12 February 2010

Writers change language

"‘Ordinary speakers’’ creativity in handling their own language has been in the focus of some scholars’ attention," writes Evgeniy Y. Golovko in "Language Contact and Group Identity: The Role of 'Folk' Linguistic Engineering" (2003). "For example, there are several works studying ‘language play’ in Russian. Most material in such works comes from fiction. It means that major ‘language players’ are people who have made ‘playing with language’ their profession. This professional play is not of much interest for the topic [purposive language change] under consideration. However, it should be kept in mind that the product of professional playing with language spreads to ‘ordinary speakers,’ and the ‘rules’ of language play are very well understood by them. On the other hand, examples of language play are not only found in professionals’ work, but also in folklore, of both adults and children. It is just these mere facts that point to ‘ordinary speakers’’ potential for purposive language change (in the end, language play is nothing but a conscious language change). However, the language change made in the process of language play remains a speech improvisation, it does not become part of the language system." (p. 179)

I like the clause "language play is nothing but a conscious language change," but I disagree that the work of "professional language players" (that's us) remains in the realm of fiction and does not cross over to the world of "ordinary speakers." When Sigmund Freud was trying to figure out the relationship of creative writing to daydreaming, he paid attention to the writers themselves, of course, but he also pointed out that the bigger question was why readers read the works of writers. His answer is our answer to the issue in the paragraph quoted above. The reason ordinary speakers or readers read multilingual literature is that they participate in the language change. Readers are looking for exactly the same things that writers are looking for (and have found).

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