Friday, November 23, 2007

Language Is Not Static—It Changes As We Do

Often people in my writing classes ask me for “the answer.” While I am not one to shy from distinguishing a comma from a semicolon, asserting that affect and effect cannot be used interchangeably, or explaining the difference between an objective and reflexive pronoun (e.g., me or myself), I more than frequently note that so much of language usage is a matter of personal preference and changing trends.

In fact, linguists would insist that the words we use to mean whatever we want them to are arbitrary in their origin—and just as arbitrarily change meaning over time. Ferdinand de Saussure (Swiss, 1857 – 1913), one of the grandfathers of modern linguistics, in particular the study of the relationship between signs and what they signify, makes this point in his landmark book, Course in General Linguistics, when he writes:

“Absolute stability in a language is never found … It would be naïve to suppose that a word can change only up to a certain point, as if there were something in it that could preserve it.” (193 – 208)

Saussure believed that geographical, cultural, climactic, and political factors greatly influence sound changes and, with them, changes in the meaning of words. As the international language of the marketplace, English is especially susceptible to pressures from global influences. Language evolves as we do. A good way to keep track of it is to take a writing course or read a current book on language or writing every three to five years.

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