Monday, January 11, 2016

Language changes

You may have heard of the problem with the storage of uranium with a long half-life.  It will be dangerous even 10,000 years from now but languages change much faster than that.  What drawings or symbols will convey "Danger: stay away!" that long from now?

I am listening to Prof. John McWhorter of Columbia University in his Great Course "The Story of Human Language".  He emphasizes that language, like the ocean floor, is always changing.  He says that consonants wear down.  "Impossible" comes from Latin "inpossible" but the lips are in a more natural, easy (lazy?) position for the p after the m than after an n.  Meanings change: 'silly' used to mean 'blessed', thus "Holy Mary, Silly Virgin" in some old prayers.

McWhorter and Anne Curzan of U. of Michigan emphasize that we speak the way we learn, the way we hear others speak.  So far, I haven't heard much about the My Fair Lady problem where class and privilege and respect are associated with one way of speaking and dismissal and disrespect with others.  I may not hear at all about the sort of reverse problem, where learning to speak differently than your loved ones do is taken as an insult by them but I know that can happen.

The main point these linguists make is that there is not some stable, unchanging form of language that is correct forever, despite what you learned in school.  However, we persist in believing that one type of talk gives you a better chance of being on the high school homecoming court of beauties and escorts than some other types of talk do.

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