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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: October 2012

5 - Language

Summary

Language creates and controls the world: the act of naming brings concepts into existence and imposes order on chaos. Modern English is an amazing artefact, the product of thousands of years of collaborative human effort, a communication tool that is protean, subtle, sophisticated. Historical circumstances have given it a unique role as a global lingua franca, spoken as a first or second language by two billion people.

English is capable of great precision because its vocabulary is rich in near-synonyms. It also has great flexibility in two dimensions. First, it relies on word order rather than inflections – an upset win is the opposite of a set-up win, and the difference between good-looking and looking good is about twenty years. Second, its parts of speech are largely interchangeable – for instance, out may be an adverb, a preposition, a noun or a verb. English is also succinct, as textbook publishers have found to their cost when trying to fit translations into a tight page grid.

All living languages exist in a state of tension between growth and decay. Languages change because playfulness and the desire to impress are universal human traits; they grow in response to technological innovation, cultural contact and social developments.Working against these impulses to the new are the forces of stability: inertia, the fear of being misunderstood, and the fixative effect of writing.

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The Editor's Companion
  • Online ISBN: 9781139137171
  • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139137171
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