Friday, March 19, 2010

Thoughts on the Evolution of Language In Western Society.

I only say 'Western' society because I'm absolutely and completely clueless about 'Eastern' society (never mind that the Earth is spherical).

The Evolution of language is something I've been interested in for a number of years because it so closely resembles the evolution of life. Group A who speaks a language starts moving around the world forming group B, C, and D. The longer they go without a lot of contact, the more local colloquialisms make it into their speech, the more the language starts to change until eventually groups B, C, and D would have a little difficulty communicating with group A and with each other, even though they're very similar. The more time that passes, the more differences crop up.

This can be illustrated in the extremely subtle differences between British English and American English and Canadian English. Canada's English is in the middle of these two examples, which I believe can be increasingly called by different names - English and American. Americans are speaking a language called American which they are developing through unique colloquialisms, cultural influences and preferred spelling. Think 'tonite' versus 'tonight'. Increasingly, words like 'tonite' and 'thru' are gaining acceptance as correct.

I've wondered how the evolution of language would progress now that geographical separation isn't as much as an impediment as it's been in the past.

For a brief time last year we had a teenager living with us and I hated the way she talked. Her vocabulary was pitiful, her spelling and grammar appalling, her pronunciation sub-par. The worst part, the part I was really worried about my son picking up (and he has) was the constant use of the word 'like'. I like to think that everyone knows what I'm talking about. Saying 'and I was, like, whatever,' as opposed to 'I dismissed his statement out of hand.'

For decades this brutal truncating of civilized discourse has been decried by self-appointed defenders of language (really who's going to appoint them?). Today as my son struck a pose and said he was 'all like fwash' I realized that there was a dimension to this kind of communication that I hadn't considered before.

It's very efficient.

As long as you understand the context and the people in the story, you can make out what's going on. People who pepper their speech with statements such as 'he was all like' and 'I was all like' aren't using words to convey a story - they're conveying a story with pantomime! They are acting out incidents rather than attempting to grasp at words they can't think of at just that moment.

It would be interesting to see if hand gestures became part of the equation, since internet memes are already being incorporated into daily speech.

A bizarre sci-fi language isn't far off, I think.



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