Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: No “pure” language

You can't keep language pure. They always adapt.
You can’t keep languages pure. They always adapt.

This post concludes the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain” and the second, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe,” and the third, Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate.”

4. Borrowing words from other languages is par for the course.
This is a corollary to point 2, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Many speakers of certain languages work hard to keep their language “pure,” that is, not to utter words from other languages while speaking their language. No language ever existed in a vacuum, however, as far as we can tell. When the first Europeans came to what is today the Northeast US, they found speakers of Mohawk and Mahican (completely unrelated languages) communicating with each other, and soon after they came, Pidgin languages developed between the Dutch and some of the native peoples. (See my earlier post, “A lesson from history: Languages in 17th century New Netherland.”) Surely words mixed among all of these languages.

How much more so today, when speakers of so many languages are constantly bumping into one another by virtue of jet travel and the internet? Every language is adapting to a new state of affairs.

While I believe that languages can’t help but borrow from one another, I still like the work of language academies, even if I disagree with their self-understanding. French, Modern Hebrew, and other languages have designated groups that sanction the use of new words. I don’t believe in the mission of keeping the language “pure,” but I like the resourcefulness and creativity of these groups. They look to the native verbal resources of the language to express a new concept. Hence the French word “ordinateur” and the Hebrew word מחשב maxshev entered into these languages.

Furthermore, I like academies because they help speakers not forget words of their languages in order to pass on as much as possible to the next generation. For example, I knew someone whose father is Navajo and a scholar of Navajo folk literature. He purposely uses obscure Navajo words when he delivers public talks in his native language; otherwise, those words might disappear entirely from the language.

How do you feel about the “purity” of your language? Do you feel that young or less educated people are “ruining” it?

Photo credit: melolou / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND



10 thoughts on “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: No “pure” language

  1. Leaella Shirley

    Rich, you might be interested in the work of Professor John McWhorter, if you aren’t already familiar. He is much on the descriptive, rather than prescriptive end of the spectrum. I have watched a couple of “Teaching Company” video series he did, and learned a lot from them. He has also published several books. And he is a lecturer it’s fun to listen to.


    Sent from my iPad



  2. Rachel

    Well, “my” language (my first/mother language) is English, and anyone who talks about the “purity” of English is kidding himself. If English were to be “pure”, it would be very, very different. You can have a look at the Anglish wiki ( for a fun idea of what “pure” English would be like if the Normans hadn’t won in 1066 – although, given how much Gaelic I’ve found floating around English, I doubt what was spoken prior to Norman conquest was “pure”… whatever that means.

    English was made out of borrowing words and grammatical ideas, which does quite a bit to explain why we have five words for everything. It’s been borrowing from French since the language began – which is quite interesting, because it means we have pairs of words such as wage/gauge and warrantee/guarantee, which are both from French but were adapted into English hundreds of years apart.

    Sometimes I get a bit annoyed by the amount of “American” words which are creeping into “Australian” English. Younger people (my age) say things like “guy” rather than “bloke”, “eraser” rather than “rubber”, “elevator” rather than “lift”. We watch “REpeats” on “TV” rather than “rePEATS” on “telly”. When we feel sick, we puke, rather than vomiting when we’re crook. The list goes on.

    But I can’t really complain about the Australian English thing, because Australian English has been changing ever since it was recognised as a thing. People at Federation used words like “spalpeen”, movies from the 50s and 60s feature flat, twangy accents, and TV shows from the 90s make use of the phrase “rack off”. My grandfather says “cheery-o” and “oo-roo”, but people my age say “arrivederci” and “sayonara” for the fun of it. We don’t say “spalpeen” anymore, but you can be a bogan or a yobbo, or even a malaka! Twenty or thirty years ago, street food was a pie floater, but now we eat cold rolls, banh mi and yiros (except in Victoria, where it’s souvlaki). But it’s still a bit sad that we’re loosing a lot of our more “unique” words, such as chook (chicken), goog (egg), and fossick (search thoroughly for, usually with the upturning of something). Then again, we’re not going to stop chucking wobblies anytime soon, so I think we’re good.

    As far as the Gaelic is concerned, well, I don’t really speak that well enough to know. I know that the Gaelic community in Australia promotes the use of “pure Gaelic” words as much as possible, which is how I can learn “maighstear-chlaise” (literally “class-master”) in Melbourne but hear “tidsear” (pronounced “teacher”) from people in Scotland. I do get the feeling there’s a lot of English in Gaelic these days. In my textbook from Scotland today I came across the word “maids (match)” which is a phonetic translation into Gaelic. This surprised me because “match” itself is a Gaelic word – from “maide”, meaning “small bit of wood”. I read the other day an interesting post about the Irish language of the future at, and I imagine many of the same points would apply to Gaelic.


  3. Reblogged this on makimolapo and commented:
    This honestly made me think and I feel that as much as there isn’t “pure” language, I still don’t appreciate less educated or people that are highly educated ruining by beautiful Sesotho language because I think it somehow loses the sense of culture and beliefs it carries.


  4. When highly educated people like to speak in their own jargon, then it’s ridiculous to be snobbish about less educated people who are seen as twisting the purity of a language.

    I see the greatest contribution of academics not only in simply preserving the language itself with the updating of dictionaries, thesauri but also for recording and sharing the etymology or history of the word and usage. I actually found the full Oxford English dictionary fascinating when I was at university.

    I also like when academics communicate the love of their language in writing plain language posts or essays on a word on its history, cultural and even political underpinnings. Language and sanctioned use of it can be quite political….as we have witnessed in Canada : official languages of English and French for federal and some provincial govn’t services.


    1. The way we put guards around language and its rules is over the top. The outrage of language differences often surprises me. Yet I hear complaints come from speakers of so many languages: French, Russian, Ukrainian, Spanish. It’s a sign of our times, I think–not just of our English language.


      1. Hope I’ll get around to looking these posts. I wonder how much majority of Americans even understand the politics of language. In Canada, it’s meant Quebec threatening at different times to separate from Canada.


  5. Lebohang Lehloka

    I am one of those who think that there is no “pure”. There are concepts such as “Borrowing” that have been used in English and Sesotho to form new words. The English language has borrowed words such as “liaison”, “rendez-vous” etc from the French language. In this instance, can we honestly say the English language is “pure”?

    Sesotho is my maternelle language and I am very fond of it. Also, I would like every person who speaks the language to speak it correctly. However, how can one believe that Sesotho is a “pure language” whereas there are many words borrowed from Afrikaans and English. We have words like, “botlolo, seterata, terinki, etc . Can we say these words are purely Sesotho words?


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