What is Linguistics?

A simple definition:

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language.

Of course we will have to make clear what we mean by scientific study and human language , but even this simple definition reveals a good bit about what Linguistics is that might not be obvious.

First, linguistics is a rigorous discipline with established methods which strives to follow the scientific method. Our success at being "scientific" is variable and to a large extent a matter for debate, but it is important that competing theories and approaches can be compared, at least in principle, on the basis of how well they satisfy criteria of scientific rigor.

Second, the primary object of linguistic study is human language, not language in other extended senses to be discussed below.

Third, it is the study of language not languages . While we are concerned with the structure and properties of specific languages, our ultimate goal is to understand the properties of language in general. For example, we are less concerned with the quirks of English nouns or Greek verbs work than with how these compare to things in other languages and what they can tell us about nouns and verbs universally. A lot of the time it is only possible to understand why a specific language does some apparently odd thing by considering general properties of language that can only be observed in other specific languages.

Fourth, as is implied by the vague formulation of the definition, linguistics is an extremely broad discipline with an array of subfields. A good way to get an idea of what linguistics really is is to take a look at what these subfields are and how they fit together.

Subfields 1: those concerned with some part of the linguistic system

One way that linguistic subfields can be defined is by reference to one of the pieces that the system of language is composed of. In this way we can come up with lists like the following:

Phonetics: the physical nature of speech

The first sound in English tall and the first sound in Spanish tu 'you' are similar in several respects, but they differ in that the English sound can be described as alveolar (being pronounced at the ridge behind the teeth) and aspirated (being accompanied by a puff of breath which you can feel if you hold your hand in front of your mouth when you pronounce it), while the Spanish sound is dental (being pronounced at the teeth) and unaspirated (without the puff of breath).

Phonology: the sound structure of language

In English, the sounds we represent as /p,t,k/ are aspirated (with the puff of breath) at the beginning of a word, as in pill, tall, kill , but not when they come after an /s/, as in spill, stall, skill . You can test this by pronouncing the pairs with your hand in front of your mouth. The difference in pronunciation is a phonetic fact, but the rule describing it is a phonological rule that describes the English sound system. There are plenty of languages that do not have this rule.

Morphology: the structure of words

There are two meanings for the word unlockable depending on its structure:

  1. un + lockable: there's no latch on the door, so you can't lock it
  2. unlock + able: we've got the key now, so we can unlock it

Syntax: the structure of sentences

  • You can omit "that" in This is the book (that) I bought.
  • But not in This is the book that was too expensive.
Semantics: the meaning of words and sentences

Note that the following sentence is actually ambiguous, depending on how we interpret the relationship between ten and didn't :

Ten delegates didn't attend the session.
  1. There were ten specific delegates who missed the session.
  2. In order for a session to be official, a quorum of two thirds of the total delegates must be present. However, six delegates out of a total of 15 had the flue, thus the quorum of ten was not met, and the meeting did not count.
Pragmatics: how speakers use language to do things in given contexts

These sentences can all express the same request, but often indirectly.

Please shut the window.
It's cold in here.
I wonder if we should shut the window.
Do you feel a draft?

Subfields 2: Those concerned with the relation of linguistics to some external object or topic

Alternatively, we can define subfields by their connection to topics outside of linguistics. Some examples of this type are:

Historical linguistics: language and history

  • How did Latin develop into the various romance languages French, Italian, Spanish, Rumanian, Portuguese, Romansch, Catalan, Occitan, Sardinian etc.?
  • What did the parent of the various Germanic languages German, English, Dutch, Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Frisian, Faeroese, Gothic etc. sound like, of which we have no written records, but which must have been spoken at around the same time as Classical Latin?

Sociolinguistics: language and social factors

  • What distinguishes the dialect of Philadelphia from that of New York?
  • What are the effects of mass media and personal mobility on dialect differences?

Psycholinguistics: language and the mind

  • Why do people sometimes make errors like I have a stick neff?
  • How do children learn the complexities of a language without formal instruction?

Computational linguistics: language and computers/computation

  • Can we learn anything about human language using tools and formalisms that were developed to describe and interpret formal computer languages?
  • How can we teach computers to use human language?

What is language?

As noted above, in order to fully understand what linguistics is, we must be clear about what we mean when we say language, because the word has many meanings. It will also be helpful to look at how linguists think about language in ways that are different from most people, and to dispel some common misconceptions.

