The Boundedness and Porosity of Language Part 2

This post is the second of a three part series on the ways that language is both bounded and porous and what this means for us. I’d recommend you read the first post here, which focuses on the boundedness of language.

The Porosity of Language

Let’s first take a look at what the word porosity means. As usual, I like to Google these sorts of queries. I figured that since porosity is the less frequently used noun form of the adjective porous, I would type in “porous etymology”.

And Google once again delivered, in just 0.27 seconds. Though it seems to have scraped its answer from the Oxford English Dictionary without clearly identifying that source, it has also included a graph from it’s own Ngram viewer, a way to look at a word’s frequency of use in the more than 25 million books Google has scanned.

Google Search Result for “porous etymology” April 21, 2019.

The word ultimately comes from the Latin porus which we can see in the word pore, those skin things on your face that you don’t want people to be able to isolate and for which Photoshop and Instagram filters have liberated us from having to confront! And this pore is not pour, as in pour a drink.

So porous means the ability for a material to let some substances through and not others. Our Google search shows this porosity in action. Etymology (the study of word origins) is all about porosity, the ways words morph, adapt, and change through time. Just like language.

Language changes

Language changes. A simple way to observe this is to compare inter-generational uses of language. Adults cannot keep up with teen speak. What may have once been considered a polite term to describe someone else different from oneself, may no longer be considered appropriate. It might even have become rude, racist, homo-, or transphobic. There is nothing wrong with language changing, but there is certainly something wrong with insisting on the old ways of saying things. Despite the reality of change, it can take time for changes to be adopted widely, even amongst well-meaning people.

Slang is constantly being introduced and spreading rapidly in large part because of the global ubiquity of social media. Some words like cool have been cool for a long time. Others come and go every few years. Internet slang evolves even more quickly. Those who came of age with ICQ (I seek you! Get it? LOL? I’ll BRB to explain it to you once my Mum makes use of our single landline to make a phonecall!) can’t always make sense of what these young’uns are up to now.

The Oxford English Dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language”, accepts any word that has “sufficiently sustained…widespread usage“. This might seem like a very high standard until you discover that words like binge-watch, nothingburger, facepalm, philosophizingly, bada-bing are all bona fide entrants. (Interestingly, even Google auto-correct can’t keep up, and has underlined all of these recent OED entrants except for that hyphenated binge-watch.)

English is famously welcoming of new words. And though there are still standards that prevent any and all words from being accepted in all settings, the gatekeepers, which are made up of teachers, publishers, and universities, eventually cede to public pressure. I am a teacher and I proudly accept the third person plural form of they/their to be used when the gender of an individual is not important to a sentence’s meaning. For example, It’s clear these days that a student is not always admitted to university purely on their merit. Just 10 years ago, this would have been a tough sell. 20 years ago, I would have had to alternate between he/she or always use both. 40 years ago, I might have gotten away with just a he. Now that social media has seemingly embraced the plural, it should stick: Josie has just updated their status.

The Académie française is the famous gatekeeper of the French language, but even it must take stock of the ways that language is changing. As this BBC article describes, the future of French is African. Regional encroachments from African languages have made their way into distinctively regional usages of French. Quebecois are as proud speakers of French as Parisians and occasionally have to put up with some very strict language laws, but even in Quebec many English phrases are used in place of formal French words. I remember during my time in Trois-Pistoles for a summer immersion program sponsored by the Canadian government how often a word I was looking for just turned out to be an English one. Truck was un truck, gas, le gas, hot dog, le hot dog.

But let me be clear. I’m not critiquing the actions of either the Académie française or the Quebec government. French in Canada is in a sense under siege, with the French population actually shrinking. If Quebec did not take stricter measures, it’s possible that French would be under even more pressure today. What I am saying, is that in both these contexts, language is clearly porous and changing.

Languages belong to families

I wrote about a teachable moment that came about when my students were discovering the similarities between their languages during a vocabulary review session. Even I was surprised at being able to guess that the word extravagant would be something like extravagante in Italian. The correct response? Stravagante. An indication of some of the Latin roots of English.

These similarities are widespread across languages within the same family. It’s no accident. The reason is that languages grow, morph, merge, change, die-off, just as species in our own tree of life evolve. The artist Miina Sundberg illustrates this beautifully in the following infographic.

