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David Eddington Lectures on the Past, Present, and Future of the Human Language

David Eddington lectures at BYU Education Week on the history of the human language, how we process language, and how language changes.

The word like actually serves a purpose, and that purpose is part of the constant change our human language goes through. Change doesn’t mean the English language is doomed though. In fact, change is something we should embrace.

At BYU Education Week 2021, Professor David Eddington of the Department of Linguistics gave an enlightening lecture series on the human language. Eddington’s series, Linguistics: The Fascinating Study of Human Language, Its Evolution, Use, and Mental Processing, provided attendees with insights into their own language use and why language changes over time.

Professor David Eddington Lecturing
Professor David Eddington Lectures at Education Week

Eddington began his four-day lecture series on Tuesday, August 17, by discussing the evolution of writing systems. Many non-linguists ask “Why can’t we write how we speak?” or “Isn’t English the hardest language to learn?” Eddington said variation in pronunciation makes writing how we speak difficult, and spelling is what makes English a hard language to learn.

“Complex language is the behavior that separates man from other species. We not only use it to communicate, but to mark our ties to social groups,” Eddington remarked. We have unique abilities to process language that set us apart from Siri or Alexa. For humans, language is created in context and is formed from our life experiences.

How do we know what the word old means? Eddington said sometimes we can rely on dictionary definitions to help us understand word meanings, but a lot of our understanding comes from social contexts. After all, the meaning of old in the term “old friend” is light-years away from the meaning of old in an “old solar system.” We wouldn’t know the difference in those meanings if we didn’t have social context and life experiences.

“Everyone speaks in a particular way,” Eddington taught regarding language variation. Some people say water fountain, while others say drinking fountain. Some pronounce pajamas with a short sound after the j, yet others pronounce it with a long sound. One person’s pronunciation or dialect isn’t more correct than another’s. Different pronunciations just mean there is variation in our language, and variation can change depending on our situation.

Eddington gave five factors that cause languages to vary—age, social class, gender, ethnicity, and situation. He went on to say, “We want to fit in, so we adopt markers of ‘This is who I am.’” Those factors that influence changes in our language are the markers we either adopt or reject in order to fit in. As Eddington quipped, “If you want to get a date, don’t use whom. But if you’re writing a scholarly paper, you should use whom.”

The final part of Eddington’s lecture series focused on language change and the history of English. Why does language change? What’s wrong with the words we had 50 years ago or even the words we have today? Language change occurs because culture and society change, and our language is a response to those changes. Just like trends in architecture, fashion, and even hairstyles change, language also shifts—adding some new words and shying away from other words. The word like, for example, isn’t just a filler word. It can function as a way to quote someone or as a way to communicate your internal dialogue. Eddington explained, “People aren’t corrupting language; they are making sense of words.”

One way people make sense of language is by creating words or borrowing words from other languages. Words like blatant, blurb, and pandemonium are all inventions, while lasso and canyon are borrowed from Spanish and robot is borrowed from Czech. These adoptions are part of our effort to make sense of the world around us.

When asked what he wishes people knew about linguistics, Eddington replied, “Language change has always occurred, and [it] leads to forms of language that aren't corruptions but [are] merely different.”