Language use and language evolution is one of the very few remaining domains of social interaction where norms are not seen as arbitrary but as natural and inevitable. We tend to perceive our language if it reflects the way things are and should be. In other words, while we use the language to doubt, interrogate, explore the world around us, we rarely use it to question the normativity of the language itself.
The notion that language is somehow predestined is so deeply embedded in our psyche, that when changes to the language are proposed, consciously or not, they are considered as a threat to the 'purity of language', to our 'cultural identity', to our 'national heritage'.
Yet, how accurate are the adjectives 'purity' and 'tradition' with regards to a language? To place this question in a proper context, let's consider how language evolves.
Language is constantly changing, evolving and/or adapting to the needs of its users. Any human language is constantly in flux. Changes in lexical meaning alter with each generation, even within the same culture or social group. Languages evolve as new words are developed in line with technology or are borrowed from other languages. Meanings shift, sound structures change and words are lost or gained. Within some generations from now, any ‘original’ /‘new’ languages would be so vastly altered that they would no longer be ‘mutually intelligible’.
The causes and variations of language change are as long and as varied, as human history. We count here only the main categories, and only few examples to illustrate how language is constantly evolves. These categories are somehow fluid. A given change can be explained by more than one category.
Conscious changes refer to human changes. That is, when one purposely applies new form of speech. These kinds of novelties are something we all do, at some point of life. There are varied motivations behind it:
Reealiy bites - Reality is always ahead of us. In order to communicate with the ongoing changes of reality, we are bound to introduce new words. We can find that a specific notion is lacking a term, or when the existing vocabulary lacks detail, or when a speaker is unaware of the existing vocabulary. Another trigger that motivates the coining of a neologism is to disambiguate a term which may be unclear due to having many meanings.
New words pop up unpredictability. Times it comes from books, as Catch 22, the author - as Orwellian, the main character, as Sisyphean. It can a blending of current words, for example, "brunch" is a blend of the words "breakfast" and "lunch".
Incorporating new technological terminologies is probably the most constant example of language change. If it hadn't changed since, say, 1950, people during the 1980 wouldn't have words to refer to modems, fax machines, or cable TV. If it hadn't changed since the 1980, we would have to use fax machine to refer to our cell phone, a notebook for leptop and author for everyone who maintain a social media page, i.e. nearly everybody.
Communal identity - people occasionally wish to socially differentiate themselves. This can ends up in a language change, like climbing up the social scale, by adapting 'higher' language and move away from 'vulgar' language. For example Welsh and Lutheran Bible translations, lead to the liturgical languages Welsh and High German thriving today, unlike other Celtic or German variants which disappeared.
While this can be seen as isoteric and specific example, changing the language to move up the social scale is something that we all, do, did and will do.
We all contributed to a language change by using slang - a somewhat secret language that only its speakers can understand. Slang tends to emphasize social and contextual understanding and to exclude non-members from the conversation. Yet, when these members get older slang becomes accepted into common vocabulary. Words such as "spurious" and "strenuous" were once perceived as slang, though they are now considered general, even high-register words.
Finally there is the verbal hygiene - which is the way human advocate for a specific usage of the language. It may be to defend the cause of minorities, gender-biased, racially pejorative expressions, to oppose these kind of changes or to define a preferred usage of the language. Some normative practices often suggest that some usages are incorrect, inconsistent, illogical, lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value. They may also include judgements on socially proper and politically correct language use. We dedicated several articles to the verbal hygiene, so we won't go into further details here.
If you look around you can note that human changes are more noticeable. The last 20 years witness an outstanding evolution of scientific and technological change. This is also valid to slangs and jargons - constantly evolves as their raison d’être depends on their being always fresh and distinctive to a given group. Old slangs date, as any novel or film more than 10 years old is apt to show. In some areas of vocabulary, rapid cultural or technological change triggers equally rapid and therefore noticeable changes within a generation or even within a decade.
Compared to conscious changes, the unconscious ones are mostly very gradual in their operation, becoming noticeable only cumulatively over the course of several generations. Yet, they are much more powerful than the human changes as they constantly fuel the perpetuum mobile, called language change.
Generation by generation, pronunciations evolve, new words are borrowed or invented, the meaning of old words drifts, and morphology is transferred. These changes accumulate until the "mother tongue" becomes distant and different. After ten thousand years, their original relationship would be completely indistinguishable.
There are many different routes to language change. Changes can take originate in language learning, or through language contact, social differentiation, and natural processes in usage. Language change is variation over time in all their aspects, in their pronunciation, word forms, syntax, and word meanings (semantic change).
Natural changes, i.e. related to the human condition
Language learning - Language is transformed from one generation to the next. Each individual must re-create a grammar and lexicon based on input received from their parents and their surroundings. Since each individual is different the process of linguistic replication is imperfect. This results in random variations and causes a systematic drift. This is a natural and inevitable consequence of the anthropic principle. Every core system, ex: family, drifts apart as time goes by.
Repetition, Specialization - Like in any other process, repetition allow us to improve and learn. Speaking, we dissimulate and assimilate linguistic objects. Doing so, allows us to identify how to speak more efficiently and with as little effort as possible. Such changes, though slight at the time, are progressively cumulative.
Emotional intensity - Over time, common words lose their emotional intensity and new words are applied to revive that intensity. Animals, humans included, are stimulated the new, the different, the unexpected. Thus, if we want our public to pay grasp we are obliged to serve our intentions in different, new linguistic forms.
