Language, Society and Culture, Andrew Simpson, USC Language, Society and CultureUnit 12 How language changes in society Progress or decay? 0. Introduction This class considers how language undergoes change and whether language change should be concluded to be either ‘progress’ or ‘decay’. We will see that language change depends to a significant extent on the existence of complex social networks and that changes frequently occur for clearly sociolinguistic reasons and indicate once again how patterns of language use reflect differences in the organisation of society.11. Attitudes towards language changeOne very clear fact about language is that it continually undergoes change. A brief consideration of English over the last 1,000 years is simple evidence of this. Chaucer in the Middle Ages noted that the English of his generation was very different from that of earlier centuries and if we try to read the English of Chaucer’s time or earlier it often seems like a foreign language. Human language like many other things in life seems bound to continually undergo change. In spite of this apparent inevitability of change, many people resent the change of language, and letters are often written to newspapers complaining about how the language people speak is continually getting worse. Below is a brief selection of comments that were made in the British press in the last 30 years or so, written by various journalists, authors or members of the general public: ‘English used to be a language which foreigners couldn’t pronounce, but often could understand. Today it is rapidly becoming a language which the English can’t pronounce and few foreigners can understand.’ ‘..through sheer laziness and sloppiness of mind, we are in danger of losing our past subjunctive.’ ‘The standard of speech and pronunciation in England has declined so much that one is almost ashamed to let foreigners hear it.’ ‘The abuse of our beautiful language by native-born English speakers is horrendous.’ 1Much of this unit makes reference to materials presented in Jean Aitchison’s (2001) book: Language Change: progress or decay? Cambridge University Press. 1
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