10

I have met this problem several times. I think many natural languages are not really particularly usefully structured, because they contain things like irregularities and unnecessary syntax variations. Like in the logical language Lojban (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lojban) it has seemed to me that it's perfectly possible to structure useful language in much smaller syntactic domains.

However, when I discuss this idea with people, they often say that "you cannot alter German or French or ..., because they're too established and people would simply disagree with you if you decided to use the language in a different way".

So, do we have examples where altering an established language is possible, and how can such become a reality?

10
  • 2
    Natural language changes throughout time but "artificial languages" usually do not work. Jan 15 at 10:07
  • 4
    I am sceptical that the proposal of alterations made by a single person are effective enough. Even the groups who since decades try to promote a new language like esperanto have to struggle hard.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 15 at 10:49
  • 10
    Being established is only part of the problem, what you see as "irregularities and unnecessary syntax variations" may well be useful, the uses are just not those few you picked. Natural languages must be plastic, multi-user and multi-purpose, being logical, minimal, or some other theoretical virtue is not what they answer to. Redundancy and variations are features and not bugs. Esperanto was the most successful attempt to "improve" on them, and that is not to say very. Lynch's book Lexicographer's Dilemma tracks why such attempts failed historically.
    – Conifold
    Jan 15 at 10:59
  • 9
    Natural language is not just used for logic and mathematics; it is also used for song, poetry, pillow talk, drama, persuasion, and a host of other things, where the hearer's emotional response is often more important than semantic interpretation---and emotional response to a phrase is often linked to other times the phrase has been used. Any big change to the language would throw away a lot of that emotional context that people find so valuable. Jan 15 at 13:58
  • 1
    It is probably easier to invent a new language than to make wholesale modification to an existing one. But artificial languages such as Esperanto have never been popular.
    – Bumble
    Jan 17 at 3:55

10 Answers 10

16

Example of successful changes to language:

  • The king of Korea famously introduced a writing system for Korea with great success. It took a king to impose this new writing system, and was successful only because the vast majority of Korean people were illiterate at that time, and this new writing system was a lot easier to learn than the old one.

  • In France, during the first half of the 20th century, the government made it illegal for children to speak in a minority language at school. These measures were applied pretty violently, with harsh punishments, with incentives for punished children to denounce other transgressing children. This resulted in all dialects being eradicated in a generation or two.

  • The Chinese government also took a lot of measures to develop a unified Chinese language and simplified writing system. I'm less familiar with the history of the Chinese language than with the history of the French language, but this also involved coercing people into using the simplified language.

  • There are lots of efforts in recent years to make language more gender-neutral, such as replacing "spokesman" with "spokesperson" or using gender-neutral pronouns. This is a much more democratic process than the two previous examples, but it takes a lot of sustained efforts by a large number of people over a long period of time, and even so, there is a lot of pushback.

  • Whenever a new concept appears and we don't have a word for it, new words appear. Fridge, whiteout, email, laptop, mobile phone, etc. The typical process is that a bunch of words appear for this new concept, and then one becomes the favourite and the others disappear. Often, the favourite word became favourite because it was pushed by a brand.

  • Changes in terminology are often pushed by people with a political agenda, with more or less subtlety and with more or less success. "Global warming", "climate change", "climate crisis" are a good example. The terms used to describe social classes are another good example. The meaning of the word "terrorist" also changed radically. These changes happen because powerful people used their influence on the media to push for these changes.

The main use of language is everyday communication. Asking people to abandon the language that they know, that their parents know, and that everyone around them knows, just because you personally had an idea for a more logical language, is unlikely to be successful unless you devote your whole life to promoting that change.

Note that the main reason why language is sometimes illogical, and irregular, is because language slowly evolves as it is used, and "being more logical" is never the goal. As a simple example, less-common verbs have a regular conjugation, but most-common verbs are irregular. Their conjugation has been eroded and modified by daily use over a long period. As another example, the Spivak gender-neutral pronouns were quickly abandoned, despite being very logical; whereas the singular "they" gender-neutral pronoun survived, despite being grammatically awkward.

