Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Is Language? And Why Won't It Hold Still?

Dang!  Where does the time go?  Well, I know where it goes, actually, and I'm not telling.  I have a good post in mind, but I'm not going to get to it today.  I'm reading one of those books that just demands to be quoted at length, however, so I'll quote what I think is an interesting passage.

The book is Tim William Machan's Language Anxiety: Conflict and Change in the History of English (Oxford, 2009).  I enjoyed and learned a great deal from Machan's more recent book What Is English? And Why Should We Care? (Oxford, 2013), so I decided to see what else he'd written.  So far Language Anxiety looks very good.  Here's an example:
Indeed, as Labov has noted, language actually points to conclusions that oppose natural selection: ‘the major agent of linguistic change – sound change – is actually maladaptive, in that it leads to the loss of the information that the original forms were designed to carry’.  More generally, change and variation are responsible for a great many socially debilitating situations.  They produce mutually unintelligible languages and their attendant barriers to communication, the communication, the communicative obstacles that even regional variation can present, and the sociolinguistic drive to instruct generation after generation of students in the details of spelling, punctuation, and usage, which are never internalized and transmitted to subsequent generations in some Lamarckian fashion.  In view of the tumult of history and the blame placed on inadequate communication, I would venture that if there truly is a general drive to optimal communication, it has failed miserably.
Machan has already explained why none of the existing theories about language change (why it happens, how it happens) works, but then nobody knows what language itself is.  Whatever else may be true of language change, it is not a Darwinian process of evolution, nor a Spencerian process with a direction in which it is headed.  That language is for communication, and indeed evolved for the purpose of enabling its users to communicate, is a widespread belief, but as Machan indicates, it's not a plausible one.  (Which doesn't mean that people don't use it to communicate -- the point is that like wings, which are thought to have evolved first as a means of body-temperature management but came to be used for flight, language may have evolved for one use and then been adapted for others.)