Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Where Might English Go?

The oral forms are getting farther and farther from the written.  We are used to words not appearing as they sound, knight, through, neighbor.  Many others exist which we do not yet notice: tsgo or even sko for “let’s go;” I don’t know if there is an upper limit to that.  Do we just float down that stream indefinitely, more slowly in a language such as English which has a powerful written form, but always in that one direction, until it becomes like Sanskrit or Classical Arabic and disconnected from spoken forms? 

Despite our strong sense that dialects should of course be disappearing under the influence of mass media, they are not.  Some socially disfavored terms and pronunciations, even whole dialects are disappearing, but new ones arise.  Yet when children are a bit disdainful of the way their parents and grandparents speak, they do not adopt some national accent, but the regional one. If they notice at all, that is. Accent is not usually very conscious.

Another path is possible: with the distributed power of a population armed with technical marvels, people may simply insist that the written forms match their oral expression and move in that direction.  Who will stop them?  Dropping silent letters and other spelling reforms have been proposed for years without much action, but this may be because power was concentrated in the hands of a few – newspapers and publishers.  A younger tech generation spells as it pleases in social media, and the day is not far off when they could have that “translated” into whatever type of English they liked with the press of a few buttons.  The formal written standard might remain, used mainly for legal and ceremonial purposes.  In a hundred years, people might speak one dialect at home or in other face-to-face contacts but reserve standard written English for important occasions and documents.

That’s what we did with Latin. The oral forms went far enough away that they had to be recorded as French or Catalan a thousand years down the pike. The previous form became a specialists tongue. That is what has in fact happened to most previous written languages. 

The written standard does change, but far more slowly.  These Jane Austen quotes are 200 years old.  The word-order is slightly different; the words slightly different in meaning - though we might more accurately say that the word choice is slightly different - but it is all quite understandable

Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.

An engaged woman is always more agreeable than a disengaged. She is satisfied with herself. Her cares are over, and she feels that she may exert all her powers of pleasing without suspicion. All is safe with a lady engaged; no harm can be done.  (Thanks brainyquote)

Such would not be the case with the spoken word, even in the regional accent our own is descended from.  We would converse only with difficulty, forcing the speaker to slow down and repronounce.

PBS had an interesting series on language change.  Two examples here and here


james said...

Are you thinking of Chinese here?

Dubbahdee said...

As Emma studies Latin and is doing more writing, we have been having some very interesting discussions regarding the mutable nature of language.

I take a very practical and contextual stance. I eschew ideas of right and wrong in language, but rather focus on what is the most effective use of language in a given context. That includes, for instance, an awareness that if end a clause with a preposition, there may be certain members of my audience that will have a fit. Is it worth the distraction that that will cause?

So it is still valuable to understand the "rules" but not feel bound by them in any moral sense.

There is a meme going around of Facebook to the effect that "While I am talking to you I am silently correcting your grammar." My reply is "You would do better to actually listen to what I am saying."