i love english language

The forces of creation – Guy Deutscher

Posted in Uncategorized by aggslanguage on November 10, 2010

This essay took the form of a script from a speech made by Dr Chris de Troy at a language conference followed by a brief summary by Guy Deutscher. I’m not sure if this lecture actually happened, or if Deutscher invented de Troy to illustrate a point, but de Troy is a descriptivist who makes the point that language change is a cycle of destruction and creation. His opposition is personified in a member of the ‘Royal Society for the Protection of the English Language’ who makes snarky comments about de Troy’s theories and is then outmanoeuvred by de Troy’s flawless logic and impressive verbal sparring skills.


The central point of the essay is that destruction in language is also creation. “Grammatical elements don’t just appear out of thin air. And if things like prepositions, case endings or tense markers were not consciously invented, they must have developed from something that’s already there”. Therefore “the forces that create grammatical structures in language are nothing other than the by-products of destruction”.


The main contention is that erosion causes new grammatical structures, verb forms, nouns etc, so it can’t be all bad. This challenges prescriptivists who say that erosion is the reverse of creation and that it causes a language to move backwards. It’s not the language rotting, it’s part of the life cycle that gives us new language, variation and diversity.


Many examples of creation and destruction working together in English and in other languages are made. The main example is of the verb and future marker ‘going to’, where one usage implies travel and physical movement, whereas the other means the direct opposite.


‘Are you going to the concert this evening? No, I’m gonna stay at home’


There is a lexical change in the example that is optional depending on the accent of the speaker. It demonstrates that only ‘going to’ used as a replacement for ‘will’ can become ‘gonna’; you would never hear ‘I’m gonna London’ or ‘I’m gonna bed’. The shift was as a result of two common motives that are almost always behind such changes: the desire to enhance our expressive range and laziness. Speakers always seek fresher ways of emphasising that something is really going to happen. As the temptation to take shortcuts in pronunciation grows, the risk of misunderstanding is decreased because two meanings can be retained with one adopting a pronunciation change. Because ‘going to’ is so commonly used, it had a lot of opportunity to undergo semantic change, and later lexical change too. In such conditions the phrase is more prone to erosion so it’s not surprising that the bleached future tense is shortened to ‘gonna’.


The essay goes on to explain how it came to be that a normal verb underwent a transformation to a modal auxiliary type word, such as ‘will’ or ‘shall’. The change was very slow – there was no sudden leap between context and structure – there was a gradual erosion of meaning, followed by an erosion of sounds.


1439 – in a appeal sent to parliament, the (old spelling of the) phrase ‘as they were going to bring him there’ cropped up. Here, ‘going to’ still clearly represents physical movement and is shorthand for ‘going somewhere, in order to do something’.


1482 – one of the earliest printed books in English, Revelations of St Nicholas to a Monk of Evesham, contains ‘going to be brought to hell’. The woman in question is indeed moving to hell, but the passive form of brought shifts focus away from any intention on the part of the woman – the physical movement serves to highlight the more abstract implication that she will be brought to hell against her will.


Shakespeare – at the end of the 16th century, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, we see the line ‘I am going to deliver them’. ‘Going to’ comes increasingly into the fore and physical movement remains in the background.


1642 – Charles I writes a letter whining about how his big arms depot – or ‘magazine’ – will be taken in conflict.

v ‘My consent is going to be put in execution’

v ‘My magazine is going to be taken from me’

There is no question here about the purpose of ‘going to’ because it is unlikely that his beloved depot is going to go anywhere.


1646 – the transformation is complete as Joshua Poole’s manual says that ‘going to is the signe of the Participle of the future, as I am going to read’.


‘Gonna’ does not have a written history until recently because written sources don’t tend to reflect ‘substandard pronunciation’.


The essay refers to Mikhail Bakunin, a well-known Russian revolutionary and theorist of collectivist anarchism. He is quoted form 1842 saying ‘the urge for destruction is, at the same time, a creative urge’. He wasn’t a language specialist, but his ideas (and subsequently Deutscher’s / de Troy’s) pertain to and challenge Jean Aitchison’s laughable ‘crumbling castle’ idea. They are in agreement with her in being derisive towards the ‘crumbling castle’ because they say that the castle is crumbling but that we shouldn’t try to stick it back together. Conversely, we ought to take a sledgehammer to it, or at least not get in the way of natural erosion, for the sake of progress. I agree with this view, but only to a certain degree. I don’t think that it could backfire and we would degenerate back into monosyllabic grunts, but I think that, unchecked, erosion could cause more harm than good, especially if people took it as an excuse for allowing poor levels of literacy.


There are loads of French and Latin examples that aren’t very pertinent so I’m not going to bother with them, apart from this one >>>


Noun + postposition à noun-case ending à noun


Eg: Proto-Indo-European dative ending –ei


…goes to both…

Latin nouns ending with vowel –o

Lupo-ei à lupói à lupó

Latin nouns ending with consonant

Ped-ei à pedí (to the foot)







“You only have to add one arrow to the diagram going from the end back to the beginning, and it turns into a cycle. It’s true that erosion makes words shorter and shorter, but speakers start stringing words together again, for instance putting a new postposition after the noun. And the whole cycle can start afresh when the postpositions fuse with the noun”


In French, a popular phrase meaning ‘today’ has the literal meaning ‘on the day of on the day of this day’, all stuck together to add emphasis and interest.

LATIN – hoc die à hodie à hui (meaning this day or just today)

OLD FRENCH – au jour d’hui (meaning on this day today)
MODERN FRENCH – aujourd’hui à au jour d’aujourd’hui

(therefore meaning on the say of on the day of this day).


‘Erosion keeps pounding at words, making them shorter and shorter. But shortened words are piled into longer expressions, and the same forces of erosion then hack away at the pile, fuse the words and condense themselves into a compact word once more’.


‘Constructions are created by abbreviations, as shortcuts. We have neither time nor energy to say everything’. This relates to Aitchison’s ‘damp spoon’ analogy for laziness. It agrees that laziness can cause language change, but that is not a bad thing to be conservative with time or energy.


‘The simplest form of abbreviation is the attributive adjective: She told a harmless lie replaces she told a lie and it was harmless’. This erosion cuts out a part of the sentence but has no effect on the meaning or on comprehension, and is a perfect example of how the forces of destruction can work, simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically, as forces of creation.


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