Tenacious words

Some words are luckier than others. Some words die, disappear, fade into irrelevance. At best, some lexicologist tracks them down in the dumping ground of history and rescues them for the pages of a dictionary or scholarly paper. Others, however, – actually most of them – avoid death by acquiring new meanings, letting themselves be changed by the linguistic forces of history. Language also evolves through this act of verbal betrayal and self-redefinition.

We like words with a good history, words whose ancestry says something about them and the world around them. We like to travel back in time down/up the warmhole created by a tenacious word. Sometimes we can’t travel all the way back, and we theorise, reconstruct, hypothesise, as we do when we postulate the existence of an original language (an ‘Ur-language’) from which most European and all Indo-Iranian languages descent, the mysterious Proto-Indo-European.

Words are as enduring as humans are, and in oral cultures, they depend on people for survival. A word exist as long as there is a mouth to mouth it. A language disappears when the last of its speakers dies.

Literacy is a language’s insurance underwriter, but can also be its undertaker. Writing may save a language from extinction by preserving its outer shell. Books monumentalise the spoken word by subjecting it to a different level of survival risk, that of the medium on which it is inscribed on. Parchment doesn’t die a natural death. But written words are not spoken words. They are ghosts of their living selves, embalmed hulls removed from the accoustic world of the living. They still exist, but not quite in the same way.

The educated Europeans of the Middle Ages spoke Latin, but the Latin they spoke was not the live Latin of its own history. It was a re-oralised language, a cultural experiment which invited the West to face up to the challenge of an artificial, highly-functional and universal language.

To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum, words, uh, find a way.

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