Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Language is Communication, and Communication Will Never Die

Man as a species loves to communicate. Without more or less constant communication we would literally not be human. Language is primarily, overwhelmingly, used to create and maintain social relationships, day by day, minute by minute. It is what we do. Most, the enormous majority, of what we say to each other communicates no information that would be useful or recognisable to anyone outside the conversation. It exists to oil the cogs of the social machinery, which rust very quickly indeed without it.

It is not possible to say that language evolved through selective pressure on well-maintained social relations, but it was almost certainly important from the beginning.

Mr Facebook, Mr Twitter, Mr Google and others, including Mr Bell, not to mention the whole of Hollywood, have made a lot of money by betting that we would swallow anything that gave us something to talk about, however insignificant in itself, and any new means of talking.

Regular Facebook users can have hundreds of 'friends', many of whom they have never met, and with whom they do not share a common culture, country or native language. This blog and a million blogs and websites, are written for anyone who might want to read them.

The new possibilities for communicating with people of whose very existence we would not have been aware even 20 years ago is creating new problems with language... Which the great majority of us solve effortlessly. Because that is what humans are good at. To overcome barriers to communication, to successfully employ a strategic competence, as the theorists say, is as natural to us as beathing, and it is why apparent changes in the way a particular language is used are not going to stop us from talking to each other.

And in many cases it is in our economic interest to communicate well, or we have some other reason not directly related to the love of communication per se. We want to get on with someone, get to know them, impress at a job interview, keep a client, teach a class or give a speech well, calm someone down, win an argument, get permission to do something… All of this can be usefully done by using the skill we have in social communication. Yes, some are better than others, practice and experience make you better, but in general, we, as a species, are very good at this, and at learning to do it when we encounter a new situation.

Lovers of elegance, of balance, of that beauty of form and structure in language so hard to define but so easy for the discerning to recognise, lovers of specific forms of linguistic, prosodic, phonetic or cultural purity in language, lovers of a familiar idiolect, known from childhood and crafted by experience and study, will, no doubt, continue to be dissappointed by the great mass of humanity. But while we love to communicate, we live to communicate, language will only change; it will neither die nor decay.

No comments: