TL;DR: Globalization has interesting effects on language by reducing linguistic diversity and slowing language evolution while siloing terminology in communities with high barriers to entry.

Introduction:

Consider these three points:

  • Slowing language change and accelerating language concentration;

  • Differences between visual and aural language; and

  • Letting go of language standardization as a mandate while taking advantage of linguistics (ie, the above) for information creation, accumulation, and maintenance.

Language as a Learning Tool:

Accessibility is the primary benefit of written language, and language standardization in general. Underlying accessibility is intelligibility, a key factor when considering incessant and endless discussions over terminology. The nature of human language, with language evolution and the idiolect in particular, necessitates the process of connecting referents and symbols (if you prefer, nouns and predicates, or The Pronoun Game applied universally).

Linguists, particularly the Descriptivist school, tend to believe such discussions ought to be learning processes rather than the debates that can catch fire in personal or scholarly circles. Not only should the process establish a way of communicating a) intelligibly, b) precisely, and c) concisely,[1] but the process should have externalities (on a variety of anthropological levels: individual, close circle, cultural backgrounds, etc). Perhaps unsurprisingly given their profession, linguists tend to value language change and diversity.

Language is Changing (but less than it used to):

In contrast to most other cycles and processes, where we are currently seeing significant acceleration in rates of change, language change has been consistently slowing down. Frightening (to some) statistics emerge about the frequency of language death. I’m sure much research is underway regarding trends in language change, but the general thrust appears to be that globalization and exposure to wider circles of people actually decreases linguistic diversity, since more people with fewer common connections/contexts are communicating with one another. Local and communal language innovation are flattened.

Written language is one of the key factors slowing language change. This stems from the fundamental differences between visual and aural language, despite the common confusion of the two.[2] This confusion grows with increased unthinking literacy, leading to silly conversations that dampen language innovation; “that’s not real [insert preferred language here].”[3] On the other hand, awareness of this difference is stronger in fields like:

  • Cognitive science/neuroscience, ie studying brain processes;

  • Linguistics (for those who are unfamiliar, glance at the IPA and a basic explanation of it); and

  • Literature, especially poetry. For example, contrast Ćor Huso or Gerard Manley Hopkins with Lewis Carroll or 王維 (Wang Wei).[4]

With a better understanding of the differences between visual and aural language, we can better understand and take advantage of the different forms of communication.

Conclusion:

The connection between the points of accessibility, nature of communication, and slowing language change deserves substantial in-depth study. Despite my sadness over the loss of linguistic diversity, increased language concentration does simplify communication. We can more easily attain the instrumental goal of becoming polyglots on our way to obtaining/creating entertainment and knowledge.

One cautionary note, though, to this simplistic and optimistic view: as information proliferates, specializations abound, and with them technical language. The global community at large may be growing more connected but for the most part research goes on in relatively small circles. As communication broadly simplifies, the objects of such communication will tend to be simpler as well. At the same time, research will uncover new referents and develop frames of reference. Research may value new and adapted terminology for progress precise communication but this also raises barriers to entry. My favorite example in recent memory is the term “nonvulcanizable elastomers.” Though I am not an expert in the materials or processes of footwear production, my general knowledge is sufficient to at least begin to grasp this term, as unfamiliar as it first seems. Global linguistic and learning trends provide opportunity amid their challenges. Rather than two sides of the same coin, these obstacles and opportunities are choices and trade-offs that can and should be optimized for broader contribution and understanding in research fields especially.[5]


  1. Shoutout to Cedar Ren for a conversation about concise description and the idiolect. You can find his LW profile here: https://www.lesswrong.com/users/cedar (My apologies for the crude link, I’m posting this on mobile without access to many of LW’s editing features) ↩︎

  2. Terms like written, visual, oral, and aural language are all more complicated than their usage typically indicates, including this piece. Written language includes Braille, and sign languages could be considered a kind of visual language. My knowledge of these is very limited, and beyond the scope of this piece’s shallow observations. ↩︎

  3. My own Descriptivist leanings are showing. To counter this bias, I sentence myself to tackling Finnegan’s Wake. ↩︎

  4. Huso was a famous Turkish oral poet and Hopkins an English poet whose works are composed for speaking and hearing; Carroll is the writer of the illustrative “Mouse’s Tale” and 王維 is known for the way his poetical and artistic talents infused one another. Shoutout to 樊萤緒 (Ying Fan) for suggesting 王維 as an example. ↩︎

  5. Key materials for the thinking behind this essay and for further reading: Albert Lord’s Epic Singers and Oral Traditions, particularly the chapter “Words Heard and Words Read,” the work of Maryanne Wolf on the reading brain (Proust and the Squid and Reader Come Home), and an everyman’s introduction to Linguistics, John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel. ↩︎

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Welcome to LessWrong!

This post is missing a TL;DR in the beginning, and section titles (section TLDRs, basically) in between.

Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve added these to the post.

Great! Now, lesswrong uses markdown syntax. Which means you can do

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Consider using this in you LessWrong, and substack posts. This would greatly help readability and make it easier for you readers to engage with your work.

Thanks so much!!

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