10
  • 5
    Another example is the introduction of Latin script for Turkish by Atatürk, after about 1000 years of writing some form of Arabic. Clearly, such a move needs an outsize leader. Jan 16 at 5:40
  • 4
    Introducing writing systems, suppressing minority languages, inventing neologisms, or introducing euphemisms has nothing to do with restructuring a language like OP asked. Jan 16 at 8:12
  • 2
    It would be great if this answer improves wording to distinguish language and writing systems.
    – Trebor
    Jan 16 at 12:08
  • It also didn't work when the Normans tried to impose French on England. There's a limit.
    – Joshua
    Jan 16 at 15:14
  • 1
    @Peter-ReinstateMonica Ataturk didn't just introduce a new writing standard, he also initiated a reform of the language to "purify" it on nationalistic principles, apparently successfully pushing through hundreds of changes in vocabulary.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 16 at 16:22
6

Getting rid of “irregularities and unnecessary syntax variations” was one of the reasons for the German orthography reform of 1996 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It included simplifications in writing and reduction in the number of exceptions, to make learning easier for beginners.

It is remarkable that at least in Germany, “correct” writing is in general not prescriptive but descriptive (there is no authoritative dictionary of correct German). Exceptions exist for school teaching and grading and for official sources of written documents where standard writing rules and references may be prescribed.

The move caused considerable pushback by many authors and scholars and in the general public. Some large newspapers refused to adapt their writing. It was criticized that the reform was developed mainly by experts and without involvement of the public, that the removal of exceptions and easier writing was not consistent (“Delphin” could be written “Delfin”, but you could still not write “Filosofie” instead of “Philosophie”), and that it included unnecessary Germanization (French “Portemonnaie” would become “Portmonee”). The reform was followed by revisions in 2004 and 2006. Most media and other sources today use the official reformed orthography or some "house rules" with very few deviations from it. It is still debated if the reform was successful in its goal to simplify learning German orthography.

So, you can “alter German,” but it may take about ten years to be widely accepted.

To be clear: This reform was not as cataclysmic as some critiques made it seem (citing exceptionally noticeable changes, like the above-mentioned “Delfin” or the change from “Flußschiffahrt” to “Flussschifffahrt” caused by getting rid of “ß” after short vowels and preserving double consonants in compound nouns). In an average newspaper article, you might not even notice the difference at first glance. It was no comparison to the introduction of the Latin alphabet in the Turkish language, for example.

3
  • 2
    Is it really remarkable that there's no prescriptive authority for the German language? I thought France was unusual for having one.
    – aschepler
    Jan 17 at 22:58
  • 1
    It should also be noted that this mostly affected the spelling of words, with no real changes to the language itself (one could not "hear" the difference). Given that the reform also introduced some new spelling irregularities as you note, it is difficult to see this as an example for the widespread changes OP asked for. It did not (and never could) tackle grammatic irregularities.
    – Chieron
    Jan 18 at 10:45
  • @aschepler I found it remarkable because it was a prescriptive orthography reform for a language without a formal prescriptive authority.
    – Dubu
    Jan 18 at 12:51
4

There are many cases where language has been changed in one way or another and for one reason or another. But it's worth emphasizing that for such changes to survive, they need to be adopted by users of the language and this process is very hard to control.

It is safe to say that a change that turns out to be permanent will survive because users of the language have found the changes useful and/or convenient in one way or another. Then the change spreads informally because users hear (or see) a new word (or new use of an old word) that is useful in one way or another; then the word spreads because people imitate each other. Not all such changes are for philosophically interesting reasons; sometimes use of a particular words or phrase announces membership of a community or has a particular emotional charge. But we are all involved in these processes and all agents of change.

In fact, it can be very difficult to impossible to trace the exact origin of many of the changes that linguists note in a language - and whole new languages have developed in that way often by combining different languages.

