The Meaning of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change, Peter Trudgill – 1999

Trudgill’s central contention is that despite the fact that meanings of words may change over time, one’s message remains coherently communicated because of the fact that, if confusion is probable, we add extra detail and avoid synonyms. The author argues against the “worriers” who contest that the meaning of words should remain as they always have, for the very good reason that languages are “self-regulating systems”, and that if we attempt to stick to words’ original meaning, it is our message that is misconstrued.

Firstly, Trudgill details that “to aggravate” comes from the Latin “aggavare” which means ‘to make heavier’, and since its adoption into Medieval English, meant ‘to make more serious’; it is easy to understand how its use nowadays relates to “to irritate”. This shows that language change has massively contributed to modern English, which means that a vast amount of contemporary vocabulary would have a much different meaning to that which we use today, and so should we insist on using words’ original meanings always, we would be speaking an entirely different language, comprised of other languages.. Another example of language change which has not been problematic is that of the adjective “nice”. It is derived from “skei” (to cut) and “scire” (to know) alongside “ne” (not); yet we could hardly argue that we should only use the adjective when talking of ignorant individuals – in fact, it is almost antonymous. Because “nice” is such a common adjective in modern English, to remove its contemporary meaning would cause miscommunication. He also notes that freedom is brought about by language change, for instance “lack of interest” is a rather longwinded way of saying what Trudgill calls “uninterestedness”. Dialectic changes mean that sometimes a distinction between two closely related words are not necessary; for instance in the Dudley dialect one may say “learn me my spellings” in the place of “teach me my spellings” and no dangerous miscommunication is brought about; similarly Trudgill states that the verb leihenin German means both “to lend” and “to borrow”, yet there is no confusion because of the context in which the verb is used (if the preceding article is second person, the speaker is requesting something and as such the translation would be “to borrow”). This implies that, should related words’ meanings merge, their meaning should become clear – if not because of the situational context, then the grammatical.

Trudgill refers to no other author, but could refer to Sapir and Whorf because of their work on the emergence of the colour blue; tribal languages which do not have a distinctive word for “blue”, in contrast to black or green, do not cause confusion because the colour blue has supposedly not occurred to its speakers as important. This is similar to Trudgill’s statement that the verb leihen“causes German speakers no distress whatsoever”, because should speakers feel a need for distinction, there would be one.
By claiming that “emotive words tend to change more rapidly by losing some of their force”, Trudgill implies that because we experience the succession of evocative words and can understand that there is a shift in strength over that time period, we should be able to tolerate other vocabulary changes without it causing confusion. Therefore, language change is only problematic if one does not experience new vocabulary and manners of speech themselves, but as language shifts constantly, this would not be the case.

He says that “even if the situational context does not make it clear what is meant, the grammatical context will” in convincing the reader that there will be no blatant miscommunication due to language change because of its meaning becoming apparent due to prepositions, for instance he states that it may not be problematic for “imply” and “infer” to gradually become synonymous because one would refer to another party when using the verb, for instance “to infer to someone” is obvious in meaning because the bulk of the meaning is present (perceptions being influenced).

“Purists might want to argue that we should not permit potentially confusing variation of this type between dialects” means that the so-called “worriers” mean well but are forgetting that halting language change is near impossible; the hyperbolic noun “purists” implies that these individuals are not realists. In the bigger picture, this means that individuals tend to language on mass as opposed to expecting that the language contort unnaturally to fit that individual’s specific requirement.

Trudgill claims that “none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means” in order to persuade the reader that it would be authoritarianism to attempt to butcher and censor the English language because none of us has ultimate power over it, as it is in everyday use by so many people. This fits in with the larger debate surrounding language variation in that, because people of all different social and economic groupings can use a word, its meaning depends on the context for those individuals because it caters to their function as is relevant.

“‘When is misuse not misuse’…‘When everybody does it’” is said to convince the audience that as long as the language serves its function to a majority of English speakers, it is correct English and as such cannot be “misuse”; there is no malfunction caused by language variation.

“Words do not mean what we as individuals might wish them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean” serves the same purpose in that individuals are not in ownership of the words that they use; vocabulary is simply a medium through which one can communicate with speakers of the same language.
I do find the author’s argument convincing because if it were preferable or even possible to eliminate language change, it would result in most languages becoming dormant because of the controlling nature of whatever extremist organisation would take action, and even then there would be slight and increasing shifts in meaning as different groups of people have different purposes. One could argue, however, that dialects become dormant because of the way in which national TV and radio companies set about in the early stages only hiring actors with RP or decidedly posh accents in order to appeal to the bulk of the population because it was deemed more clearly understandable; colloquial English has been manipulated by this stream of RP as a result, but the “worriers” that of whom Trudgill speaks would not have any difficulty if such accent dilution occurs because meanings would be more widespread. On the contrary, the internet has led to masses of neologisms and slang spreading, which is inevitable on such a large platform to enable people to communicate, and I propose that if there were need for distinction, there would have been or will be change. ​

In the light of this – is the PC project – with a small number of people dictating how language should change – doomed to fail?

 Certainly it is not, nor cannot be the case, that a small cabal of linguists or PC police – can dictate language change that is lasting – all language change must be consensual – the depiction of PC as case of totalitarian control of how we speak is a jaundiced view of PC, as well as a intentional attempt to smear the project.


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