language change re: Vocabula

Dan Goodman dsgood at VISI.COM
Thu Jun 19 04:39:51 UTC 2003

Date:    Wed, 18 Jun 2003 09:51:18 -0700
From:    Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
Subject: Re: Vocabula

david bowie, to robert hartwell fiske:
  >I'm a generally honest person, and I don't believe much language
  >change is due to ignorance. So, unless we're defining "ignorance"
  >differently, I'd like to see your proof--particularly your proof of
  >(and definition of!) "much".

well, yes, a lot depends on what counts as "ignorance".  internal
change - excluding dialect and language contact - in lexicon,
morphology, syntax, and semantics is very much a matter of two
mechanisms: reinterpretation/reanalysis (including
grammaticalization), and regularization/generalization. (in the case
of the lexicon, creative extensions of meaning via metaphor and
metonymy play an important role as well.)  both types of change
involve a mismatch between the grammars of succeeding generations of
speakers.  people in general are of course deeply ignorant of the
details of other people's grammars; we devise our own grammars on
the basis of what other people say, in what circumstances, and have
no direct access to their minds.  for the purposes of getting along
in social life, it's enough that our grammars be close enough.  they
could never be entirely identical.

Which fits neatly into the sociological theory called "symbolic

we all work from a position of ignorance, and we get huge numbers of
things (a bit) "wrong", from the point of view of other, especially
older, speakers.  in many cases, lots of people will independently
make the same "mistake" - reinterpreting an adjectival participle in
the predicate as a passive, say, or refashioning irregular past
participles to make them identical to past tense forms - because the
mistake is invited by the data of the language; in retrospect, such
changes seem almost inevitable.  then the innovations spread from
individual speakers through social networks.  and, of course, more
idiosyncratic innovations can spread that way too, much the way
fashions of all kinds spread.

I think there's at least one other class of  "wrong" language:  old
usage is seen as "wrong".   For example,  "Pennsylvania Dutch" seen as
incorrect because they're not Netherlandish -- when "Dutch" used to be
used freely for both Germans and Netherlanders.   (And Pennsylvania
Dutch/Germans _do_ have some Netherlandish ancestry, I've been told.)
Or the distinction between "sex" and "gender".

Dan Goodman dsgood at
Whatever you wish for me, may you have twice as much.

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