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In the modern world, it's clear that some very influential people have a small effect on the evolution of a language by popularizing certain linguistic constructions as slang, which eventually evolve into full-blown common usage.

How frequently was this in historical terms? Were languages more likely to evolve as a result of changing social communities and dynamics, or via influential speakers who would then impart those changes on their peers as a result of their charisma and/or authority?

One example here that I can think of clearly is Shakespeare, who coined many new words (at least he was the first to write them down), and many of the phrases and styles of speaking he used in his plays have been adopted into common English.

  • Then as now, every speaker is a part of the community. You can't really distinguish between the two. And how influential does a speaker have to be for you to count him as such? – Cerberus Apr 23 '13 at 13:40
  • I suppose you might view the distinction as changes which came about via communal interaction (x->y, y->z, z->w, etc.) versus interactions with one highly gregarious individual (x->y, x->z, x->w, etc.) – Foo Barrigno Apr 23 '13 at 15:06
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    What counts as the limit between people of type x and people of type non-x? All sorts of people influence language in all sorts of ways, and it stands to reason that those who have a larger audience should have a somewhat larger influence on average...but how would you compare x with non-x, and how would you measure the difference? – Cerberus Apr 23 '13 at 16:15
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    Both. Speech communities are influenced by prestige dialects and sometimes influential speakers can influence the prestige dialect. Look at "The King's / Queen's English". The influence of writers like Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, and the translators of the King James Bible for becoming exemplars of pronunciation, choosing the "better" of several variants of a word, standardized spellings, coining and/or popularizing new vocabulary, etc. – hippietrail Jun 17 '13 at 2:40
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    @hippietrail, I like your comment. If you place it as an answer, I would gladly accept it. – Foo Barrigno Jun 17 '13 at 12:48
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Both are true. Although most language evolution, even today, occurs through language use by the whole community, influential individuals can have some impact on their languages. Take Homer, his works (if it was only one man) had some effect on ancient Greek; Castillan Spanish was also influence by literary spoken poems, etc. However, these effects are tiny and usually restricted to lexical variation and constructions employed. The sounds and grammar of a language evolve through language use.

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Historically most words were probably adopted from the community rather than a single person, but initially I think every word has to have a single originator, except if the word is adopted from another language. Faster communication in modern times allows us to see the correlation between the charismatic originator and his neologisms.

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