J.L. Austin, commenting on the fondness that philosophers have for proposing changes to language, points out that it is not easy to improve on ordinary language (in Sense and Sensibilia p. 62)

But still, it is advisable always to bear in mind (a) that the distinctions embodied in our vast and, for the most part, relatively ancient stock of ordinary words are neither few nor always very obvious, and almost never just arbitrary; (b) that in any case, before indulging in any tampering on our own account, we need to find out what it is that we have to deal with; and (c) that tampering with words in what we take to be one little corner of the field is always liable to have unforeseen repercussions in the adjoining territory. Tampering, in fact, is not so easy as is often supposed, is not justified or needed so often as is often supposed, and is often thought to be necessary just because what we've got already has been misrepresented.

3
  • "It is safe to say that a change that turns out to be permanent will survive because users of the language have found the changes useful". Okay so, why wouldn't e.g. abolishing das/der/die in favor of just das be useful? Or enforcing alphabetically consistent pronunciation in English? So that words with the same subwords are always pronunced the same.
    – mavavilj
    Jan 19 at 2:52
  • Language is a very complicated system (or collection of systems), so ideas for beneficial changes often turn out to have unintended consequences. But the crucial point is that any changes are arbitrated by daily use of the language by millions of people - and those people have their own agendas. They can make the changes they find beneficial very effectively. Sadly, one can't have a debate with them. Rational revisions depend on acceptance. Enforcement - unless it is widely accepted, and consequently only needed in a small minority of cases - is hopeless. Language, like life, is messy.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 19 at 11:46
  • Suppose you wanted to introduce a single spelling for "rite" and "right" and "write". How would you ensure that your proposed unified spelling and pronunciation was uniform across all the dialects of English? Think about it. In the end, you would be just imposing your dialect on everyone else. What benefit would justify the effort and oppression that would be needed? "Received pronunciation" in the UK worked for a little while but collapsed in the end because the population wouldn't accept it. They were right. In any case, the different spellings are helpful because they reduce ambiguity.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 19 at 11:55
4

It is hard enough to make an intentional change in the vocabulary of a language. Making a change for the purpose of getting rid of irregularities or illogical syntax is nearly impossible. The irregular parts of language tend to be the parts people use most often. They use them so frequently that they pull up the patterns from memory rather than applying a rule. People are exceedingly resistant to changing that behavior.

Consider the verb "to be". It's wildly irregular, but making it regular would leave native speakers feeling almost as if they are speaking a new language.

I want to emphasize this point, because I think most of the answers aren't really addressing the OP's question. You can resurrect dead languages, if you have a determined community. You can suppress minority languages, if you have enough authority. You can change the way a language is written down, if you can get enough publishers on board (and that does not count as changing the syntax). The OP was talking about altering languages that are well-established, and, specifically changing the syntax (and other irregularities, to be fair) of such a language to make it more logical. Fixing the syntax would include things like getting rid of grammatical gender and maybe, in English, making tenses consistent so you either use a helping verb for the past and the future, or use an ending for both, instead of saying "she walked" but "she will walk." And I say the OP's friends are right and you cannot get a change like that to stick.

But yes, you can sometimes fix some irregularities in spelling. But even then, try doing it with English.

3

Natural languages are first and foremost social phenomena, and are subject to various, often competing, forces:

  • Since their purpose is to allow communication between people, they are subject to a strong "network effect". This tends to make them conservative with respect to large changes.
  • On the other hand, people want to be able to express themselves, which leads to language use being creative, with new words and grammatical forms arising out of playful or specialist usage.

Widely-used languages are also not monolithic; they have regional dialects and social registers. These too are subject to competing forces:

  • Prestigious varieties, such as those spoken by an elite or ruling class, are often imitated by other social groups. This doesn't necessarily replace other varieties, but has an influence, spreading features.
  • On the other hand, group identity can be asserted by using a deliberately distinct variety of language.