Social changes - that is, the fact that human live in large groups, create tectonic movements in the language. As culture evolves new notions, objects, situations arrive and thus enter the language. Languages borrowed expressions from each other. English borrows French words, Greek borrows Turkish constructions and vice versa. Massive migration influence the languages of both mitigates and locals, sometimes even end up with entirely new languages, such as pidgins and creoles.
The history of Yiddish illustrates how globalization changes language. By the 10th century, Jews migrants wjho settled in the Rhine valley, fused Old French or Old Italian with High German languages, creating thus the Yiddish. Yiddish than propagated through eastern Europe till Russia. Each region had it own distinctive dialect of Yiddish. Motivated at its beginning by a communal religious identity, at the 20th century Yiddish was a secular language with literature and vocabulary that could rival any other language. Rival isn't a proper term since Yiddish integrated words from Polish, German, Armenian, French, English, Czech, etc'. Having lost nearly all its 11 million speakers during WWII, Yiddish became a dying language. Yet, all languages mentioned in this paragraph have Yiddish words in their daily vocabulary.
Changes in lexical meaning alter with each generation, even within the same culture or social group, and languages evolve as new words are developed in line with technology or are borrowed from other languages. Meanings shift, sound structures change and words are lost or gained. Within some generations from now, any ‘original’ and any ‘new’ languages would be so vastly altered that they would no longer be ‘mutually intelligible’.
Language changes is a fact and is an inevitable consequence of using it. It is also a fact that human oppose it.
Language change is functionally disadvantageous, in that it hinders communication. It is also negatively evaluated by socially dominant groups. Nonetheless it is a fact that throughout the history human opposed it.
While languages constantly changes, people reaction to this change isn't. As people observe language change, they usually react negatively, feeling that the language has "gone down hill". When was the last time you heard older people commenting that the language of their children or grandchildren's generation has improved compared to the language of their own youth?
It is hard not to wonder if those who oppose the change are actually bothered by it or rather expressing their emotion about the cruelty of time. After all, one or two generations ago, they received the same critics when practising 'their' slang, that encountered the same reactions from their parents and grand-parents.
Occasionally these individuals opposition stir up institutional action on a larger scale. Nations and language academies can mount a more deliberate opposition the 'new' language. These attempts aim at preserving the purity of a language, at least by their perception, or at arresting the processes of change. To name just two examples - The Hebrew Academy denounces the rise of English words in public life and the Greek government efforts to free Modern Greek from much of its Turkish vocabulary.
History witnesses that regardless the opposing agency, the efforts to purify the language are doomed to fail. People reaction clearly indicates that they don't feel bounded by linguistic authority. rather they considered to entitled to communicate they way they want, even if their linguistic authority disapproves their way of speaking.
Language changes is not only a fact, it is also a part of human condition. At times it even constitutes a condition to our survival and to the survival of the language itself.
Opposing language change would not destruct the change. Other people would still use it. Opposing it would not stop time, rather it would drop the opposer out of time. Resisting the change is nothing more than an act of a slow and hidden type of suicide. It leads to isolation, social alienation and finally self destruction. If this opposition by a substantive group of speakers, it might lead to the death of the given language. Imagine a society which opposes the creation of new medical terms. A language that insists naming all diseases as flu. Would you accept that your loved ones be treated in a medical center of this linguistic culture. This opposition isn't only morally problematic, it destroys the language itself. Imagine a language which labels a computer a notebook and calls a social media page a book (or at least a collection of short stories). In that language any person who publishes content on a social media platform becomes an author of a 'book'. Since nearly all human beings are engaged in at least one social media platform, the term author would become a synonym of human being. This deprives that given language speakers naming new technological phenomena. It also alters the meaning traditional words. Here, the term author, would lose its meaning. From a definition of a specific human occupation it would become just another way of saying all humans. If this language speakers systematically opposes changes, gradually all words in this language would become meaningless. When a word is too large and refers to too many distinctive phenomena it prevents communication. Words would not carry any meaning, which is exactly their raison d'etre.
While opposing language changes could be an illogical act, human aren't logical beings. We smoke, consume drugs and commit suicide to name only few examples. The same as language changes, humans that oppose it. Analyzing the motivation isn't the scope of this article. It is also far from certain if this question can be a subject of a rational interrogation.
By 'pure language', people usually mean Standard Language. Which means the form of the language used in government, education, and other formal contexts. Modern linguistics rejects this concept, since from a scientific point of view language cannot be judged in terms of pure, good or bad
Moreover, there's no such thing as a 'sloppy' or 'lazy' dialect. Every dialect of every language has rules - not 'schoolroom' rules, like 'don't split your infinitives', but still rule like that of inverting the syllables in the French argot verlan. Verlan is the reverse of the expression "l'envers", a type of popular French slang, which is featuring inversion of syllables in a word example, deban instead of bande (group). Beur refers to first-generation immigrants from northern Africa in France. Where the more recent word rebeu is used to refer rather to second-generation Arab immigrants in France. Is it a lazy way of talking? Not at all; the younger generation has made some useful distinction and add more accurate references to the general term migrants.
As culture evolves and new situations arise, language will never stop changing; it will continue to respond to the needs of the people who use it. New generations challenge our perceptions, opposing this just because we consider it lazy only witness that we became lazy and lost our curiosity. So the next time you hear a new phrase that grates on your ears, remember that like everything else in nature, our language is a work in progress.
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