Language Changes: Where Do Words Come from?
When talking about language changes, there are two main positions one can take. The first one is prescriptivism, an approach that implicates that there are wrong and right ways to use words and there are rules we have to follow. Prescreptivists believe that there is no sense in describing the processes of the living flesh of the language, but we should focus on adequate usage of the words as they are and always were. The second point of view is descriptive, which does a completely opposite thing. Most academic linguists are descriptivists and they strive to inspect and study the changes itself, gaining rather new knowledge than trying to confirm a strict set of rules. For prescriptivism, words must mean exactly what they mean, but descriptivism rather want to know how language works.
Indeed, social, cultural and political environment changes all the time, and so does language. If you look through a historical dictionary, you would see that words never stand still: the meaning changes, extends, and this process never end. If we perceive language as an ocean with a constantly changing surface, prescriptivists would say that there is a concrete way for a surface to look like, while descriptivists would rather gain the knowledge about a change itself.
However, if you have already took the part of descriptivism, it is necessary to pinpoint that sometimes language change can do harm. It’s never something really disastrous, still negative. Some changes are not really changes, but just a lack of care. The common misuse of the language as well as a rebuff of complicated words by regular persons leads to simplification of the way we talk, and therefore – think. Considering this, a philosophical question arises: how could changes still happen without turning language into chaos? If such things happen all the time, how does language manage to stay applicable?
The answer is that language is not a total of separate elements, but a system. All layers of language, including words, grammar and phonetics build the body of language and don’t exist be themselves. Therefore, in one element of the system experiences changes or distortions, there will be another change to come and compensate it, creating a new system that differs from the old one, but stays functional because they have the same fundament.
Most changes in language never come alone and are called chain shifts, because in most cases one change evokes another one, and then – one more. This happens until language comes to a new form. The local changes that begin on the natural level can be chaotic, but the system is smart enough to keep everything in order and avoid harm.
When it comes to the meaning of words that change over time, some confusing things might happen. Let’s take the word “buxom”. In ancient times, this word meant “obedient”, while today it is more like “ample-breasted”. It is less surprising when a word gains a meaning that is close to initial one, but how does it happen to become something that far-off? The trick is that “buxom” moved to “pliant”, then to “amiable” and finally to “cheerful”. The next logical bounce was to “healthy”, which associated with plump women. So we can conclude that this meaning has always been there, only unpacked with time. This kind of change is very common. We can notice a significant difference only when we see the initial word and the result of the last change. However, let’s mind that it takes time for words to change that dramatically. It happens slowly and it is hard to notice every step of the process. Still, there is no chaos here at all. Every next change of the word could simply make a hole in language, however, this never happened – a new word got a sit. When something moves and causes a gap, something else also moves and fills it. The changes are small and sometimes random, however, they never lack logic and work as a system.
However, when changes occur on the level of grammar, they might be more serious. Just take any book written in the old English and you will see how different the grammar is. English grammar became a thousand times simpler than it was. Centuries ago, there were complicated rules for endings and adjectives, just like in Russian or German. Today, the communicating power of complex grammar constructions is lost, because people don’t really need it.
It is surprising to realize that language doesn’t require any managing or participation of human beings to change and live its own life. Just like global economy that has inner rules and manages itself, language is complicated enough to do the same. There are common layers of both economy and language we have dealings with, however, the logic of these systems is self-regulated and truly genius.