Attempting a "top down" reform of a language has to compete with all of these forces. There are cases where it may succeed, but they need the right combination of factors to come together; for instance:

  • It may be possible to mandate the new language variety in certain contexts. For instance, centralised control of the press might aid reforms to orthography (how a language is written).
  • Popular nationalist regimes may be able to advocate use of a "pure" or "modern" version of a language as part of their political agenda. In Turkey, Atatürk's reforms included both a wholesale change in alphabet and a wide reform of the language's vocabulary.
  • If the new language variety becomes established in a prestige social group, its use may become socially desirable in other groups - but not all.
  • If the existing language is not as widely used, a new variety can be created as part of extending it. For instance, if there is a low rate of literacy in the general population, a reform or wholesale change in orthography (spelling or writing system) might succeed. Or, if the language is endangered, a revitalisation program might be able to teach a new "improved" variety to those wishing to revive it.
  • If all else fails, there is always force: authoritarian regimes often violently suppress some language varieties in favour of others.

Even if a particular reform is successful, it is very unlikely that the rules it introduces will remain completely fixed; at some point, other forces of change will take over.

A recent podcast about the revival of Basque discussed how a "Standard Basque" was created to be used in a standard curriculum; but as speakers became fluent in it, they found it "too rigid", and started innovating new forms. If you somehow succeeded in promoting a regularised English, or German, or French, it would not stay regular - the same forces which introduced those irregularities in the first place would introduce new ones.

2

In my culture and country, all the four languages are well-established. We take certain words from other languages but cannot alter a whole language based on assumptions. It will require efforts and we would probably need a new generation for this. It can become a reality only if other people are convinced too, because some people love their cultural roots and it would be like a revolution.

1
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. Jan 16 at 23:36
2

Sudden, major changes to language are moderately common. Some of these are the result of conquest or its consequence, ethnic cleansing. But in modern times we've seen an number of language 'revivals', which come from the work of a single individual or a small group.

In the nineteenth century (I consider that part of the modern era) nationalist movements led to the revival of several languages, sometimes against a more-or-less living competing framework.

Modern Hebrew was developed by Eliezar Ben Yehuda, with a goal of becoming a modern national language, inspired by, but by no means limited to historical Biblical Hebrew.

Modern Standard Arabic dates from the same period. To some extent the goal of MSA was to create a super-national language for the pan-Arabic umma, but I think nationalism also describes the motivation for its development.

Addressing the history I know best, the language of government and technology at the time of Josef Dobrovsky and Josef Jungmann was German. Dobrovsky wrote a Czech grammar, and Jungmann a dictionary. They promoted the Czech language, perhaps re-gentrifying it from its peasant base, and nationalists and elites began publishing in it after about a century and half of disuse. When Masaryk declared independence after the first world war, the language of government switched from German to Czech (and Slovak), and Czech was ready for the role.

I don't know the history of the revivals of Polish and Welsh, but I'm sure some of you readers do, and can probably add a couple of dozen more examples as well.

All of the nationalist language revivals for which I know any details made changes to make revival less stressful for new or less-educated speakers. They also added a lot of vocabulary to make the 'new' language more palatable to literary elites.

2
  • I think there's quite a difference between these scenarios: language revival often involves filling in gaps in an impoverished language; standardisation often involves combining forms from existing dialects, or simply promoting one dialect to a level of prestige; but true top-down reform involves replacing parts of the language, with no existing usage of those forms at all.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 16 at 16:32
  • As it’s currently written, your answer is unclear. Please edit to add additional details that will help others understand how this addresses the question asked. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Jan 16 at 23:37
1

Even with totalitarian methods, policies of language prescriptivism inevitably fail over the long term. The Roman emperors could crucify people, at the height of their power, and the prestige of Latin was undeniable for a long time where people sought out and tried to conform to it, but today, outside of ecclesiastical Latin, Latin was pulled in the direction of the various Romantic languages, which themselves are arguably no more than collections of dialects that have converged on a common tongue aligned with the democratic will of peoples who inhabit nation-states. Linguistic drift is about as unstoppable as genetic mutation.

Consider English which started out as a Low German language under the contemporary appellation of Old English. We've retained maybe, 10% of that vocabulary, 'Ic' which is in between Modern English 'I' and High German 'Ich'. We retain maiden from Old English 'mæġden' that resembles 'das Mädchen'. But, do we even use maiden in discourse any more? Maybe in the context of Arthur Pendragon. So, vocabulary drifts, grammar forks and drifts, pronunciation changes like in the Great Vowel Shift. Is English even a Germanic language anymore with all of the French, Greek, and Latin we use? Do I in Chicago follow all of the precepts Victorian grammar Nazi's tried to impose. Hell no.

