Monday, February 15, 2010

The Decay of Language Part 1

"Language does not decay unless it ceases to be used for communication. It changes, sometimes other people's usage (or mistakes) grate upon those who say it differently, but the language itself is not in any danger.

Language has existed for thousands of years, performing its function adequately, without any care or attention at all, and most have never been subject to it at any time in their history."

That was the comment I left on this article over here, and which the author then responded to here. It occurs to me to expand on these thought, because there are many misconceptions about how language changes and what happens when it does.

All aspects of language are changing all the time- the phonology of our grandparents’ speech is not ours, teenage slang is regenerated every few years, words become temporarily fashionable and lose popularity again, meanings expand and shift, new concepts come to be talked about and receive new names or old names, old concepts cease to be discussed and their names die out or start to mean other things, structures

None of this has any effect on the usefulness of the language for communication. Language is immensely flexible and will always contain ways to express anything a speaker wishes to say. But it is up to the speak to use his intelligence and perseverance to find it, it is not the business of language to preserve every conceivable idea that someone might want to express in fossil form through eternity in case it is needed. The success of language lies precisely in the fact that we only have to manipulate a small number of symbols to achieve our communicative goal, and these symbols are themselves arbitrary- it doesn’t matter what they are, only that they exist. That’s why they can change without any loss of communicative potential in the language.

Many of these variations occur within social groups, professions, classes, activities, towns, neighbourhoods etc, and they occur precisely because they are useful, or at least because they do not interfere with the process of communication. If they transcend these limits to other kinds of communicative context, there may be a need to identify the meaning by an alteration of the mental paradigms and common understandings that allow the exchange of meaning. But we do this all the time anyway; in almost all conversations we have to interpret and reinterpret meaning in accordance with the various details of the context, not only of the words that are used, and determine what meaning that is contained in them. We find ways to understand and be understood, not always perfectly.

Communication does not take place on a universal scale, there is no global conversation, there are only people speaking together in small or large groups, or reading privately the writings of people they may or may not know, and there are dozens of different reasons for seeking communication. Contrary to common belief, most conversations have a primarily social purpose, and the exchange of information is a minor or non-existent component. Most of what we say is quite simple.

*The painting is by Mrs Hickory.


goofy said...

Crawford's response assumes that changes to spelling and grammar means a loss of subtlety of expression. This is by no means true. English spelling and grammar have been changing for as long as their was a language called "English", and there is no evidence that we are less or more expressive now than we were, say, 500 years ago.

It seems to me that the claim that a language can decay assumes a few things: we know what "decay" means in this context, we know what an undecayed language looks like, we can objectively measure decay, and we can show exactly how decay correlates with loss of expression. Crawford provided some examples of badly written English, but he hasn't provided evidence that changes to spelling and grammar are somehow making English on the whole less expressive. By using English to point out some problems with Brown's letter, he is demonstrating that English is just as expressive as it needs to be.

CIngram said...


Thanks for dropping by. this post is the start of a series of essays on the subject of 'language decay.' I'm glad that someone finds it worth commenting on.

The limits of language are set by the speaker, not by the language istelf. The fact that some people, or perceived groups, do not use language as expressively as they might doesn't mean that language itself is losing communicative possibilities.

Many people, usually educated people, worry about this loss of expressive potential whenever they observe others using language in a way that they were taught was not correct. We all have our standard forms, our pet peeves, our deep concerns about changes that will lead to poorer communication, but it really doesn't happen like that. As long as there is language available to us, we will be able to communicate.