Human language vs. other meanings of language

Like most other words, language has a number of meanings that are somehow related but turn out to refer to very different things. Note for example the range of meanings in this dictionary entry:

1.a.Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols.
 b.Such a system including its rules for combining its components, such as words.
 c.Such a system as used by a nation, people, or other distinct community; often contrasted with dialect.
2.a.A system of signs, symbols, gestures, or rules used in communicating: the language of algebra (, the language of flowers.
 b.Computer Science  A system of symbols and rules used for communication with or between computers.
3. Body language; kinesics.
4. The special vocabulary and usages of a scientific, professional, or other group: "his total mastery of screen language -- camera placement, editing -- and his handling of actors" (Jack Kroll)
5. A characteristic style of speech or writing: Shakespearean language.
6. A particular manner of expression: profane language; persuasive language.
7. The manner or means of communication between living creatures other than humans: the language of dolphins.
8. Verbal communication as a subject of study.
9. The wording of a legal document or statute as distinct from the spirit.

American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.

For most linguists, language is the pattern of human speech, and -- what most distinguishes linguistics from the everyday use -- the (implicit) systems that speaking and listening rely on.

Other phenomena come to be called "language" because of more or less close connections or analogies to this central case: writing, sign languages, computer languages, the language of dolphins or bees. The ordinary-language meaning of the word reflects this process of extension from a speech-related core.

Linguistics is concerned with language in the latter sense only to the extent that things like computer languages can help us to understand language in its core sense of normal human speech. An exception to this is sign language which, aside from being realized in the form of visual gestures instead of auditory gestures, are in every respect full-fledged human languages, and thus are a central, rather than peripheral, object of linguistic study.

The Primacy of spoken language

The central role of spoken language, as seen by the first definition in the dictionary entry, is also reflected by the source of the equivalent word in various languages. One common strategy is simply to use the word tongue to express the concept "language": it's one of that organ's most obvious functions in modern humans.

  • French langue (same root as English language )
  • Greek glossa
  • Russian jazyk
  • Irish teanga
  • Hebrew lâshôn
  • Hausa (a Chadic language of Nigeria and Niger ) harshèe
  • and of course English tongue!

The core of the field of linguistics has always been the analysis of spoken linguistic structure, that is, we are more interested in language as it is normally spoken than in language as it is written or is "supposed" to be written, on which more below.

Language vs. dialect

In common usage, people usually use "dialect" to mean a nonstandard variety of a language. This can be seen in the first definition below, which uses "language" for the standard variety. (Cf. definition 1c for "language" above.)

1. a. A regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary, especially a variety of speech differing from the standard literary language or speech pattern of the culture in which it exists: Cockney is a dialect of English.
  b. A variety of language that with other varieties constitutes a single language of which no single variety is standard: the dialects of Ancient Greek.
2.   The language peculiar to the members of a group, especially in an occupation; jargon: the dialect of science.
3.   The manner or style of expressing oneself in language or the arts.
 A language considered as part of a larger family of languages or a linguistic branch. Not in scientific use: Spanish and French are Romance dialects.

American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.

So non-linguists often make this distinction:

Language as "the prestige dialect of some language" (whether the user of the term acknowledges this or not).

Dialect as "a non-prestige dialect of some language" or even "an unwritten language."

For linguists, however, no one actually speaks an entire "language"; rather, every utterance occurs in some (social and geographical) dialect.

For convenience, we can define a language as a group of mutually intelligible dialects. That is, while the dialects differ in detail, the speakers can all understand each other. But this is only a convenient abstraction, not a technical concept to which linguists attach any special importance, because when we sit down and actually try to draw lines between languages we run into serious problems:

  • For example, speakers of Danish can understand Norwegian and Swedish fairly well, but speakers of Norwegian and Swedish have a hard time understanding Danish.
  • Also, intelligibility is not transitive. If you walked from Bern, Switzerland through Germany and up to Amsterdam, at each stage of the journey, the people in one town would understand the people in the next, but the people at the start and finish would not be able to understand each other in the slightest. We say that there is a language called German and a language called Dutch, but in fact each is a collection of dialects blending one into the other.

In fact, the classification of dialects into languages that we are all familiar with is based at least as much on political criteria as on linguistic ones. The most famous formulation of this is due to Max Weinreich:

A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.

The crucial point for us is that, as far as linguists are concerned, all dialects are equal. Nonstandard dialects may lack prestige, but not logic or communicative function.

