Thursday, July 05, 2007

Got change for that?

I love language change. Several years ago when I was a young and rabid prescriptivist I had some idea in my head that language could not achieve beauty if it didn't sit still long enough to be crafted by the lingual artisans. I really believed that.

Now I get all flustered and excited when I notice a new trend or a construction that doesn't work "logically" but starts taking over speech. I start hoping for quicker change. For new developments. For the same reason that geneticists rely on the mayfly for its short lifespan I yearn to see new generations of language spreading on the petri dish of.../abandoned metaphor/

Explaining change is one of the lovely theoretical areas I hope I can eventually contribute to. There is a wonderful paradox that both Labov and J Milroy examine: If language is a tool developed solely for the sake of communication it would logically follow that stability would be one of the fundamental characteristics. But language constantly changes. What's the free radical? Speakers.

So explaining language change must turn to the people who unwittingly allow such change. And what do such changes reveal about the system?

A late chapter in Lyle Campbell's Historical Linguistics text offers up some of the early theories for language change. The ideas are hilarious. And yet I can imagine some language prudes even today offering up suggestions like these.

Climatic or geographical determinism

In 1900 Harry Sweet wrote that the change from [a:] to [o] in northern European languages (such as Old English) was "doubtless the result of unwillingness to open the mouth widely in the chilly and foggy air of the North."

Nevermind that in England it was the Northumbrian dialect that resisted the rounding of [a:].

'Racial' and anatomical determination

There were unsubstantiated claims that Grimm's Law (*p>f *t>θ *k>h *b>p *d>t *g>k etc) was a result of wax plugging the ears of the Germanic tribes.

"Hey I told you each to pillage and prepare the garrottes"
"Oh we thought you said eat our fill of the free fare and carrots"

Barbarians indeed

Etiquette, social conventions and cultural traits

Wilhelm Wundt claimed that in Iroquoian etiquette is was rude to close ones mouth while speaking. He then used that fact to explain why Iroquoian languages have no labial consonants. What was his evidence that it was rude? Well the absence of labials in the languages of course.


Young people don't care enough and are ruining our beautiful language! They're lazy lazy speakers.

Thank goodness such silly ideas are no longer thrown around so glibly.


  1. Have you ever posted about what changed your mind on this topic? Was it experiential or theoretical or... revelation?

    Also, when are we going to attempt to imagine a language that does not function according to Chomsky's grammar--just to convince me that Chomsky's watershed work wasn't a sneaky substitution of a definition where an argument should be.

    Using the words in my mental vocabulary, I offer this paragraph as a start:

    "Freezing, brrr--inside--better; zzzz... Beep beep beep. Bouncylose ideation--straggle/shower. Ingestion. Metabolic processes. Duties. Inner depths: escape route? Duties. Television sounds. Enchanterodoriferousness. Contentment, etc."

    Please tell me that does not actually line up pretty nicely with universal grammar.

    No, seriously -- what about poetry? It is communicative language, and it is very often not grammatical...

  2. I have now started such a post for you Casey.

    I feel heavy guilt about my linguistic history and many of the choices I still make--I'm thinking of starting it with the line "Father forgive me for I have sinned."

  3. Just flipping through your blog and enjoying. I think that was one of the best parts of Campbell's book . . . reminded me of a linguistics professor's facetious theory that Polynesian languages had more vowels/fewer consonants because they were happy and warm, and languages like Russian (for example) had so many consonants because speakers were shivering and had to speak through chattering teeth. (She was from Hawai'i.)


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