20 September 2007

Languages: doin' it as they do in the Discovery Channel

I was chatting with someone from the U.S. the other day about an assortment of topics, and the evolution of language came up. This is one of my favourites, as many people know. We discussed how the younger members of our societies seem to be losing certain finer distinctions of language, how this makes us (both in Spanish and English) feel we're experiencing a kind of degradation of our respective languages, and how this is, after all, a natural and even desirable consequence of change.

We both had a problem, truth be told, with young Americans using the past tense instead of the past participle and saying for example "I had went" (gasp!), as well as forgetting there's a subjunctive mood, and with Argentine teens (and so-called professional journalists) using the conditional/potential mood in place of the subjunctive in conditional clauses ("Si lo sabría te lo diría" instead of "Si lo supiera te lo diría").

One of the myths of language is that of purity. And it's a dangerous myth, like any ideal involving purity or perfection, especially when in reality they're nowhere to be found. If there were such a thing as "pure" in language, there would be no Spanish or English. Spanish has a ton of words from Latin, of course, but it's not Latin — the original words have been mangled, lost, redefined, their sounds changed and merged into other or split into different sounds, the grammar being greatly simplified, the vocabulary supplemented by thousands of foreign elements.

There's a sizable contribution from Arabic in there too, from alcohol and azúcar (sugar) to café and zanahoria (carrot), and Germanic words from the time when the Visigoths took over, and words from French, English, Basque, and many Native American languages from Nahuatl in Mexico to Quechua in the former Inca territories and Guaraní along the littoral of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, and of course technical terms reborrowed from Latin and Greek (often recognizable in many other languages). English, well, you know about English. So if you listen to some purist claiming he or she speaks "the good ol' language" and chiding the youngsters for polluting it with foreign words and degrading it with neological grammar, you know that's all ridiculous.

I had an interesting conversation with another friend later, also about language, but in a philosophical/religious setting. I'll tell you about that tomorrow.

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