The central thesis of Pinker's book is that language is a type of instinctual behavior, not an acquired skill. The forms of language spoken by all humans (setting aside brain traumas and the like) are of equal status as examples of the innate ability to learn and use language.

This includes standard and non-standard dialects of a language, as well as languages with a long written history and those which have never been written down.

Remember, for linguists the term "dialect" refers to a specific variety of language so everyone speaks a dialect, whether it's considered a prestigious one or not.

For example, informally I can say that I speak English.

But what I really speak is a particular variety of English, what one might call General American, but even that's an abstraction.

  • My usual dialect of English is primarily Eastern -- I distinguish cot from caught, while people who speak General American in, say, California, probably would not.
  • I sometimes distinguish between merry and marry, a feature of certain Eastern dialects, but usually, like most American speakers, I do not.
  • I grew up outside of Philadelphia, so sometimes I show features of that dialect which are not part of General American, like fronting of the /o/ in home, and centralization of the i-sound in right, but I never (as far as I know) show other features, like the special pronunciation of water (something like "wooder") or the distinction between mad with a "tense" vowel and sad with a "lax" vowel.

When you really get down to it, everyone actually speaks an idiolect: the specific form of speech of one individual. "Dialect" is a lower-level abstraction over similar idiolects, and "language" is a higher-level abstraction.

Fortunately, though, since language has to be usable for communication, the idiolects of people within a given community are close enough to each other that, for many purposes, we can treat them as the same. But at times it will be important to remember the differences

Some myths and facts about langauge

There are plenty of valid controversies about language.

Some questions are entirely political: should governments try to accommodate speakers of  minority languages? how important is it to maintain rigorous standards of usage? is it bad to borrow words from another languages rather than inventing native ones?

Other questions are factual, though they have immediate practical consequences: does bilingual education work? what are the consequences of oral education for deaf children? to what extent can ordinary citizens understand legal contracts? how well do computer speech recognition systems work?

A third set of questions are mainly interesting to those who care about language itself:
are Korean and Japanese derived from the same historical source? how much of linguistic structure is innate, and how much emerges from the experience of communication? why will most English speakers delete "that" in "this is the book [that] Kim told me about," but not in "this is the book [that] impressed Kim so much"?

Reasonable and informed people can and do disagree about these and innumerable other linguistic issues. Particular arguments may be illogical, or particular claims may be false, as in any debate, but our state of knowledge leaves room for a range of opinions.   
On the other hand, there are some disagreements about language where one side is just wrong, as wrong as those who believe that the earth is flat or that it was created out of nothing in 4004 BC .

In some cases, the "flat earth" position is only held by exceptionally ignorant people, and gives rise to jokes with punch lines like "if English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." However, there are plenty of misconceptions about language among otherwise reasonable people, not to mention French literary theorists or popular pundits. These are worth calling myths.

Here are some examples of linguistic myths which you can check out at the sci.lang FAQ:

  • "The Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow."
  • "There's a town in Appalachia that speaks pure Elizabethan English."
  • "Chinese characters directly represent ideas, not spoken words."
  • "German lost out to English as the US's official language by 1 vote."
  • "Sign language isn't really a language."

A couple of others we've already touched on above but deserve to be repeated:

Myth: speech and writing are parallel forms of linguistic expression, different but equally fundamental types of text.
Fact:  Speech is primary, writing is secondary and is always derivative of speech.

Myth: non-standard dialects are degraded and errorful versions of standard languages.
Fact: standard languages are either an arbitrary choice among a range of geographical and social dialects, or an artificial construct combining aspects of several dialect sources. Ways of speaking that happen not to be "standardized" in this way have their own history, at least equally valid even if lacking in prestige.

Myth: Primitive cultures have primitive languages, at a lower level of development and less well able to express a wide range of ideas.
Fact: There are no primitive languages; there are no demonstrated differences in fundamental communicative efficacy among  languages.

Language as a human instinct

As mentioned above, the fundamental point of the text for this class, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct , is that human linguistic ability is a kind of instinct (though far more complex than the phenomena this word often evokes).

In chapter 2, he gives several kinds of evidence for this position which we'll look at below.

  1. All human societies have full-fledged complex language. There are no known exceptions to this, nor is there historical record of exceptions in the past
  2. Language is spontaneously created in the form of Creoles where it would otherwise be lacking.
  3. Children use language productively in ways they couldn't be simply repeating.
  4. Damage to specific parts of the brain leads to consistent language deficits.

