January 12, 2009

Considering language change

Erin McKean's talk at TED made at least one thing clear: language is a reflection of its users and therefore the idea that it can remain static and unchanging in a medium such as a thick dictionary is rather outdated. Being somewhat of a traditionalist, however, I argued that language use ought to be moderated to a certain degree, in a sort of Académie française fashion (whose constituents determine what words are suitably French and what aren't -- email is decidedly not, but instead courriel, electronic mail, is accepted). A friend then pointed out that such decisions need not be top-down, and one brings to mind the whole revolutionary Wikipedia model, which has shown that individual contributions can work in sync to maintain a high quality resource for reliable information.

The crowd, after all, is wisest.

The issue I bring up, then, is that because language is constantly in use, and because we are at liberties to use language in whatever form we want (and to conjure up new words like "undictionaried"), it becomes exceedingly difficult to determine what words are actually proper and acceptable. Some may say there isn't the need to make that judgment, that language succeeds because it is used, and so long as there people who use it, it is the remarkable human capacity for communication at work and we should remain satisfied at that.

I think language ought to be treated with a little more care, precisely because it is a reflection of the needs and demands of those who employ it, because it is a mirror that reflects individual identities, because it is what has the power to divide and the power to unite. Language will never be confined to the ink and paper it sits upon (or the pixels we see), for its awesomeness is only evident when carefully arranged in the unique ways we pick and choose our sentences. Language isn't merely words, either, and so the idea that a dictionary represents a particular language is fundamentally flawed at best.

The Internet poses a fair number of challenges when considering the adaption of language to specific needs, environments and domains. Words can be popularized not because they are practical but simply because there exist countless opportunities to spread the use of a term without any particular reason to begin with. Hence, going back to McKean, if we have a larger pan, what will you fill it with?

Rio Akasaka, a guest contributor, is a linguist at Swarthmore College and an avid blogger. He speaks French, Japanese, and Portuguese.

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