Sunday, January 03, 2010

The dialectics of language change

In an article from today's Observer, David Mitchell argues a witty and persuasive case for not celebrating language change. It's partly a response to other articles which revel in new words and the linguistic innovations English seems to be spawning at such a rapid rate, but it's also a personal take on why learning rules can be important. As Mitchell says "...when language changes, slang becomes correct, mispunctuation is overlooked and American spellings adopted, I feel that I'm a mug for having learnt all the old rules to start with. If those who misuse the apostrophe are not adversely judged for it, then why did I waste so much time listening in class?".

...which is honest, I suppose, if nothing else. Elsewhere, he argues that the whole debate itself - for and against language change - is vital to the health of the language.

In the end, though, the rules do matter - it's just that obeying them doesn't. They need to be there to create a tension between conservatism and innovation. If the innovation continued unchecked, unmonitored by Susie Dent, then the language would fragment into thousands of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The stickler-advocated rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation slow the speed of change and allow the language to remain united.

This is a really crucial point and one that I've tried to articulate in class (with little success of late). The argument - the dialectic, is how you might put it - is part of what helps shape the language's development. The fact that people argue over whether or not new words should enter the language, be accepted and entered into a dictionary is perhaps as important as the new words themselves, the processes that form them or the people that use them.

Given that the ENGA3 exam is at least partly based around Language Discourses (debates about language), it's probably a good idea to read this article and have a good think about the opposing arguments on a range of discourses: gender and conversation, political correctness, new words and slang.

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