• Monthly Archives: July 2023

Is There Room for Chance in Language Change?

July 23, 2023

While chance or “spontaneous variation” has a role to play in Darwinian theory, we can safely say that there is none in language change. Whenever languages change, they do so because something in the context is accountable for the change.

It is another matter when it comes to timing. A context may be conducible to a change, yet no change need occur, which means that changes are spontaneous when first introduced. Whether such spontaneous variations are propagated and continue to exist over time is another matter. Every change must be taken up by the language community en gros in order to perdure.

Very often, language being figurative at its core, something linguistic comes into being because of metaphorical innovation but need not be taken up by speakers at large. Such, for instance, is the currently popular compound in English, game-changer. This word is applied in popular speech to just about every situation that can be described as a fundamental change in circumstances. The transferred use of the component game testifies to the conceptualization by its users of every possible situation as something resembling a game. The fundamental meaning of this word necessarily involves the concept of “play,” which then means that speakers who resort to this compound are inherently taking every life-situation as a game. In the case of American speakers this is further evidence that we/they construe everything in life as being (at least potentially) less than serious.


Country–Who? Animacy Triumphant

July 19, 2023

In an item posted here eight years ago, “The Tension between Grammar and Praxis,” Y-H-B pointed to the increasing tendency in public speech to replace the inanimate demonstrative which with the animate who when referring to entities behind which stood human actors or collectives.

In a TV clip on CNN today, this tendency was once again demonstrated when the current AID Administrator, Samantha Power, was recorded as saying “the countries who” during an interview in Africa.

Coming from a sometime college professor with advanced degrees, this strikes Y-H-B as a particularly flagrant example of the mistake’s current expansion throughout contemporary speech. Errare humanum est.


When the Germans Take Ownership of Foreign Onomastics

July 15, 2023

In rereading a British biography of the Russian composer Tchaikovsky (spelled just this way in the title), Y-H-B realized the dominance of German spelling practices when it comes to many Russian names. Here, for example, there is no need for the initial letter T in the English spelling of the Russian name, since it would be pronounced the same in English without it. Its presence here stems from the German necessity to distinguish Ch- from Tch- because ch alone would be pronounced [x], i. e. the stronger version of English h, as in harbinger.
In the original Russian, of course, the initial letter of the composer’s name renders the same sound as the English churl, and the T- is utterly otiose.
By the bye, speaking of foreign renderings of onomastics, it might be noted here that in Japanese the high pitch in its version of our composer’s name falls on the final vowel rather than on the penult.