Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Decay of Language Part 2

There are two main threads to the ‘language is decaying’ argument. One laments the fact that some people do not use the terms, meanings, pronunciations or structures that we learnt when we were young. The other suggests that the effectiveness of the language for communication will be impaired if a certain change or changes is ‘allowed’ to happen. Neither is a serious problem. Language use changes more or less randomly over time, and is widely different across regions, ages, classes and professions. This doesn't stop people understanding each other when they wish to. Differences in education, knowledge, cultural reference and interests are more likely to cause difficulties than differences in the way words and structures they have in common are used.

Meaning is constantly being negotiated, even during the course of a single conversation, and much more so across wider linguistic communities. But the young and the old, the British and the Nigerians, the Metropolitan professional and the rural worker, those with backgrounds in the sciences and those from the humanities, even left-wingers and right-wingers, may not belong to one linguistic community in any meaningful way, despite sharing a mother tongue and perhaps even a hometown. When they speak to each other, neither uses the language they would naturally use when speaking to those they instinctively feel are 'like them.' Each seeks a form of accommodation, a way of making the communication work, with greater or lesser effort depending on how much interest they have in it. Most of us are capable of speaking with a range of styles, registers, semantic fields and even accents, according to the communicative context, and we think nothing of it.

While there are enough people in constant communication with each other in sufficiently varying groups a language will not decay; it will only change. Those changes will leave some people mildly confused while others assimilate them completely without even realizing it. But language will decay if it ceases to be used for literary or academic purposes, or if it ceases to be written at all, or if those who use it do so for a very limited range of purposes, or or if it becomes solely a literary or academic language, no longer used for real communication at all, or if the groups who use it are too small or too isolated. Then it can lose plasticity, expressive power, or comprehensibilty between groups.

The problem with trying to impose standards in language is that nobody really listens to you. For most of human history it hasn't mattered and, except in certain specific forms of communication, they don't matter very much now. Communication in everyday life is as much about seeking ways of understanding each other as it is about exchanging information. We create standards as we go,for the times when we need them.


Vincent said...

I like the points you raise in this very fair and measured piece.

They remind me of something which came to me this morning, before I read your piece. I spent my childhood in England in the Forties and Fifties. Taking a wider sweep than language alone, so as to encompass everyday living, awareness, learning, the rural and urban landscapes, indeed the entire physical and mental landscape, I see that today's world has lost more than the Forties and Fifties.

In those days there was an awareness of, a porousness towards, earlier decades - going back to perhaps 1870 or earlier. That's what I felt as a child. Because the older generation had more authority and received more respect, their world wasn't washed away by every wave of modernity.

So the phenomenon of decaying language which strikes us is part of a wider phenomenon of long or short memory. In my childhood we had long memories: not just our own but our grandparents' too - and they would quote things from their own grandparents, and you had this sense of continuity. It didn't just exist in language but many other spheres.

The long memory wasn't just a nostalgic glow, I should add. I well recall in the late Forties and early Fifties how the late Victorian style was considered tedious and ugly. Features which are prized today (old fireplaces for example) were being ripped out. Kipling who had been once revered was now reviled for he seemed to be pro-Empire, but Britain had become ashamed of its imperial heritage - and so on.

Now, with the short-memory syndrome of youth culture, the past (i.e. the time before you were born) is all period drama, for which you are dependent on film, TV and historical romances. I sense that this is less the case with the Welsh and Irish (including Ulster) to whom old grudges for example rankle as fresh as centuries ago.

You refer to linguistic communities and cite the British and the Nigerians. But to my consciousness, "British" doesn't have meaning any more. It has devolved and I am English; more precisely from a certain valley in the Chiltern Hills, from which perspective Huddersfield and Liverpool are foreign. (Yes, I am living in the past, doubtless exaggerating the differences!)

But to revert to your point - language - what gets us thinking about it is the extraordinary window on the English language offered to us by the World-Wide-Web, which has extended the applicability of the language and exposed us to "printed" words that have never passed under the watchful eye of any editor, typed by authors whose teachers of English have perhaps little concern for the maintenance of traditional forms.

I agree we shouldn't worry about language. It developed from ancient roots and grew sophisticated for millennia before there were any academics to worry about its future.

What we should worry about is the cultural amnesia, which affects language as it effects everything else, which I have tried to sketch in the above.

CIngram said...

Yes, I think this is a very real phenomenon. The huge increase in the technology of communication in recent decades, the general increase in material wealth- inevitably leading to decadence, as well easier and longer lives- and the tendency for larger numbers of people to move far from their place of birth- these things are, of course, at least partly interrelated, has led to the disconnection you speak of.

And language may change, the forms and structures and pronunciations we grew up with may be lost, but language will take care of itself.

As you say, the real concern is not that language may lose its expressive ability, but that we, or some of us- and we fear especially for the young- may not have very much worth saying.

Having said that, I teach adolescents and, not only are they mostly quite capable of talking to me and explaining the things that interest them- very carefully distinguishing between what they are prepared to make me part of and what they are not- but many are keen to learn about many things, and not only what is offered to them as knowledge by the purveyors of popular culture.

It is that contact that keeps me optimistic about the future in general. (This isn't England, though, so I hope I'm not over-generalising.)