Universality and equality

We have no record of a human culture that lacked language. Furthermore, all languages that we have been able to examine seem to be of roughly the same complexity and to have roughly the same expressive power. This is quite different from familiar aspects of culture.

There are cultures which are objectively primitive technologically. Material innovations are constantly undertaken and passed from one culture to another and have been as far back as we can go, from the use of specific metals for making tools, to the adoption of sedentary agricultural methods, to the use of computers. This is not to say that certain cultures are better than others or to make any sort of value judgment, it is rather the objective observation that culture A has some specific skill or knowledge wich culture B does not. Culture A may be more advanced in certain areas while culture B is more advanced in others.

But there are no primitive languages.

Different languages do have different amounts of complexity in different areas, but things balance out overall. There is no correlation between the complexity or "logic" of a language and the material sophistication of the people who speak it.

For example, the familiar languages of Europe have a single word corresponding to English we which means "me and at least one other person", but many languages, spoken by people from considerably more primitive material cultures have several words which allow their speakers to be more clear on who else is included with "me". For example, Mohawk, a Native American language, has the following prefix forms:

you and I: teni you (all) and I: tewa
he/she and I: iakeni they and I: iakwa


In certain situations of language contact, a pidgin may arise to serve as a lingua franca or means of communication among people who don't share a common language. A pidgin is not a real language: it has no native speakers, and its grammar is quite simple.

An example is an earlier form of Tok Pisin ("talk pidgin") which arose in Papua New Guinea: a simplified form of English influenced by native languages of the island. This quote is from the 19th century.

Boatswain gammon me.
"The boatswain lied to me."

Sometimes a pidgin can come to serve as the first language of children born into the contact situation. What happens in this case is creolization: the pidgin develops rapidly from the simple pidgin to a much more complex creole, a true language. As Pinker discusses, it seems that the children are imposing the innate linguistic ability on the impoverished input and coming up with a language worthy of their lingustic abilities.

Creole: A creole language, or just creole, is a well-defined and stable language that originated from a non-trivial combination of two or more languages, typically with many distinctive features that are not inherited from either parent. All creole languages evolved from pidgins, usually those that have become the native language of some community.

This process can be observed in the development of Tok Pisin. In the course of the 20th century, the language has developed far greater complexity in a number of ways. One is that verbs take a subject marking element i (from English "he") even in the presence of a full noun phrase. This is unlike English, but very much like many other languages, including Spanish, German and Choctaw.

Wanpela man i no kam.
"One person didn't come."

Similarly, verbs take a suffix im when they are transitive (i.e. have a direct object). It's historically from English him , but it serves a very different function now, being there in addition to the object:

Mi no wok-im wanpela samting.
"I didn't do anything."

It's much more like transitivizing suffixes found for example in a number of native American languages like Nahuatl (the language of the Aztec empire).

The essential point is that this grammar has developed independently of the English on which it is largely based. Scholars debate the degree to which the new grammar derives from neighboring languages or from innate human grammar, but either way it shows the effect of the instinct for grammatical language.

Children's linguistic creativity

Contrary to popular belief, children do not seem to learn language the way they learn to tie their shoes or draw pictures. They're way too good at it. They deduce a complicated grammatical system on the basis of a very small amount of noisy data, in a way that looks suspiciously like they already know certain things basic properties of human language from the beginning.

It's not difficult to find examples of children creating new words that they've surely never heard before, yet based on the principles of the language around them. Overgeneralizing rules for word formation is a common example:

Generalization (in which * = illegal version)

-ed = past

  • saved
  • *bringed
  • *goed

-s = plural

  • hats
  • *foots
  • *mouses

This ability can actually be tested experimentally. A child can be presented with a task requiring the creation of a new form of a word never heard before -- the classic example involves showing children a small bird-like creature with the made-up name "wug", leading to the term wug test.

  This is a wug.
  Now there are two of them.
There are two ____.

People with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) - a disorder characterized by a drastic disruption of linguistic ability without corresponding disruption of general cognitive functions - have great difficulty with this seemingly simple task.

Language localization

There is evidence from language disorders that language is consistently located in specific parts of the brain, and perhaps in some sense these areas are designated for language. That is, damage to specific physical areas in the brain correlates with specific impairments in linguistic ability.

One syndrome called Wernicke's aphasia typically results in fluent but nonsensical speech. Affected individuals often sound superficially to be speaking normally, but upon examination what they produce, while frequently containing strings that conform to the grammatical rules of the language, has no coherent meaning, and typically includes made-up words. They also have trouble understanding the normal speech of others.

