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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
The life and death of words 20.V.2009 14:29
Many people - from Sapir and Whorf, to Orwell, to Wittgenstein - have argued that the language we use determines the way we perceive reality; to quote the Austrain philosopher, 'the limits of my language are the limits of my world.' In reality, however, neither the prescriptivist view of a pure, ideal language, nor the more common view of language as a natural phenomenon changing like the tide, are really accurate. Language is, instead, best viewed as an evolutionary phenomenon. Evolution - just, supposedly, a theory - is one of the most powerful available to us for understanding the world. Its force extends far beyond its traditional domain of biology - any phenomenon that exhibits heredity is best viewed evolutionary, and one of the most important of these is human culture passed, with some mutations, from parents to their children. Our view of language tends to be static and permanent, but it is evolving, and not just in the sense of 'changing incrementally' - it is subject to a whole host of evolutionary pressures external to the language itself. Yet not one of the books I've read on linguistics mentions evolution at all - and this, I think, is a mistake.

Take the fate of the word 'niggard,' meaning, roughly, miserly or cheap. Unfortunately, it also sounds very similar to a word that's no longer acceptable in polite society. Even though it's a fairly high-status word only likely to be used among people with good vocabularies, it's simply too dangerous to take the risk, as Sen. Congressional aide Dave Howard found out in 1999, when was barraged by criticism and hate mail for using it. The word, for all intents and purposes, is dead in the English language, because whatever semantic need it may have filled, it has been brutally superceded by the need for political correctness - and, to an extent, the ignorance of the public. Just as the pressure on elephant's tusks to become longer has been brutally reversed by the ivory trade - they are now shorter and shorter in each generation - so 'niggard' has been driven, very swiftly, into existence. The pressure is sometimes purely phonetic - in this way, the word 'immanent' has been driven out of the spoken language, because English vowel reduction has made it too hard to distinguish from the (slightly) more common 'imminent'. There were simply too many synonyms - 'inherent', 'quintessential' - and its use was too rare to make survival possible.

Sometimes, though, the source of the pressure isn't trivial, but is driven by a genuine change in the society's ontology - broadly, the kinds of things it needs to describe. This is evident not only in uncontroversial words such as 'webpage' and 'internet' that are needed to describe concepts that simply weren't important decades ago, but also in that bugbear of prescriptivists, political correctness. Take, for example, the singular 'they', as in 'would everyone please make sure they have their luggage?' To be honest, although I probably ranted against it in high school English classes, I've made my peace with this: it reflects a genuine change in the way society perceives itself, namely, that context rarely suffices to determine the gender. In ages past, you'd pretty much know whether a woman or man was talked about based on, say, their profession, but now - with the exception of a few careers, such as CEOs or serial killers - either gender is likely enough to participate in them to need generic reference. English - because only a single word indicates gender - makes the pressure to preserve gender reference quite low, so the singular 'they' has made steady progress. This isn't to say all the proposals introduced by political correctness reflect our movement to a more equal society - I hope never to hear an absurdity like 'herstory' in conversation, and I'm fairly confident I never will. The point is, there was a gap between how we perceived the world and how we described it and something, in this case a reuse of the plural particle for the singular, came in to fill it. In a similar way, 'you guys' has become the third person plural pronoun to alleviate the evolutionary disfavoured ambiguity of 'you' that evolved out of medieval politeness.

In addition to these relatively 'natural' process, there's the more insidious one railed against by Orwell in his famous Politics and the English Language: favouring the survival of certain terms by manipulating the influential pressure of the printed media, the most recent example of this is the abominable 'enhanced interrogation,' torture to any generation before the current news cycle. Its sadly successful creation was prompted by the Bush administration's desire to avoid the negative connotations of the word 'torture', as well as the Geneva Conventions. What's sad is that it probably couldn't have gained currency without some support in society - broadly speaking, the belief that there is a real difference when We do it than when They do it; We're the good guys, so it must have been somehow justified. This is far from a new phenomenon - Ambrose Bierce defined impiety as 'your irreverence for my diety' - and the fact is such words reflect prejudices in (in this case, American) society whether we want to believe they're there or not. As a matter of fact, many languages have a kind of division of synonyms to indicate how distantly we identify with the subject, as I read recently in a Stephen Pinker book: I'm slim, you're skinny, he's scrawny; I'm uninhibited, you're promiscuous, she's a slut.

Moreover, when such neologisms don't reflect a corresponding change in society, they tend to be overwhelmed by their previous meanings. Take the endless failed PC efforts to come up with new words for people with disabilities: 'crippled', 'invalid', 'disabled', 'handicapped', 'differently-abled', and whatever else they might have thought up recently. The reason for each new word is because the previous one, whatever it's PC origins, came to take on the meaning that reflected societal perceptions of disability as something negative, and no matter how many positive overtones you add, this will be inevitable, which is why, thankfully, language change by edict almost never works. Similarly, when a negative perception disappears, we often don't need the euphemism anymore, which is why 'African-American' hasn't survived - when we say 'black', we don't mean anything racist by it, even if previous generations did; the long shadow of racism, however, ensured the eclipse of well-meaning words such as 'coloured' or 'Negro', the former still extant in the NAACP.

Wittgenstein may have thought that the limit of his language were the limits of his world, but the fact is when there is a disagreement between the two, it's the latter that tends to change. The 'eskimo-words-for-snow' myth is well-debunked, but a more Inuktitut place words are a more instructive case. Instead of simple words like 'here' and 'there', it has much more precise ones like 'up there' and 'down here by me' - exactly the kind of concepts you'd need to communicate quickly when hunting in a landscape with few landmarks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis said a society's thought is shaped by the language it uses, but the opposite is at least equally true - our language reflects our society, and when society changes, words, or phrases, or syntactic structures that are no longer useful die out, and new ones are born to take their place. What's fascinating is how seemingly irrelevant and chaotic the process can be, as in the case of 'niggard'. Dawkins argued that there was probably no evolutionary theory of language case, but used such examples as certain sounds carry better in the Himalayas shaping Tibetan, which is almost certainly not relevant. But in the case of lexicon, and syntax and, sometimes, phonetics too, evolution remains the best tool we have to perceive this quintessential human phenomenon.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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