Luke’s Languages #6


Hello, everyone! (Oh, look, a weird new script is on the banner! Don’t be frightened; it just says “Luke’s Languages” in  IPA—that is, the International Phonetic Alphabet). Well, this is The Medium’s final issue this semester, and with it the closing of this  run of the series. Let’s wrap up the year by stepping back for a broader look.


We do so with the concept of “idiolect”. There’s a lot to be said about this. It comes down to the principle that what you say is unique to you. Because of your genes, your culture, your history, your personality, and even your own choices, you have certain habits of speech (and both old and new habits die hard). Your words have shades of meaning to you that they do to no one else, your sentences are formed such that they can be analyzed and often recognized for their author, you have phrases you like and phrases you hate, and you even pronounce sounds with subtle, not consciously detectable differences. In short, your whole speech is customized and tweaked in a hundred ways.


But there is something to that last bit—did you catch it?—the part about “not consciously detectable differences”. With a lot of them, it takes a lot of awareness of yourself and others to hear what’s different. There’s a goldmine of linguistics and psychology in every person’s speech, but when it comes down to the practicals of how it works, it’s obvious we can only understand each other by convention. We know what we need to mean what, and we tend to ignore the differences.


Ever wonder where the rules about writing letters of various kinds came from—all those conventions like “Dear ___,” and “I am writing to inform you” and “Sincerely, ___”? Well, before the printing press, there were many formal, standardized constraints on the use of space in writing. A book called Copia by Erasmus realized that with the ease of printing, we had room to breathe, to find new and delicious ways to say things. Language, he wrote, is best free, not bound. (He proceeded to suggest a few dozen ridiculous but charming ways to write “Thanks for your letter”.)

Since then, the style has gone back and forth in all directions, including on indulgent wordiness. But what’s important is that people begin to choose about it. Language became an end, not just a means.


That brings us to my challenge to you, until we meet again: be aware of what you say and how you say it. Notice when you use a word, when you use a phrase, when you like the sound of a name. Think about your language, and take charge of your language. After all, you should know what you like—you’ve been speaking it for some twenty years. You’re an expert.


P.S. I’d like to thank a reader who wrote to me about (and in!) “Kanadio”, a semi-new language that represents one of many attempts at spelling reform for English (among other changes, most of them grammatical).

I didn’t get to talk about spelling reform this semester, but it’s a fascinating topic, which ties in with language reform in general.


The question it poses is: Would and should we trade our world’s diversity of languages in return for a single more logical and universally understandable language?


(In any case, the attempts of the last 150 years have made one thing clear: a perfect system is extremely hard to devise—sorry, Kanadio!)