Sunday, January 29, 2006

stay with the pack - language in the valley

For this particular lecture, the best analogy is the herd of wildebeasts (?) or some such animal charging through the valley with a group of lions knowing full well that a few will get separated from the pack. Languages go through the ages, but a ruthless force tends to make things regular, and eliminate exceptions. That force is the simple fact that language and all its complexity has to be carried around in thousands of people's heads at any given time. And people have only so much space in their head. I don't believe that maxim that we only use 20% of our brains. I think we use most of it, but we also have systems for limiting the amount of our brains that any given thing can take up. And after that, we decide what's less important, and we give it up.

Irregular forms, exceptions like come/came/come, do/did/done, etc. aren't going away any time soon, because we use them every day and thus have reason to make space for them in the set of rules that we carry around with us every day. But the ones on the periphery: shrink/shrank/shrunk, weave/wove/woven- they're doomed. We don't have space in our heads to carry around all those irregular forms. When enough people let go of them, they are for all intents and purposes gone. They'll stick around in the grammar books a few hundred more years, but people will forget.

So the great force within language is SIMPLIFY SIMPLIFY. Complexity may be added by the addition of words and contact with other languages & cultures, but the ruthless force of the passage of time takes the extraneous stuff from the outside, and streamlines the herd.


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