An example of Wernicke's Aphasia

Examiner: What kind of work have you done?

Patient: We, the kids, all of us, and I, we were working for a long time in the... You know... it's the kind of space, I mean place rear to the spedawn...

Examiner: Excuse me, but I wanted to know what kind of work you have been doing.

Patient: If you had said that, we had said that, poomer, near the fortunate, porpunate, tamppoo, all around the fourth of martz. Oh, I get all confused.

This aphasia is the result of damage to a region of the brain called Wernicke's area, near the primary auditory cortex that controls hearing.

Broca's areaPremotor cortexMotor cortexprimary somatiic sensory cortexParietal lobeGustatory areaWernicke's areaWernicke's areaPrimary visual cortexOptic radiationsCerebellumBrain stemPrimary auditory cortexLeft cerebral hemisphereMiddle cerebral artery

Note: The clicking on image terms will take you to sources designed to tell you more about them. A number of them take you to Sylvius Anatomical Reference. If "terms" is selected, you can choose from a list of anatomical term for images and definitions. Other sites take you to the best short description I could find. Do let me know if a link has gone dead. For much broader coverage of the subject, go to Neurolinguists (http://sites.millersville.edu/bduncan/465/). As with all my sites, logon = open password = sesame.

The fact that damage to Wernicke's area leads to similar deficits in different people, speaking whatever their native language might be, already suggests that a specific area of the brain may have evolved to deal with language processing.

For example, the comprehension of spoken signals might naturally have developed out of resources in the brain already devoted to perception of sounds.

Quite interestingly, however, the linguistic function of this area does not seem to be tied to sound in the modern brain, as shown by the evidence of deaf aphasics.

For users of sign language, damage to Wernicke's area leads to fluent but nonsensical signing, as in the following translated example.

And there's one (way down at the end). The man walked over to see the (disconnected), an extension of the (earth) room. It's there for the man (can live) a roof and light with shades to (keep pulling down).

By contrast, a signer with damage to Broca's area has trouble articulating signs and cannot communicate fluently -- just as in spoken language it leads to stilted, labored speech (Pinker, pp. 34-35).

Cases such as this provide striking evidence that linguistic abilities are part of the brain's basic endowment, which when functioning correctly enables people to manipulate symbols in a structured way to convey meaning. It doesn't actually matter whether the language is spoken or signed. They also provide evidence that sign language is, in some important sense, the same as spoken language, a point which we will discuss in some detail in a later lecture.

Grammar: prescriptive vs. descriptive

Linguists talk a lot about "grammar", and this class will be no exception, so to conclude this lecture I want to say something about what linguists mean by this term and, more importantly, what they don't mean.

When you hear the word grammar it may conjure up bad memories of English class where you had to memorize a series of weird rules to make sure that you didn't make any mistakes while writing papers. This is what we call prescriptive grammar , because it's a matter of someone telling you what (and what not) to do.

This is not what linguists do.

Instead, we're concerned with what we call descriptive grammar

  • Our goal is to find out how people actually speak, to describe adequately the system that underlies what they say and to figure out how that system gets into their heads.

Now, there is a type of correctness that linguists actually are concerned with, a notion that is called grammaticality or acceptability .

  • These are generalizations about what sorts of things people actually say, not what they think they (or others) should say.
  • E.g. the following is ungrammatical because no native speaker of English would ever say it:
    Frankie pizza ate.
  • By contrast, most speakers of English would say the following, thus it is grammatical, although you English teacher might tell you its "bad grammar":
    What are you talking about?

The things that English teachers get mad about, or that mark certain dialects as "substandard" are usually quite arbitrary. In fact, the constructions they find bad are usually found in very similar form in other languages, where they don't raise an eyebrow. The reasons why some linguistic feature is looked on as "improper" or associated with low prestige typically have quite a bit to do with historical accident or whim, and rarely have anything to do with real linguistic issues.

The determination of what is grammatical or ungrammatical, on the other hand, is based strictly on scientific observation.

Three examples of prescriptivist silliness

As with everything, the issues here can be made more clear with some examples

  1. Split infinitives

    Students of English are often told that it is improper to put anything between to and the verb in infinitive constructions. Thus instead of

    To boldly go where noone has gone before.
    Gene Rodenberry should have said
    To go boldly where noone has gone before -- or --
    Boldly to go where noone has gone before.

    Now, as linguists we might be puzzled by this, because any speaker of English will recognize Rodenberry's original version as a normal English sentence which they themselves might even say. It is fully grammatical.

