Rob's theory of linguistic divergence • 15 September 2007 • The SnowBlog

Rob's theory of linguistic divergence

Slightly specialised post here. I'll put it behind a cut because it's mainly for people who've been wracking their brains to understand why language is always evolving. If that's not you, then, as ever, here's a link to Cute Overload instead. Remember, there's no shame in not being a colossal nerd. Now off with you; go look at fuzzy things. OK. Gather round my nerd-like friends. So, here's the conundrum: language obviously evolved as a form of communication - not, you know, as a way of providing lyrics to tunes that had previously been hummed. In fact, it's so obvious, it's difficult to get around. Language is pretty much synonymous with communication. So why does it not converge until everyone can understand everyone else? Why does it keep shifting and altering, dividing large groups into smaller ones and not unifying them instead? Well, in the Rob view of the world, the answer to that question comes when you understand one of the key roles of vowel shifts and jargon, slang, idiom and private jokes. They're about in-crowds. They enable us to work out whether someone is 'one of us' or an outsider. But the importance of that has little to do with snobbery. It's about trade and specialisation and a sort of pre-monetary form of credit. Language lets you discuss the reputations of third-parties with those around you. That's not my idea; it's one of the theories explaining the evolution of language. Discussing other people's actions and debating their character and reputations becomes vitally important as soon as a community starts specialising. The hunters can't monitor the gatherers and still hunt - and vice versa. Once you start specialising, lots of people are doing their own thing and you have to trust that they're not freeloading, because freeloading is one of the big problems with extended groups of people - and gossip is the cure. So far so good. But when the group gets really big - or starts to trade with other groups - the problem of credentials comes up. Does this guy who says he represents the chief from the next village really represent him. Is that guy who's just arrived at the feast really one of us? Without a way to prove membership of a group, it's really difficult to manage the next level of social complexity where communities trade with one another and grow so big that you might not know everyone personally. Here's where all the weird tics of language - the idioms, the vowel shifts, the slang, the 'bad' grammar - come in. They're shibboleths, badges of membership and they're difficult to fake. While languages in general diverge, within some groups language homogenises. Teen and ghetto slang becomes standard across the group very quickly. It's like a new password has been issued and it's passed around until all the right people know it. The key concept is networks of mutual obligation and entitlement. If a 'group' is not also a network of obligation, then it's use of language will diverge to reflect the 'real' groups. A true member of such a network will have rights within the group, will be able to ask for favours, will be entitled to share in the benefits of the group. They will have 'paid in' as past contributors and will have earned the right to 'make withdrawals' and perhaps to issue commands to other group members - and yet it's difficult to keep track of membership in any large group. Language change (in my view) is a constant shuffling of codes, changing of passwords and issuing of new team strip (to use a soccer reference). If you're really one of us you'll know the special word we have for a turnip round 'ere. You'll be able to understand the weird gabble the old timers speak. You'll drop your 'h's or 'q's or some other letter and you'll know what we mean by "Let's book!" or "Cave!" or "It's the old bill!" or "That's so fetch!". So there you have it, language divergence is one of the enabling technologies for allowing the expansion of group size in human communities and an authentication mechanism for inter-group trade. Now go on, you know you want to: here's that link to Cute Overload where all the less asthmatic kids who don't wear glasses have been for the last five minutes.


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