stare. Is this an agricultural expression? Do I look as if I have been furloughed? Am I covered in mud?
Pre Corona – Our aim is to flatten the curve.
Response – blank stare. What curve? Is there a bump in the road?
Pre Corona – Are you shielding?
Response – guilty expression. How do they know I am hiding an escaped bank robber under the stairs?
Pre Corona – You need to self isolate.
Response – confused expression. What have I done wrong? What on earth do you mean by that? Isolate myself?
Pre Corona – social distancing must be observed.
Response – utter bewilderment. How can distancing be social? Is it not anti-social? Have I said something offensive? What does it even mean?
It is fascinating that society morphs rapidly to adapt to the threat which the pandemic has thrown on to many of us. We have quickly become used to a life which finds us speaking to people on screens rather in person and where our homes become places where we cannot even invite a close friend in for tea. While it is strange, we have become oddly accustomed to very different conventions even if they don’t quite sit comfortably. The rapid shift in language is another sign of resilience and adaptation of humankind as our expressions and vocabulary are shaped for the current context. A context which is new, sudden and which turns many longstanding conventions on their heads. It is an example of how we adapt to cope with a new, urgent situation.
Only a few short weeks into Corona times, we no longer blink when informed that certain activities will be permitted as long as we maintain social distance. We don’t need to ask what that means, it is solidly in our mindset. Social distance – 2 metres, the size of a double bed, or two shopping trolleys end to end, or an adult kangaroo. We are thankful that the furlough scheme is extended and understand its importance in protecting employees and the economy while we fear the eventual cost to society. We no longer think of muddy fields.
I do wonder how our vocabulary and language will be changed by this sudden influx of new vocabulary and very specific expressions and usage. Language does evolve and develop naturally, as we see when we hear the announcement of the ‘new words’ of the year which are added to the dictionaries. I will be fascinated to see how this turn of events will be reflected in new turns of phrase in the longer term.
In the meantime, don’t worry about learning a new skill. You have already learned a new language. Focus on staying safe and staying well. And remember to wash your hands.