Who Decides What Words Mean?

Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge.

I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying TheEconomist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy?

 

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying TheEconomist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.

Language changes all the time. Some changes really are chaotic, and disruptive. Take decimate, a prescriptivist shibboleth. It comes from the old Roman practice of punishing a mutinous legion by killing every 10th soldier (hence that deci­- root). Now we don’t often need a word for destroying exactly a 10th of something – this is the ‘etymological fallacy’, the idea that a word must mean exactly what its component roots indicate. But it is useful to have a word that means to destroy a sizeable proportion of something. Yet many people have extended the meaning of decimate until now it means something approaching ‘to wipe out utterly’.

Descriptivists – that is, virtually all academic linguists – will point out that semantic creep is how languages work. It’s just something words do: look up virtually any nontechnical word in the great historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which lists a word’s senses in historical order. You’ll see things such as the extension of decimate happening again and again and again. Words won’t sit still. The prescriptivist position, offered one linguist, is like taking a snapshot of the surface of the ocean and insisting that’s how ocean surfaces must look.

Be that as it may, retort prescriptivists, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Decimate doesn’t have a good synonym in its traditional meaning (to destroy a portion of), and it has lots of company in its new meaning: destroy, annihilate, devastate and so on. If decimate eventually settles on this latter meaning, we lose a unique word and gain nothing. People who use it the old way and people who use it the new way can also confuse each other.

Or take literally, on which I am a traditionalist. It is a delight to be able to use a good literally: when my son fell off a horse on a recent holiday, I was able to reassure my mother that ‘He literally got right back in the saddle,’ and this pleased me no end. So when people use literally to say, for example, We literally walked a million miles, I sigh a little sigh. I know that James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and many others used a figurative literally, but as a mere intensifier it’s not particularly useful or lovely, and it is particularly useful and lovely in the traditional sense, where it has no good substitute.

So I do believe that when change happens in a language it can do harm. Not the end of the world, but harm.

There is another fact to bear in mind: no language has fallen apart from lack of care. It is just not something that happens – literally. Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

How can this be? Why does change of the decimate variety not add up to chaos? If one such ‘error’ is bad, and these kinds of things are happening all the time, how do things manage to hold together?

The answer is that language is a system. Sounds, words and grammar do not exist in isolation: each of these three levels of language constitutes a system in itself. And, extraordinarily, these systems change as systems. If one change threatens disruption, another change compensates, so that the new system, though different from the old, is still an efficient, expressive and useful whole.

Begin with sounds. Every language has a characteristic inventory of contrasting sounds, called phonemes. Beet and bit have different vowels; these are two phonemes in English. Italian has only one, which is why Italians tend to make homophones of sheet and shit.

There is something odd about the vowels of English. Have you ever noticed that every language in Europe seems to use the letter A the same way? From latte to lager to tapas, Italian, German and Spanish all seem to use it for the ahsound. And at some level, this seems natural; if you learn frango is ‘chicken’ in Portuguese, you will probably know to pronounce it with an ah, not an ay. How, then, did English get A to sound like it does in platenameface and so on?

Look around the other ‘long’ vowels in English, and they seem out of whack in similar ways. The letter I has an ee sound from Nice to Nizhni Novgorod; why does it have the sound it does in English write and ride? And why do two Os yield the sound they do in boot and food?

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