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Language and communication is an evolving and ever-changing beast. However, it recently occurred to me that the evolution of many words seem to occur because of a mistake on the part of the speaker, which the listeners spread, and a natural simplification occurs. Words combine, are shortened or misspelled, or gain new, unintended meanings.

While language may still knowingly change, an on-purpose simplification for instance, or an invented term meant as a joke which becomes widespread and then officially used, would changes to the language continually slow the better the speaking species is educated? Would this be the same for all types of spoken language? "Better" in this sense could be seen as greater vocabulary (and definitions), as well as more-correct (formal) sentence/idea structure knowledge.

Assume the species has no other intelligent species to speak with, but specific language can vary by region. (Similar to humans)

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  • $\begingroup$ Have a look at the language-change tag over at ELU: english.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/language-change $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Dec 9 '15 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ The etymology tag is also related over at ELU: english.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/etymology $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 9 '15 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ Irregardless, could you flush out this question a bit? Do the speakers have interaction with other languages that could cause pigeon languages to form? Unless you could care less... (this is a painful comment to post, really, it hertz) $\endgroup$ – Samuel Dec 9 '15 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel I think you may have meant "paneful". If it makes you feel any better, it hertz to reed as well. The speakers will all-ways be interacting with there own species, but yes, there is interaction with other languages as well. $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 9 '15 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ Do you by any chance mean 'fewer language changes'? or possibly 'less language change'? ;D $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 10 '15 at 16:07
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Disclaimer: I'm not a linguist, and I don't even talk like one on community radio.


When answering this question, it's important to consider why languages change, just as much as why they don't.

Restatement of the hypothesis

First, let's take a more detailed look at your hypothesis: increased language education $\to$ decreased language change. Basic $P \to Q$ hypothesis, right? (I.e., if $P$ is true, then $Q$ will also be true.)

I believe your (unstated) syllogism relies on these assumptions:

  1. All people who study language make fewer mistakes
  2. Language change occurs because people make mistakes or because enlightened people choose to change the language (e.g., to simplify it, to introduce new terms, "jokes", etc.).

And the syllogism is if more people study language, fewer changes will occur.

Right?

The logic itself holds true provided the assumptions are true. So let's look at those:

1. All people who study language make fewer mistakes

This does seem like common sense. Someone who has limited literacy will be more encouraged to converse based on what they hear. Although language (especially English!) is notoriously irregular, there are enough patterns that a more educated person is likely to get the subtle rules right more often than a less educated person. Without a lot more research and math, I'll let you have this assumption, at least on a stochastic basis, but keep reading, because it's more complicated.

2. Language change occurs because either:

a. People make mistakes
b. Educated people deliberately change the language to simplify it, etc.

This is where I think you'll find the question is much less clear cut.

My personal feeling is that the effect (in isolation) from 2(a) $\ll$ 2(b). To quote an actual linguist on this one:

All language is a popularity contest. Erin McKean [1]

Sometimes there are mistakes (or "happy accidents", if you prefer) that people make with language, that are either perceived to be clever, or funny, so people repeat them.

If I come up with a funny new word and tell it to my wife, and she tells it to a few people, it will have a certain network reach (and probably be forgotten long before it hits a hundred people). If a major celebrity does the same thing on Twitter or YouTube, hundreds of thousands of people will be using the word within days. If more people continue to spread it, it has a real chance of becoming a lasting addition to the language.

Foreign languages

It is very hard (and, usually, very harmful!) to study language in isolation. Even though I only speak my born native language[2], I am frequently affected by other languages.

For example, my Czech friend speaks excellent English, but occasionally phrases things differently, or chooses different words than I would. The important thing, here, is that her English is irrefutably correct. She never violates any grammatical rules or chooses words that do not fit the intended definition. In other words, her idiomatic usage differs from mine, but neither one of us is "wrong". I very much enjoy these differences.

Going beyond that, foreign language loanwords still regularly make their way into common use. In fact, even though English originates primarily from North Germanic origins, we still keep adopting new (modern) German words today, such as "blitz", from the German "blitzkrieg".

The other side of the coin

There's another side to the coin: language affects people. I'd suggest looking into linguistic anthropology for more information on this topic.

There's therefore a symbiotic relationship between Language $\leftrightarrow$ Society.

Conclusion

Language is a living thing.