The image shows how languages as diverse as Persian, Norwegian, Bengali, and Hindi, all share a common linguistic ancestor. Over the course of thousands of years, as people spread, became geographically isolated, were conquered, assimilated, became literate and so on, languages diverged. While no-one knows what this Proto-Indo-European language sounded like, linguists have sussed out the common ancestor with clever etymological and grammatical analysis in a similar way that Ancestory.com and 23andMe do with DNA.

There never was a pure language. While there may be a kind of Langauge Acquisition Device or bioprogram that uniquely equips humans with a basic physical structure upon which to develop language, the rest of language is an imperfect, hodge-podge of random accretions that is constantly changing. Not pure, but functional, mostly stable within a lifetime, and very human. Literacy and widespread broadcasting have slowed down some changes, but the process will never be complete, as entrapped students of Shakespeare the world over can attest. Even Google Translate and the machine learning it uses relies on a corpus of very human translated works. And just as humans are constantly changing, absorbing new realities, and rearranging old ones, machine algorithms are, for now at least, stuck with working with what we provide them.

Languages are borderless

Portuguese speaking friends have told me they can understand Italian if it’s spoken slowly. Pakistanis consume Hindi Bollywood films easily. Southern Chinese devour Hong Kong Cantonese TV shows. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian speakers can understand each other to a certain extent. When I visited the Netherlands I was struck by how familiar Dutch sounded, even though I couldn’t understand what the drivers and shopkeepers were saying. And, I’ll never forget listening to two gentlemen beside me on a bus yammer away in what I now assume to be Jamaican Creole. Like Dutch, I could pick out individual words, but all put together I couldn’t understand anything.

Unfortunately for many Anglo monoglots, the diversity of linguistic encounters they are familiar with is a non-familiar Yankee, Aussie, or Irish accent, or the non-standard (to them) accent of an immigrant from India, Malaysia, or Singapore, for whom English might be a native language. The global behemoth that is Hollywood, ensures that a certain kind of English is considered standard, or correct. When I was teaching university students in China, I was often asked which accent they should strive for. What they meant was whether they should aspire to a British accent or an American one. I think this may have been the case in the past, but the present and future are different. English itself will force the world to come to terms with multiple versions of English, and the Anglo West will increasingly embrace the pluri-lingual realities of the rest of the world.

Often the only obstacle for students entering a Western university is a proficiency in a kind of English as measured by the IELTS or TOEFEL tests, British and American respectively. But even here, universities understand that if they wish to continue to receive international student tuition money, a different paradigm of language proficiency must be acknowledged. Interestingly, Chinese universities grapple with the same issue amongst their own international student population.

Languages are like jazz

Language has solidity. It’s porous until it’s not – eventually some text messaging convention will take hold. And language is solid until it’s not – such as the
Académie française allowing the feminization of all professions, something that had been going on informally for a long time already.

Language has structure and boundaries, but it’s more fluid and changing than we realize. As users of language, there needs to be enough stability in order for us to be able to communicate effectively. In this sense, there needs to be boundaries around words, grammar and so on, and these boundaries are bound in flexible communities. But language is also boundless, with infinite connections, and the only constraint being the acceptance of the community, the architecture of our brains, and the laws of reality. There are gatekeepers to these communities, but as we’ve seen in this post, these gatekeepers cannot keep out all changes.

The question I will explore in the final post of this series is what are we to do about this, the boundedness and porosity of language. In particular, I want to explore what the ramifications are for those of us involved in international education, the ways that we have become gatekeepers for users of English. There is no easy answer. And there is probably no single answer. But I would argue that because language is so fundamental to our identity as humans, and because power discrepancies have been one of the most significant influencers of language change, we need to be having this conversation.

2 comments

  1. I have also recently (in the past three or four years) been converted to the third person plural form of they/their to be used in cases where we used to say “he or she” / “his or hers” etc. For a while I thought this was a peculiarity of British English, but my British colleagues thought it was an Americanism. Now we just all use it.

    • In spoken Chinese, you can only figure out “he/she/it” from context. This sometimes leads to interesting conflicts, but it works most of the time. There is no way to equitably, consistently, and perfectly articulate reality. Just got to put in a good effort.

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