The growth of language is a shared endeavour.

It almost goes without saying that the evolution of a language is a social exercise. A speaker cannot communicate unless their output is comprehensible to a listener. And a listener cannot understand unless the speaker uses the right words. In the absence of anything else, this sounds like a variation on the chicken and the egg. But how did language grow into the very sophisticated tool we all use today? In addition, how does it continue to grow and change? The answer is bootstrapping.

The speaker, particularly if under pressure, reaches for familiar or comfortable-sounding words to refer to things. From time to time, they use the wrong word or even create a new word by adding to an existing word. They are thereby trying to turn a mistake into an extension of the meaning of the word in question. Sometimes, the listener accepts the extension of meaning and sometimes not. You only see this when the listener becomes a speaker and is also reaching for a word. If the word they reach for is the word that their erstwhile speaker mistakenly used or made up, then they effectively legitimise the old word’s new meaning, or indeed the new word. The evolution of a language, therefore, is the product of a multi-party, through-time negotiation of which new word-meanings work, and which do not. This is how, for example, people accepted the new word, “reiterate”. They added “re” to “iterate”, even though “iterate” already perfectly well expressed the meaning of repetition.

Link to paper:

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