Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Language Finds a Way

If the title rings a bell, chances are you are a dinosaur maniac, a sci-fi addict, or at least a moviegoer.

Yes, this curiosity-inducing title has been inspired by a popular quote uttered by American mathematician character Dr. Ian Malcolm in the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. I believe, currently it's strongly reverberating all over the world in anticipation of the fifth installment of the franchise: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, slated to hit theaters on June 22 next year. It is always great to discuss dinosaurs, but now let's shift from a dinosaurian theme to a linguistic one.

I used to (and perhaps many people) think that language is something that is immune to change. It maintains its forms and features permanently and remains unaffected by any circumstance where it resides. Language is sort of comparable to religious dogma in the sense that you must accept it as it is and altering it is impossible – it would be deemed sacrilegious to attempt to make any changes to it. Language is a robust entity; it is invincible and stays the same all the time, retaining all of its characteristics. But is this true?

To answer this question, firstly, let's look at a very basic question: Why do we use language? Humans are inherently very social creatures and in order to make achievements possible, they often need to be able to express their ideas and feelings successfully as well as effectively to other members of their kind. That's where the role of language fits in. Language is simply a means of communication, intended for the good, development, advancement, and survival of our species.

With this in mind, it is easy to think that language is, quite the opposite, actually fluid. As I once put it on Facebook, just like creatures, language evolves. It adapts to the conditions as necessary and to try to prevent change is a futile act. "Functionality" is the watchword. The sheer variety of world languages itself points to the fact that language has transformed on a massive scale, and it keeps on changing – unstoppable. 'Pressure' from its surroundings inevitably modifies it and this process should be seen as a natural process and not an intimidating one.

Stan Carey excellently wrote in a Macmillan Dictionary Blog article that "the meanings and usage of words change all the time: new senses emerge, old ones fade or shift, and senses can vary greatly from one context to another." Not only that; language also constantly accepts new vocabulary. For instance, two centuries ago no-one had ever heard the words tyrannosaurid and even dinosaur, but now the terms are widely used, especially in paleontological and scientific contexts (note that the definition of dinosaur itself needs changing: many dinosaurs, such as Compsognathus and Velociraptor, are considered small and, scientifically speaking, birds are dinosaurs, so dinosaurs as a group are not extinct). In addition, as technology has advanced rapidly, a huge impact on the related vocabulary couldn't be resisted. This is clearly seen from the fact that the majority of the 15 words that have climbed in use most significantly over the past twenty years are technology-related, such as email and laptop (watch British linguist David Crystal talk about the internet's effects on language here).

The same fate also befalls other linguistic features, including grammar, which is probably often thought to be even more "stubborn". Michael Rundell, the Editor-in-Chief of the Macmillan Dictionary, stated in his Real Grammar article that "grammar is no different" from vocabulary and that it "can change over time." For example, starting as a verb, the word impact has undergone alterations in its history and now it is perfectly fine to use it either as a noun or a verb. In terms of pronunciation, rhotacism – whether or not r is pronounced in words like card – historically disappeared and emerged in English.

Change is the nature of language. It is unavoidable and it is actually good that language, uh, finds a way.

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