In natural language ontology, the notion of a 'language' is itself, in fact, a bit of a fiction. There is no one 'English' or 'German' in reality. The Old English in Northumbria differed from the Old English in Wessex around Londinium. Is Scots as has been popular to maintain bad English or is it a language throwback to a form of Middle English perhaps? Scots, when the English throne was in Scotland, was actually a prestige dialect. And when comparing Frisian, Old English, Scots, Norwegian nynorsk, and so on, how are all of these considered distinct languages, when Chinese is applied to arguably a more diverse collection of tounges.

The point of arguing that 'language' is a suspect term is to highlight the important reply to your question. How can you regulate something you can't even define? It's not possible. Let's say that a group of English scholars were appointed to impose order on English. Whose English? British English? The English of our Aussie and Kiwi brothers and sisters? Have you ever even heard the English of Appalachia. I have relatives who speak it, and on the phone, I struggle to even understand it.

So in a language like English, no, it's not feasible to even effectively decide what would be regulated or used before even attempting to impose some sort of enforcement. France may have a language academy, but English never will. At best, through history, societies simply commit genocide to eliminate competing languages and dialects, or outlaw and brutalize those who resist policy, as in the case of the languages of the First Nations of Canada or in the Native Americans in the US as European colonists slowly dispossessed the indigenous inhabitants.

2
  • I think you confound the ineffectiveness of top-down imposed change on English, with ground-up change in consensus about correct use through pursuasion and example (eg literature).
    – CriglCragl
    Jan 20 at 19:27
  • @CriglCragl Mmmm, Ground-up change in consensus? You make it sound like an exercise in polity. People tend to gravitate towards prestige and economic opportunity in language acquisition. Most people don't care a wit about correct usage consciously. They simply develop speech patterns as the times change. The whole concept of boundaries used to define "language" is dubious. Standards and conventions emerge, not on the basis of either top-down mandate nor on consensus building of wonks.
    – J D
    Jan 22 at 6:39
0

Some languages like English changed very dramatically over the history. The Old English had much more complex grammar with five cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental). Adjectives agreed with nouns in case, gender, and number. It had grammatical gender, while modern English has only natural gender. The runic alphabet was initially used.

And first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century, so not a lot of time has passed.

Hence big changes are definitely possible for natural the languages over time if the new version is beneficial in one or another way.

One way how completely new language could become useful and worth learning is if computers would be able to understand very precisely the human talking in them. Current "assistants", even if found on many smartphones now, are very bad at this, and when they finally get something, this "something" may be totally wrong. Young people may learn a new language to command they smartphones and it may later spread into human to human usage.

7
  • Regarding your last paragraph, we already have languages designed for humans to interact with computers; they're called programming languages. The problem is that "able to be converted into the pure logic of a computer" and "able to fill the range of communication needs in a human social setting" are completely different things to optimise for, so even if people were fluent in "Smartphone English", they wouldn't restrict themselves to its rules in every day use.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 17 at 10:16
  • The known 'languages designed for humans to interact with computers' assume interacting with keyboard and terminal. They are mix of abbreviated English words and lots of stuff like [] <> {} #$ the like. Not good for talking in voice.
    – h22
    Jan 17 at 10:28
  • Regardless of whether the language is designed for text or speech, the point stands - the things that make it good for talking to computers would make it poorly suited for other uses. Familiarity with this new language or dialect might influence every day speech, but it wouldn't overcome all the social factors I talk about in my answer: people will still be creative with language, they'll still want to communicate with existing language users, and they'll still choose language based on which social group they aspire to or want to create a group identity for.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 17 at 11:04
  • Not necessarily. Features like written form closely matching the spoken form, or vocabulary such that all words are phonetically very different, grammar such that forms are easy to recognize when hearing, consistent redundancy to restore the meaning when part of the sentence is lost, would not make the language much more unsuitable for the human communication.
    – h22
    Jan 17 at 11:47
  • 1
    People want to speak quickly, and expressively; in a lot of situations, they don't care about speaking unambiguously or according to some logic of grammar. When someone says "wassup?", it's not because they don't have the option of saying "what is up?" or "what is the situation you would like to talk to me about?" - it's because it's convenient, and socially acceptable to use the shorter form. Using longer words because all single syllables are reserved for a single use, or adding redundancy to sentences "just in case", is never going to be desirable in those situations.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 17 at 12:01
0

