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July 8, 2013 / Congau

Bad Changes in the Language

The meaning of words changes over time, and that is bad.

Bad?

Yes, bad.

How can you place a moral judgment on a completely natural phenomenon?

Well, disease, poverty, war and running noses are also quite natural, but we still call them bad. It would have been better if they didn’t exist. Now, a change in the language is not quite as bad as violence and disease. It usually doesn’t make any of us really miserable, and the pain it causes is rather negligible compared to other sufferings of human existence. Granted, linguistic problems are rather harmless, but we can still make value judgments within its own context.

Whatever works well according to its purpose is good, what works bad is bad, and in between there is a continuum of quality assessments.

The purpose of language is communication. Therefore, what makes a language work well as a means of communication is good, and what makes communication more difficult is bad.

When words change their meaning, it makes communication more difficult.

The speakers of a language are able to understand each other and exchange ideas because they have a common understanding of what the words mean. Over time many words change their meaning, but for one word it doesn’t happen all at once. It is a gradual and very slow process. It starts when people for some reason break out of the linguistic convention and start using a word differently. That may happen out of pure ignorance, carelessness and sometimes deliberately. When only one person makes a mistake, it only impedes the conversation that one person is having, but sometimes mistakes catch on and spread. A group of people then has a different understanding of a word than the majority of the population, and that makes it more difficult for that group to communicate with the rest.

Of course, when it’s only a matter of a single word, it doesn’t have a dramatic effect, but at any time in the life of a language there are many words floating around in this limbo. For some words the mistaken definition is short lived, but in other cases the mistakes linger. Then there is a remaining uncertainty among the users of the language about what the words mean. That obviously is an obstacle to effective communication and that again causes stress and, well, a mild suffering.

The language itself, a living organism, cures this illness in the course of time. That happens in to ways, and both solutions cure the “suffering” of the language, so both are good solutions. Either the mistaken definition will disappear or the mistake will become so common that it will defeat the original definition and replace it. In the latter case the mistake is no longer a mistake, but has become correct.

This illustrates how language changes take place. One convention (language) is replaced by another, and again there is agreement and harmony in the linguistic community. However, until that happens, it is a mistake and it causes trouble for the users of the language.

Language is convention, and one definition is in principle as good as any other as long as there is agreement. By replacing one definition with another nothing is in fact achieved; the language has neither become better or worse. But before the replacement is completed there is confusion, uncertainty and lack of convention, and the language works less effectively. It is a worse language.

Therefore, don’t condone the linguistic chaos around you by calling it a natural process. It is a painful process, and it is bad.

This post was a response to

http://rjcook135.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/words-and-definitions-a-response-to-im-at-a-loss-for-words/

One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. rjcook135 / Jul 8 2013 6:20 pm

    Very good rebuttal. I’m actually quite honored by the fact that you took the time to respond to my post.

    I hadn’t considered the chaos and confusion that takes place during the transition period of one definition to another. Thank you for pointing that out. 🙂

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