Language Change to Fill a Need

English has borrowed words from many different languages over the centuries. The result is a rich vocabulary, often developed based on need or on subtlety. For example, a contraction like “ya’ll” comes from the fact that the singular and plural versions of “you” are the same word and can be confusing at times.

Other examples are the numerous synonyms in English created from borrowing words from other Indo-European languages, multiple times at different points in time. Often, in these cases, and especially with borrowed words from French, the Anglo-Saxon words will be humbler in connotation: hide/conceal, stench/aroma, forbid/prohibit, deep/profound.

Apparently, the presence of synonyms is one of the characteristics that defines a ‘language’, as well as synonyms having difference in connotation. This is interesting to consider in the distinction between ‘language’ and ‘lingo’ that I brought up in my previous post.

Another of the more interesting points about English’s tendency to borrow words is how the technology of print enabled the adoption of Latin words into English. Current technologies that affect language are perhaps providing a similar catalyst for change. Electronic text has made the English language malleable and re-mixable – think of how differently we compose an essay or an article with an old typewriter compared to a word document. Also, modern network technology (worldwideweb) give target language access to those who do not have. The potential for borrowing words (to say the least) is great.

These changes in language will always have a purpose, McWhorter seems to be saying. The slang of today gains popularity to fill a need, like “ya’ll” or like the “up” of intimacy (“up at Joe’s place” or “up in my face”). McWhorter also seems to state that as a language follows a continuum, it tends to develop subtractively. This is for reasons I explained before – that more adult learners tend to learn the language, necessitating the need for simplicity, changing what is considered ‘normal English’. The language is exoteric.

While this evolution seems to follow a pattern, circumstance and technologies can provide the details of this change.

Link to the first post in this series is here.


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