Chinese wtiting and language has undergone many reforms. The pictograms were standardised when China was first unified under the Qin, to create a language of officials for unified administration. Up to the introduction of a simplified character set by the People's Republic of China in the 20th C.

When the territory that becane Spain was united under the Castillian Crown, the romance vernacular associated with the polity of the royal house became increasingly used in instances of prestige and influence, and the distinction between "Castilian" and "Spanish" started to become blurred. Hard policies imposing that language's hegemony in an intensely centralising Spanish state were established from the 18th century onward.

As well as the suppression of minority languages, France have a body that rules on official correct use of language, L'Académie française. Their mission since 1635 has been to “give certain rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and capable of dealing with the arts and sciences”. In particular they have sought to eliminate loanwords, by generating French language constructions to replace them.

There are movements including in French, to reduce or eliminate grammatical gendering, see Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender.

Noah meme about English being a mongrel resulting from animals on the Ark that represent various European languages

English is an especially mongrel language, as I think nicely illustrated in this meme. Although only the third most spoken language, that computer coding and Hollywood films are largely in English gives it a particular role as a modern lingua franca. Samuel Johnson's dictionary published in 1755 led to increasing standardisation of spelling and common vocabulary. Various style guide, or style manual have sought to provide clarity or standardisation in particular writing disciplines, like journalism or scientific publishing. Recieved Pronunciation was a particular standardisation of English used for a long time across national radio broadcasting, which has had a lasting impact. I like the history of 'ok', which apparently started out as a concise jornalistic signoff for telegraph use, from the joke 'ol korrect' where the phrase ironically undermines itself through being mispelled, and has gone on to be a term used around the world.

George Orwell provided a fictional thought experiment about the power of controlling language on controlling thought, in his appendix to 1984 on 'Newspeak'. While the research does not tend to support this view of hard linguistic determinism, it is an important warning against motivations to coerce language change for ideological or propagandistic purposes.

I would also say it can be difficult to tease out exactly what our language is doing, and why it is the way it is. 'Shall' comes from Skuld, who was one of the Norns who are the Norse cognates of the Greek Fates, who spin people's futures along with Verthandi ('becoming' or 'in-the-making), and Urthr/Wyrd (fated). These kind of framings of the ways in which the future is coming to be even in our simplest words and grammar, can have subtle influences on how we understand the mechanisms of the world, and for instance how open people have been to physicalist-materialism. The concept of freewill explicitly arises from addressing the Problem of Evil, but whether or not people are likely to think we have it is going to depend on how people frame causality, which is influenced by linguistic mechanisms.

Poets frequently investigate the subtle effects of particular language, and adopt antique or idiosyncratic modes, illustrating how bending rules can relate directly to creative practice. I think that relates to Wittgenstein's maxim

"For a large class of cases—though not for all—in which we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language."

-Philosophical Investigations, section 43.

Language is changing all the time, in relationship with the changes in our modes-of-life. The community if language users are open to influence, by pursuasion, by example, through literature memes and humour. If you wish to advocate a specific reform for clarity and consistency, it's on you to recruit others to your view, specifically by making the case current use is problematic. People all the time have been updating language, in response to such cases. Language is not crystalised, it is on a journey, with us:

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going”

-Rita Mae Brown

Language organises our experiences, abd places ideas in specific proximities.

“A different language is a different vision of life.” — Federico Fellini

But it goes beyond simply conveying data. It is like the water we swim in, the air we breathe, and:

“Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”

― Oliver Wendell Holmes

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .