Imagine that you start a linguistic innovation. One fine day you decide to replace the English word dog with a new, hitherto unused word — for example, jan. As of now, you will say, “I have to walk the jan”, “My jan’s name is Bruno”, and, “The jan is man’s best friend”. You will substitute jan for dog in set phrases such as “go to the jans” and “every jan has its day”. Jan would do its job neither better nor worse than dog. Both are arbitrary sound sequences (their pronunciation does not suggest what they mean); both are short and easily pronounceable. Dog has only one obvious advantage over jan: it is already an established, familiar, commonly used English word. There is no compelling reason why people should find it a good idea to abandon it just like that and learn to use a different word for the same concept. If you are really determined (and perhaps slightly nuts), you can try persuading your family and close friends to humour you and adopt your innovation when they are talking to you. You can bring up your children informing them that your family pet Bruno is a jan. But sooner or later they will find out that everybody else calls jans (including Bruno) dogs. Your experiment will almost certainly fail. Not because the word jan is useless, but because the function you’d like it to have is already carried out equally well by another word. It makes jan a “neutral” innovation — one that could play its role well enough but has no functional advantage over a preexisting competitor.
On the other hand, something similar to this thought-experiment really happened about one thousand years ago. The word docga (the Old English ancestor of dog), coined by an unknown innovator at an unknown date*), somehow became a widespread synonym of the established Old English word hund, and after a few centuries managed to replace it in the mental lexicon of every English-speaker of the time. Although its dethroned predecessor did not become completely obsolete, its frequency of use dropped by at least an order of magnitude, and it had to undergo narrow semantic specialisation in order to survive. Today, a hound is a special type of hunting dog, not just any dog in general. And if you look at other languages, you will occasionally see similar cases of lexical replacement. French chien and Italian cane go back to Latin canis, as expected, but Spanish perro is an innovation (about as mysterious as dog). It seems some new words for old things do catch on, albeit rarely. The chances are slim but apparently larger than zero.
|A selfie with a jan (whose name is not Bruno)|
A lexical innovation is more likely to succeed if it finds and conquers a functional niche not yet occupied by any other word. In this way it makes itself useful, which may give people a powerful incentive to adopt it. For example, the word selfie made its first recorded appearance in September 2002, in Australia (or rather in the Australian sector of cyberspace). Within the next few years it grew popular among (mostly young) English-speaking Internet users worldwide, slowly gaining the status of buzzword. Then it infected Facebook communities and its popularity soared to the zenith (as did the number of selfies published online). In 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary declared it the word of the year.
How is it possible for an innovation to become “fixed” in a large speech community? How do the the chances of fixation depend on the functional value of the innovation? What is that functional value? What happens to innovations that have enjoyed some success but haven’t yet reached fixation? This is what my next blog posts will be about.
*) Nobody knows for sure where Old English docga came from. My own modest etymological proposal can be found here.