Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Our Evolving Language

Language is an interesting subject on which I often reflect. Some of this reflection is prompted by my kids’ questions on the topic. I have been asked, for example, why there are so many diverse languages in the world, why languages change over time, and why the English language has so many odd idiosyncrasies. (Why is dead pronounced \ˈded\ while bead is pronounced \ˈbēd\?)

Although there are many that would play the role of language cop, no one, in fact, controls language. A language’s proper usage is determined by how it is employed by the population that uses it. People try to coin new words all of the time, but nobody can make anybody else use a new word. It is something that sort of happens spontaneously, much in the same way some YouTube videos go viral while others languish.

Words and grammar continuously evolve. Thus, dictionaries and grammar books also evolve. While these try to play a role in setting rules, it would be more correct to say that they are reactionary. That is, they report the evolved rules rather than creating them.

This fact seems to be understood by the accomplished David Gelerntner, at least as I read his 3/25/2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Gelerntner comments on how the English language is evolving in the digital era. He finds digital abbreviations “sharp-edged” but “refreshing.” Although these abbreviations “work harder, [carry] more meaning, and [become] more interesting and important,” they are “no good for poetry or novels.”

I laughed when I read the following:
“Smiley-faces are another story. Painfully cute hieroglyphics (happy-face, sad-face) have littered email for years; they are the empty beer bottles in the literary flower garden. Anything that can't be pronounced stops the verbal music, makes the reader stumble and marks the writer as a nitwit. These pictograms are for sloppy and lazy writers: E.B. White never felt the need to draw little faces in the margin to make his meaning clear.”
So, be careful about using emoticons in your texting and tweeting, lest you demonstrate that you’re a nitwit, I guess.

Images, on the other hand, are something that Gelertner likes, although, they also “can’t be pronounced.” They’re not English, but they work more like the way our brains actually think—in concepts more akin images than words. “Images” writes Gelernter, “expand the range of thinking—and might yield new kinds of written expression once software makes it easier and more natural to work photos (or the writer's own sketches) into the text.”

Some have disparaged the current evolutionary trends in the English language, but Gelertner sees most of the developments in a positive light. His main exception is the ease with which digital material is effectively deleted, either deliberately or through obsolescence.

Obsolescence occurs at a frightening rate in the digital world. We got our first video camera more than two decades ago. Over the years I have struggled to keep our family movies in a current usable format. I began keeping my journal electronically nearly two decades ago. I have likewise struggled to keep the entire text safe and current. How will I keep this up throughout my life? What will happen to this content after I pass on? Who will keep it current? Will anyone even care?

But I think there is a legitimate case for deleting or ignoring digital content. The sheer volume of material with which we are bombarded necessarily requires us to filter out much of it simply to cope. We are sure to miss out on some important material by doing this, but what feasible alternative exists?

Still, Gelertner writes, “The English language is one of the toughest and most beautiful objects ever invented. It will rise to the occasion and come out stronger.”

I’m not sure if Gelertner is ascribing some undue level of permanence to the language by this statement. After all, he is admitting that the language is evolving. While English is currently the dominant global language, we cannot be certain that it will always remain so. Especially if the primary English speaking world insists on killing off its free trade advantage that is the main reason for the language’s dominance.

One of the things that I find interesting is the ease with which most of us change our writing and speaking habits as the language evolves. None of us insists on writing or speaking precisely as we did 30 years ago. Or even 10 years ago, for that matter. Even the elderly, who are thought to be less flexible, seem to move onto newly evolved language forms without much difficulty.

I suspect that English will continue to be the world’s dominant language for the rest of my life and that it will continue to evolve during that time. This evolution is inevitable. Rather than worrying about this, it is probably best to figure out how to deal with it.

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