I’ve made it no secret that I think of languages as living things. They change, they grow, and they thrive on creative use. Without it, they die. One of the reasons this happens is that political forces institutionalize the use of another language, or a specific version of that language, and so all official records maintain this one version and none other. To advance in society, the official version must be adopted, and so the colloquial languages fall out of use and die.
One of things we do in the name of preserving languages is to fastidiously enforce concretized grammatical rules. In France, La Francophonie fights the good fight against encroaching anglicization. But in No Bearla, a native Irish speaker attempts to travel through Ireland using only the official language of the country, and finds himself encountering difficulties getting information outside of token Irish speakers (many who say openly that the language is dead) and some written sources.
One of the theories that arises from the conversations in the show is that Irish is dying because it’s not used a regular language, but instead taught as a subject in schools. Perhaps this over-formalization makes the language inaccessible – instead of communication, the focus is on vocabulary lessons and grammatical rules. In a lot of ways, to concretize a language is to lock it in a time capsule and make it something that eventually dies and becomes the province of scholars alone. The result of this is that the “proper” language stays put while the colloquial language forges on, changing and growing until one day it no longer resembles its origin enough to be identified with it.
Perhaps that’s why the French model works and the Irish model does not – with constant moderation and alteration as society changes, it can stay relevant.
While I don’t have the academic tools as my disposal to explore this idea further, I think a parallel can be drawn to a similar tension in how we treat the English language. I get a little caught between my disdain for people who pride themselves on judging others’ grammar, and my own frustration with ill-crafted sentences that hide the author’s meaning. I’m not fussy, but I can’t deny I prefer to read prose that’s grammatically pleasing. It’s just easier to understand.
In How to Escape the Claws of the Grammar Police, Ben Huberman looks at the “right” ways to break grammatical rules, and I agree with his advice. I think learning the rules gives you a mastery that lets you see it for what it is – a set of arbitrarily rules derived from current patterns. If you break the rules unintentionally, you might be part of a general zeitgeist, but you might not. Master those rules, and you can step outside of them to drive new patterns.
So I’m caught between two desires. I want languages to grow and change match the world in which we live, but I also don’t want to see them die. I think these two goals can be connected, but I’m afraid that they’re both impossible to control. When we police a language too much, we choke it out – but if we let it change too much with the political and social tides, we let slip through our fingers.