    So why don't the prescriptivists want us to say it?

    • Because -- as is the case with many quirky prescriptivist rules -- you can't do it in Latin.
    • The Latin infinitive is one word, e.g. regere 'to rule', so there is no question of putting something between its two subparts.
    • Of course Latin was the language of learning throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern era, and many looked on it as the superior form of language.
    • So at some point, some pundit decided that if you can't do it in Latin, you shouldn't be able to do it in English, and declared a construction that had been just fine for centuries to be "bad grammar".

  2. "Double negatives"

    In standard varieties of English, you might encounter sentences like

    I don't want any pizza.

    but in other varieties you might hear the following instead:

    I don't want no pizza.

    This phenomenon, frequently called double negation because of the appearance of two negative elements in one clause, is one of the most frequently decried characteristics of "substandard dialects" around. It's usually claimed to be unclear and illogical, because, by the rules of predicate logic, two negatives actually make a positive, so when people say I don't want no pizza they're really saying that they do want some pizza.

    This is a load of crap.

    People who use these sentences know exactly what they mean and are not misunderstood by the people they speak to, and they are strictly following the completely logical rules of the grammar of their dialect when they do so.

    • This "double negation" is more properly called "negative concord", because it is really a single instance of negation that is realized in two places in the sentence.
    • The phenomenon is cross-linguistically extremely common, e.g. in French:
      Je ne sais pas.
      I ne know not = I don't know.
    • It is found in the roughly the form given here in nearly every non-standard dialect of English.
    • It was completely standard in older forms of English, as in the following example from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales , perhaps the most well-known example of Middle English literature:
      He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde.
      He never yet no villainy not said.
    • Standard English does it too, just with different words. Recall the sentence in question:
      I don't want any pizza.
      The word any is part of the negation of this sentence, and if you leave it off, you change the meaning. It is no more or less inherent negative than the no of non-standard dialects.
  3. Me and him

    One more favorite subject for prescriptivist is the "proper" use of pronoun forms. E.g., we're "supposed" to say

    He and I went to the game.
    Him and me went to the game.

    This is because he and I are supposedly "nominative" or subject forms, while him and me are "accusative" or object forms.

    But this is not entirely accurate.

    At earlier stages in the history of English this was true, but it is also true that there used to be three forms for pronouns, e.g. he, him and hine , and even the nouns used to show distinctions depending on whether they were subject or object.

    The language has changed, and the pronominal forms are no longer distributed the way they once were. Actually, the way they are used now corresponds more or less exactly to the distribution in the standard versions of several other languages that are like English in the relevant respects, like French and the Scandinavian languages.

Language change, standardization and preservation

A lot of what prescriptivists get uptight about, including the last example above, has to do with one of the central facts about language:

All living human languages are constantly changing.

In a later lecture we'll talk in detail about the how and why of language change, but for the time being, all that matters is that it is inevitable. Your children will not speak exactly like you do, and your ancestors in three hundred years or so, if they met you, would probably have a lot of trouble understanding you, even if your family stayed in the same place during that entire time.

In a number of cultures, people have gotten so concerned about the "decay" of their language that they've set up commitees or academies to counteract it.

  • But the success of such efforts is fairly limited.
  • No matter how indignantly the French Academy complains, young French people continue to use English slang terms and drop the word ne and so forth.

So are we doomed to slide ever further down the slippery slope of language decay until we are reduced to an emotive jibber-jabber of grunts and squeals?


In spite of the fears and dire predictions of generations of prescriptivists and even some early linguistics, language change is not decay.

Just as all languages are equal in complexity and sophistication, so are different historical incarnations of a single language.

  • Complexity may well be lost in a particular system, but it will be compensated for by increasing complexity somewhere else.

    • Thus English has lost complex morphology on nouns and verbs like that found in languages like Latin over the past 1200 years.

    • But at the same time it has developed sophisticated systems of modal and aspectual auxiliary verbs well beyond anything known to Old English.

    • Indeed it seems to be in process of developping a new set of inflections out of these auxiliaries. It will sound strange to most of you, but one now occasionally hears or sees things like:
      Wouldn't've you done the same?

As far as we can tell, language is getting neither worse nor better, just different.

Now, good clear writing style and solid rhetorical skills are rather different matters. They are learned separately from language, although they use language, and they can very well get better or worse from generation to generation, and vary quite a bit from person to person.

But that is a story for a different course.