Snapshots of Language

Lecture 2 and lecture 3 deal with some of the history of the English language, and roughly with the themes of language as structured chaos, and how one branch of Indo-European language was able to shed much of its complexity – this branch eventually led to modern English. McWhorter doesn’t state this outright, but I wonder if he is implying that the simplification of English helped its diffusion in the long run, throughout Europe and eventually the world.

The simplification of a language is perhaps a topic relevant to current times, where we are seeing a rise in the use of icons in place of words. Interfaces and inforgraphics are becoming widely popular, and this might have a lot to do with their simplicity as a control panel or as a graphic. There’s less inherent knowledge about language rules and systems needed to understand such communications, which would aid any design that utilizes a less complex language (if we can consider ‘icons’ a language). For those in non-English speaking countries, this would matter a lot – especially as they may be more comfortable with representational/pictorial language compared to phonetic systems.

The spread of English nowadays, as it combines with various other streams of communication, might mean that populations are in the midst of blending 20th century English with communications of their own cultures, whether that be a geographically based culture (such as a non-English speaking countries like Japan or China) or an interest based culture (such as NASCAR racing, politics, gaming, facebook, etc).

An interesting point in lecture 2 was the idea that when a language is learned, it creates a snapshot of that language. Thus, when language is learned not from mother to son/daughter, but by a mass migration (as English once was) it will provide kind of a kink in the evolution of the language. It made me think of a few different but related examples of the alphabet and the keyboard: when someone designed either of these things, the placement of letters before and after each other or side-by-side has stuck around for a while and affected subsequent language based technologies, in turn impacting imaginations and physical movements.

The snapshots created from non-English speaking populations that now have high access to English language (via internet and foreigner visitors and residents) will create ripples that will affect these branches of English. The high use of English in the economic industries provides a catalyst for such populations to blend into their language a form of English along with their own communications.

An idea that I have encountered recently is that of many digital literacies out there. Google has its own system of communication, as does Pinterest have its own lingo, Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, texting, gaming, etc. Within and beyond these examples are further examples – the size of the snapshot’s frame is up to the viewer now. And the simpler it is to learn the literacy, perhaps the more likely it will be adopted within a community for communication. This, I believe, comes down to little details. McWhorter uses verb tenses and plurals often as examples of the change in simplicity that occurred in English – not major things, but aspects of language that created ripples.

Of course, there’s always a balance between message clarity and simplicity that needs to be maintained.

Link to the first post in this series is here.


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