Monday, July 04, 2005

Plate tectonics

So, for your delight and delectation this week, a nice little review in Sunday's Observer of a new book out on language change. Nice, because the reviewer (Deborah Cameron, high ranking B list celebrity linguist) gives a very lucid summary of some contemporary ideas about language change that the book covers. To summarise the summariser:

1) Language change is a universal phenomenon

2) It's patterned, not random, but doesn't conform to any strategic design principles and can work in opposing ways simultaneously

3) Simpler language systems, such as pidgins, evolve into more complex ones, but the fact that many ancient languages are more grammatically complex than now often gives rise to the opposite view, that languages have a natural tendency towards degeneration

4) This tendency can be seen in the 'economy' or 'least effort' principle of language change, in which the simplest possible form is adopted

5) But if that were the only principle at work, we would all be speaking in nothing other than monosyllabic grunts by now

6) Instead, degenerative forces constantly compete with creative ones, such as the 'expressiveness' principle of language change, in which the desire to make the language convey the constant shape-shift of human experience results in new language forms

7) Equally creative is the 'analogy' principle, in which the raggedy ends of language change get tidied up

I love this view of language change as one in which the natural forces of creation and destruction compete over the territory. It's exciting, like plate tectonics in Geography, with bits of language getting sucked under and melted down, and new bits spurting up through the crust and hardening into a useful little mountain range or two. Think about that...

Forked tongues


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