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» Wednesday Linguistics: Change


Wednesday Linguistics: Change

2006-09-13 @ 9:49

Languages change. That is no big revelation. It is most obvious in the way words and their meaning change. Some words don’t mean what they used to, don’t describe the same reality they did some years ago. New words pop up all the time, old ones becomes obsolete. I read in a recent article that the last few years, what with the Internet and all, had seen an unprecedented influx of new words and expression. The last big one having been Shakespeare. Well, that is less true than it sounds – it would be more accurate to say that a greater number new words have been recorded than in any previous period. One has to remember that language is primarily spoken, not written (in fact, most of the world’s language are not written). Some of what Bill was the first one to write down had probably been around for a while. Same thing now; although it is true that today’s new realities allows a greater creation of new words, some of what is being now recorded comes from dialects or idiolects that have been around for some time.

But that’s not the only way that languages change. Of course not. The sounds of the language are also affected. This is easy to see in languages that have been written for many centuries; words that were first written phonetically are now pronounced in a different manner than what their letters suggest. Words are also shortened, abbreviated, like taxi cab for a taximeter cabriolet. Regarding this aspect of language evolution, we are often presented with the principle of least effort: it’s easier to drop part of words, or to pronounce things this or that way.

But there’s something we must realize about least effort: it is, first and foremost, intellectual. Faced with the choice between least intellectual and physical effort, least intellectual tends to win. For instance, someone has too escalators before him, both going up; on one, there are people but not on the other (although it also works), most people will go for the escalator with people on it, even if it means walking a bit more, because they don’t have to make the effort of checking if the other one works. It’s easier to follow a crowd, even if it means more physical effort.

But what does that have to do with language evolution? Well, the same thing happens here: we’ll keep doing something, pronouncing it, if it’s easier intellectually. And we’ll stop, again, if it’s easier. Take, for instance, declensions. In languages like Latin, Old English or, to a lesser extent, German, the function of a noun, its role in the sentence, is indicated in its ending (think how pronouns change in English depending on who’s doing what: compare “they tell me” vs. “I tell them”). With time (we’re talking centuries here), these ending tend to disappear. The classic explanation: laziness. But the fact is that they only disappear when they no longer serve a purpose; when something else has taken their place, something that is deemed easier (word order, prepositions, etc.).

This kind of language change occurs when something no longer answers a need. When another need appears, language comes up with something to answer it, usually using its existing resources. But the thing is, language is a complex system of interconnected parts, especially when it comes to grammar. When something is no longer used or is replaced by something else, or when something new comes along, there can be a ripple effect on other parts of the language. For example, in Indo-European languages, when the number of cases (types of functions marked by declension system) drops below five, something new appears: the article [this has yet to be more fully substantiated, but it would appear that, parallel to this, something new appears in the verb system: auxiliaries]. This answers a need no longer fulfilled by the cases.

In its changes, language is very economical: it often reuses existing parts instead of creating new ones out of nothing. The article, for example, come from the demonstratives that. When French did a complete overhaul of its verb system, it created a future tense made up of the infinitive with the verb have attached at the end (je manger-ai, tu manger-as).

Language is always refining itself to be more efficient without sacrificing its prime function: expressivity. But since every change affects various parts, there is, in a way, always something else to fix. Which means that languages which have known more changes than others are more apt or better; they just have different, evolving strengths.

Of course, languages also change through contacts with other languages. But that’s another story.

What do you think?