On Language and Its Rules: History in Language

The Merriam–Webster dictionary defines language as “the words, their pronunciation and the methods of combining them, used and understood by a community.” The very definition of language implies that its primary function is to express ideas, thoughts, and feelings to our communities. An infant picks up this skill from the tender age of six months. It would just be incoherent babble at that time but in accordance with the definition given by Merriam–Webster, it could still be classified as language because the infant is trying to convey a certain message to his parents, even though the message might be as inane as “Change my diaper, Dad.”

Further, the history of mankind has been a witness to the fact that language is very dynamic. Whether it is English, French, Greek, or Zulu, all languages have evolved, adapted, and expanded to cater to the changing and ever increasing needs of mankind. Every year, around 1000 words are added to the English dictionary alone. Around 2000 slang words are also invented and added only in Oxford Dictionaries Online (Datoo, 2013). The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, never removes a single word even if it’s no longer in use (Datoo, 2013).  Slang words, as though in defiance, also become an integral part of the English language. This makes it almost impossible to define the scope of a language, begging the question “Who has the right to define or limit a language?” Is it the stodgy old men working for Merriam–Webster occasionally swearing (which is not considered to be a part of language) or is it the people who use these words to express themselves? I would like pose a third option that would render the above two choices obsolete. I believe that language should not be constrained or standardized because language is a culmination of experiences and a non-standard language can lead us to unexplored heights of creativity. This blog series will explore various reasons that support the non-standardization of language.

During British Imperialism, a young British judge called William Jones was stationed in India. He made an attempt to learn Sanskrit in order to effectively enforce British rules in India. While learning Sanskrit, he noticed certain similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin which pointed to a possibility that many of the Indo-European languages emerged from a common source. Some historians further postulated that these Indo-European people were descendants of the same race and found archaeological evidence supporting their theory. This is a rather detailed example of how language contains history at the macro level. Similarly, language is repository of experience at the grass root level too. It is a well-known fact that the attitudes, behaviors, personality traits, and other psychological characteristics of a person are influenced by peers, parents, media, and other socializing agents like teachers and schools. Language, as established before, is also an integral part of an individual. Hence, it cannot be spared by the pervasive influence of the environment.

English is my second language. I did my high school education in India and pursued my college degree in the Unites States. My English accent is a mixture of Indian and American accent. However, since India was a British colony and British English is widely spoken here, some British accent also seamlessly slithers in. Therefore, a person’s language is like his memoir. It contains the much valuable history of his race, his gender and pivotal moments of his life. James Baldwin (1979) explores the above given claim in his essay “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” He writes, “Subsequently, the slave was given, under the eye, and the gun, of his master, Congo Square, and the Bible–or, in other words, and under those conditions, the slave began the formation of a black church, and it is within this unprecedented tabernacle that Black English began to be formed. This was not, merely, as in the European example, the adoption of a foreign tongue, but an alchemy that transformed ancient elements into a new language” (Baldwin, 1979, Para. 7). Baldwin further explains how Black English was a product of the cruel history of slavery and racial discrimination. Similarly, a person’s language is an embodiment of his past including all his toils and rewards. By dismissing his language, one callously dismisses his history.

 Coming up next in this series – On Language and it Rules: Why context matters?

Prachi Bhuptani