Languages evolve because they're used by people, who are shaped by those very same languages. If I invent the word blersnogga and use it in a way that makes you giggle, you've been affected. And when you're affected, you're more likely to want to use that word to affect others. Good education isn't required to use language in a way that affects people (Mark Twain is a famous example of that, having left school after fifth grade, although he did self-educate later).

Edit based on comments

Specific to your question (clarified by your comment on "whether changes would slow, or stay the same"): my assessment would be:

  1. Yes, education would have an effect on how a language changes
  2. However, that effect would be comparatively small and very hard to isolate. (We are after all looking at how the overall language evolves, not just how a few people speak it.)
  3. The rate at which language changes might slow, or it might even speed up. Let's say everyone was perfectly literate in their language, and had a higher average vocabulary (comes with higher literacy) than a similar less-literate population. Who do you think would make up more words and other changes? Who would be more likely (and more successful) to propagate these changes to others?

What I'm saying is, language change cannot happen in isolation, so the best answer I can give you is, "it depends, but the effect of education is probably not very big, compared to the other effects discussed in my answer". I realize this is about as hand-wavy as it gets, but hopefully I've at least helped identify some of the variables in the equation.

Language is a living thing.


Notes:

  1. Source
  2. Perl.
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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer for the hypothesis outlook, only thing that prevents me from upvoting is that the ending summary seems to have gotten off-track or is incomplete, I stated at the start of the question that language is "an evolving and ever-changing beast", your summary (taken in isolation), does not address whether changes would slow, or stay the same $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 10 '15 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ ( You agree with point 1, and partially agree with point 2, I'm not sure which outcome you're actually aiming at ) $\endgroup$ – DoubleDouble Dec 10 '15 at 0:20
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    $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble That's a fair point; thanks for the feedback! The main thrust of my argument was that there are many strong forces at play, to the point that the rate of change (slope of the tangent, if you will?) would not be very strongly influenced by education. I'll see if I can tighten that up--bear with me while I edit. $\endgroup$ – type_outcast Dec 10 '15 at 0:21
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Probably not, for a few reasons.

First off, the assumption that a language can be spoken "correctly" is ill supported in linguistics. Virtually all linguists agree that the grammar for a language is impossible to write down.

But you say you learned grammar in school. You know that languages have grammar. They do. For example, English has the rule "you can never start a sentence with a conjunction."

Or does it? Look at the start of the previous paragraph. Did you know this has never actually been a rule of the English language, despite being taught religiously? It is trivial to find copious counter examples, including by Shakespeare himself!

Language exists to convey information from one individual to another. As long as it does that, it is considered "working as intended." Some of that meaning comes across in the portion that is deemed "grammatical." However, the rest of the message comes across in the way you "misuse" that grammar. If I add, like, 100 billion "likes" in my sentence, it like totally provides context you would never get from the sentence!

Definitions are fun too. I dare you to get all of your most educated friends together and have them define "love" "happiness" and "good." It'll be entertaining -- bring lots of beer. Some of the most valuable words in a language are the ones that simply refuse to be defined.

There are some changes in society which would have a marked change in the rate of evolution of a language. If that society were to narrow its scope, its language would slow. If you poured all of that intellect and education into making sure each individual that rolls off the school conveyor belt has the exact same STEM degree with the exact same minor, you would find the language naturally coalesces around ideas those STEM graduates need to convey to each other. Due to the nature of STEM, that content would naturally be very precise so you would develop a more precise language with strict definitions, as you intend in this question.

On the other hand, if the society decides its goal is to find the universal truth of love and happiness, it will likely need a great deal of hard to define words to capture the fuzzy yet nuanced concepts that arise when exploring those topics.

Another change which could create the linguistic patterns you seek to find would be a decrease in two-way communication. Most communication includes feedback (unlike typing answers on SE, which is more one-way). The more feedback you have, the less you are dependent on everyone having perfect agreement on the meaning of the words. The more uni-directional the communication is, the more agreement you need.

This, for example, is why loud shouting matches can occur on the Biology.SE when someone comes on asking if evolution is true. The party line is "yes, it's true." The actual mathematics is grossly more complicated and takes several paragraphs to convey, so people tend to just stick to "it's true" and accept that there's some creative wording going on. Meanwhile, if I come in with "no, it's just a model... a really good model with tons of evidence," I can actually get shouted out of the park by people who find that wording unacceptable. However, if I can get any one of them in a chat room, with two-way communication, they always begrudgingly admit that my language is more precise (though typically they still find their language to be "better," which is fine).

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