One of the many linguistic dilemmas that we face today is drift. Drift is essentially what happens when a language changes over time due primarily to isolation and specialization. Isolation occurs when a society is not exposed to the varied dialects and slang that develop elsewhere. When I talk about specialization I am referring to the idea that in specific regions words are developed or modified because of special needs or interests that do not exist elsewhere. Drift is a problem because it inhibits communication.

A friend of mine complained about this problem in an anecdote. He encountered a man in regular daily activity whom he could not understand and whom he assumed could not understand him. My friend believed that the man he encountered was speaking English, but he could not make sense out of his words. The discussion of drift moved to questioning whether or not drift actually was a problem, and why nothing was being done to standardize English so this problem did not continue to occur.

In order to address the problem of drift an understanding of why it occurs has to be reached. A professor from Bucknell University attempts to track drift in a web-format lecture. For those reading that do not understand the linguistic terminology used there, the following is a general explanation.

– Education of language, starting in infancy. If you remember words or phrases that you learned as a child, to later realize you had not correctly learned, then you understand well how a loss occurs.

– Use of foreign vocabulary pronounced with a local phonological theme. Celtics (Kel-tiks) becomes Sel-tiks, Notre dame (No-trè Daam) becomes No-ter Daim, et cetera (et kay-ter-ah) becomes (et-se-tra). The last example also exemplifies the dropping of a syllable.

– The opposite of the prior example also causes drift. This is where local words are pronounced with a foreign phonological theme. Most people are familiar with this, whenever you hear what sounds like an “Asian” accent (I use quotes because this is a linguistic stereotype, but use it for general understanding’s sake. I recognize that there are many different phonologies associated with each Eastern Asian language and dialect), or even a Scottish or Queens English accent.

To the question of whether or not drift is a problem I say, yes. In my opinion anything that inhibits communication of ideas from person to person is a problem. Drift will often continue to the point of mutual non-understanding between linguistic regions.

Is anything being done about drift? We like to think that standard english is taught in schools, and in fact it is. However there are problems with this as well. Once cultural or regional dialects are established they are often associated with personal identity, which is a very important facet of child development. Teachers often stereotype these dialects as lesser, improper, and uncivilized. Similarly teachers often exercise linguistic discrimination, which is detrimental to the development of personal identity in children.

How do we balance cultural identity with a standardized language dialect? Can written language be standardized more easily than spoken language to maintain understanding? In today’s world of mass media and connectivity will we find other alternatives to spoken language for establishing and maintaining global understanding?


About evilestmark

Writer, Yogi, English, and Japanese teacher living in rural Japan.
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One Response to Drift

  1. evilestmark says:

    If you would like to join the discussion and write your own topics leave me a message here or send me an e-mail to either mljohn@wm.edu or mark.mrwizard@gmail.com

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