Is language like fashion, or the weather?

Powered by article titled “Is language like fashion, or the weather?” was written by David Shariatmadari, for on Tuesday 6th May 2014 10.00 UTC

People get upset about language change. The innocent use of the word “less” where a shrinking faction insist on “fewer” is enough to earn a bad grammar award nomination and spark a national debate. If you use “enormity” to help you describe something enormous, like Barack Obama did, you’ll have the likes of Simon Heffer on your back, and a few others besides.

No matter how often we are told that change is perfectly natural, no matter how many examples of standard usage that our ancestors would have regarded as dangerously sloppy we are shown, the row continues.

Fashions come and go too, but it’s hard to think of clothes that excite the same hot-under-the-collar debates. When something new comes down the catwalk, it is often greeted with glee. It might be seen as a bit outré or attention-seeking. But it’s rarely regarded as a threat to civilisation (The miniskirt, or punk might be exceptions. But it’s been a while since clothes rocked the establishment).

This is strange, because the argument that linguistic changes are just like changes in style and taste is a serious one; “there is no more reason for languages to change than there is for automobiles to add fins one year and remove them the next, for jackets to have three buttons one year and two the next” said Paul Postal in 1968. The “tailfin interpretation”, as it’s been labelled, does, on the surface, make sense. But is this really how language evolves?

It’s true that in the 90s we wore bootcut jeans and said “wicked”; in the 2000s jeans got tighter and we started to say “sick”. The prefix “super” seems to have stuck itself, magnet-like, to hundreds of adjectives just as a wave of beards swept across society. And it’s not just words that behave in this way. Changes in intonation (uptalk, for example) and pronunciation (the replacement of some consonants by glottal stops) can infiltrate a language and spread just like a trend for sagging trousers.

So far, the analogy holds. But one key feature of fashion is revival: a tendency for old trends to become popular again. Practically every post-war decade of the 20th century has been ransacked for patterns, shapes and hairstyles. But I’ve yet to hear “hotsy totsy” deployed in the bars of east London, and suspect that the wine–whine merger isn’t going to be reversed in southern British English any time soon.

Another problem: trend-setters play a huge part in shaping fashion. A prominent collection by a major designer could change what many of us look like in a year or two’s time, as could a particular hairstyle in a cult sitcom. You only have to look at the increasingly desperate efforts of the Académie Française (still trying to make “courriel” happen), or indeed Simon Heffer (waging war against the use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual) to see that influence like this is limited in language. Perhaps the closest linguistics can come to the “Rachel” hairdo is the lisping “z” of Iberian Spanish: some say it began with a royal speech impediment which everyone felt obliged to copy. Which would be fun if it were true.

Ultimately, language differs from fashion because it’s a practical tool, not just a form of cultural expression. Clothes are practical too, of course. But fashion is precisely that aspect of clothing that can be played with and changed simply to suit taste. Language has scope for this, because it contains a lot of redundancy – bits and bobs that aren’t essential to what is being communicated. And the imitation of socially prestigious forms is definitely one way accents change. But it also has a very serious job to do too – and only works when certain rules are observed. The same clothes, no matter what they look like, will keep me warm wherever I go. But if, in a strange country, I cannot explain that I have a serious illness and have lost my medicine, I might be in trouble.

All of which means that while trends and tics bubble along the surface of language, influenced by prominent people, or more likely, the prestige and power of certain social groups, changes in its deeper structures are governed by other factors. The same patterns are observed again and again in wildly different cultures – some shifts are so reliable, linguists are able to reconstruct sounds and grammatical rules for ancestor languages where no written record exists. (They think, for example, that the word for “horse” spoken on the central Asian steppes 6000 years ago was ekwos, and that the verb came at the end of the sentence. For more reconstructions of proto-Indo-European words, see here.) Just what governs these deep changes is the subject of passionate debate in linguistics. Some say a genetically encoded “language module” in the brain mistinterprets ambiguous data it receives before the age of seven; others argue that complex “invisible hand” processes are at work. There may something in the idea that non-linear dynamics – chaos theory – can help explain linguistic systems, making change as unpredictable as the weather.

Whatever it is, it’s a long way from Dolce and Gabbana. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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