Winter Offering: Why Do Languages Change?

Nov 21, 2011 by

Jane Austen employed the word intercourse in her novels in the genteel sense of ‘dealings between people’; today, it means ‘copulation’ and nothing else. Shakespeare used holp alongside the modern form helped — we no longer use the former. Chaucer rhymed heath and breath, but this rhyme falls flat on our modern ears. These are just a few examples of English changing. But English is not alone in this respect, as all languages are continuously changing. Already in the 1st century BCE, Cicero, a great Roman orator and writer, complained about the deterioration of Classical Latin. “Language academies”, such as L’Académie française (France), Real Academia Española, the Academy of the Hebrew Language (האקדמיה ללשון העברית), Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, are set up with the explicit goal of “preserving (the purity of the) language”: French, Spanish, Hebrew and Russian, respectively.

In my Winter Quarter offeringat Stanford’s Continuing Studies, we will examine why — and how — languages change. We will see that transformations in material culture and society, and more importantly, factors internal to language, precipitate changes in pronunciation and meaning of words, and in the grammar. While some of the illustrations will come from English, we will also draw on examples from other languages. Among the questions we will ask (and answer) are:

  • Are languages deteriorating, improving, both or neither?
  • Do languages develop to become more complex and sophisticated? Or do they get simplified?
  • Do languages change as an adaptation to the physical environment?
  • Do languages change because their speakers are lazy, sloppy, stupid or illogical?
  • How do expressiveness, clarity, politeness, prestige and pretentiousness change language?
  • How do our mistakes, misunderstandings and slips of the tongue change language?
  • How do languages affect each other?
  • Why are the descendants of Latin — French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (European and Brazilian) — so different both from Latin and from each other?
  • Why did the Vikings have a profound effect on English but not on Russian?
  • Who are the “lost middle Finns” and what happened to them?
  • What is the oldest language and how old is it?
  • Will there be just one language?

I will also tell the students how to make a “man” “bad”; where the expression “French letter” comes from; and how restaurants lure you in with dish names like “crème brulée”.

The class is open to the public; registration starts on Monday, November 28. This 10-week course meets on Wednesdays, 7:00 – 8:50 pm from January 11 through March 21 (there’s no class on March 7).

Hope to see you in class!

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