Languages as memes

A while back on this blog I had compared religious and cultural practices to memes (in the original Richard Dawkins sense of the word). Back then I had written:

So if you were to look at it in terms of responsibility to society, you need to propagate only those cultural traits that you deem to be relevant and important. “So what if everyone stops celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi?” you may ask. If that would happen that would simply mean a vote of no confidence for the festival and an indication that the festival needs to be phased out. If everyone were to propagate only those cultural traits they find useful, traits that a significant proportion of society finds significant will continue to survive and thrive. For Ganesh Chaturthi to exist 30 years hence, it isn’t necessary for ALL families that have inherited it to celebrate it now. As long as a critical mass of families celebrate it, the festival will survive. If not, it probably doesn’t need to exist.


Now, thinking about it, you can consider language to also be a meme. When a bunch of you find that there is a concept for which the language you speak in has no word, you invent a word and add it to the language (this is like a genetic mutation). If enough people like this mutation (i.e. if it is “fit”) it will propagate, and soon become part of the language.

If there is a word in the language that is archaic and not useful for describing any of the phenomena that you are likely to encounter, you stop using it. When people stop using such words, they become “archaic” (ok I see circular reasoning in this paragraph) and effectively drop out of the language. Thus, a living language is always dynamic, receptive to new words (to describe concepts that earlier didn’t need description) and receptive to discarding words that are not useful any more. Thus, the feature that defines a living language is dynamism and change.

This has several policy implications.

1. The concept of “purity” of language is wrong. Some people want to speak in the “pure form” of a language. As long as it is a language that has been truly alive (and not kept alive mostly by ancient literature) there exists no “pure form”, for the definition of a successful language involves frequent “mutations”. So if you ask me to talk in “pure Kannada” it is nonsense. Pure Sanskrit, on the other hand, has some meaning, for the language has been so little used that it’s stopped evolving and mutating.

2. People like to appoint themselves guardians of culture and dictate top-down what words should be part of a particular language. For example, there exists a body under the Government of Karnataka (if I’m not wrong) which dictates what “Kannada words” must be used for different new concepts. This is wrong, and a recipe for such words not being used.

Instead, “memetics” must be respected and evolution must be bottom up. People find the need to describe phenomena around themselves and if they don’t find a word in their language that describes it, they will either invent or borrow one such word. Some such new words become widely used, at which point of time they can be introduced into the language dictionary. Usage should precede presence in the dictionary, not the other way round.

3. “Slang” is a part of language, and a leading indicator of how the language is going to evolve. It should be encouraged and not denounced. For it exists because the language as it stands now cannot effectively enough describe certain concepts.

I’m currently reading this book called The Information by James Gleick, which has a chapter or two dedicated to languages and dictionaries. It was while reading it that I realised how languages are memes.


5 thoughts on “Languages as memes”

  1. You should read Steven Pinker’s book “the Language Instinct”. It is an excellent book on language research beginning with Noam Chomsky. Your observations fit in well with the book. Besides slang, the meaning and usage of several words change with time. For example, it has become acceptable to use “you all” or “you guys/people” as a plural to “you” when referring to more than one person.

    1. Thanks. I had bought the book several years ago and it has since languished in my unread pile. Will promote it up the pile! 🙂

    1. I think every linguistic community that feels insecure ends up instituting committees! To invent by fiat “local” words so that English doesn’t creep into the language!

      And the French are commies anyway 😛

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