Thursday, February 28, 2008

language change – paper v. mouth

Another excerpt from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: a natural history of language:

“The prestige of writing as the vehicle of education and its physical constancy in contrast with the ephermality of, as the late Anthony Burgess put it, a mouthful of air mean that we tend to conceive of written language as the prototype of ‘language’ itself, as how language ‘should’ be. … The existence of a language in writing tends to lead its speakers, if most of them are literate, to reconceive spoken language as a kind of pale, sloppy reflection of the ‘real’ language on the page. Changes in the spoken language are regarded as a kind of shaggy entropy, a defacement of something considered set, eternal, the alteration of which constitutes destruction. This is our tacit sense of what ‘English’ is, for example. [Speakers of languages that haven’t been regularized on the page] neither mentally ‘see’ their languages … nor process what comes out of their mouths as a ‘version’ of something ‘best’ expressed by scratches on paper.”

There is a “seductive power [to] having been there first,” McWhorter says. Although we learn language first in the homey environs of the family, the written exerts an authority by seeming to have a greater age, by seeming to predate the language learned from Mom and from Billy and LaVonda on play dates. And what is written is older in this sense: it retains features speakers are beginning to (or have already) discarded. The language as spoke is always morphing, is always becoming new. The language as writ, much less so.

“The dialect and time slice of a language chosen to write in feels … anointed [because] it just happened to be the one to get immortalized on the page.” It’s pure happenstance what moment in time a language learned to lie down on a sheet of paper. The language that lies there represents the vital immediate language of its first paper training but time goes by, the spoken language renews itself, and the written language clings to its old self. Yes, gradually the written word changes to catch up with the language living in people’s mouths and hearts. After all, older versions of written English look strange to us. Presumably Shakespeare was writing the way people spoke at the time (or, at least, more like). Eventually older written Englishes will be as incomprehensible as books written in Old English or Latin. In purely oral languages the change happens much quicker.

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