If we can accept the idea of memes, it remains to consider Dawkin's suggestion that fecundity is the most important aspect for memes' survival. Pedagogical and linguistic memes, as well as those dealing with methods of communications, would seem to have a great advantage--all three superimpose themselves on most other (verbal) memes, since they deal precisely with the transmission of ideas.
Thus, the English language can be seen as a vast (and impressively fecund) meme or collection of memes. Like the previous trade languages of, say, French and German, or the future trade languages of Japanese and Mandarin, it has succeeded in transmitting itself into the minds of millions who now think in English. All other verbal memes must therefore make it through the "filter" of the English meme; some cannot. This results in the difficulties of translation, for as Bahktin notes, a language is made up of not only words and grammar but also an entire paradigm that resists translation. The English meme struggles against the Spanish meme and vice versa. This paradigm can be said to color the expression of thoughts and even to influence, at a basic level, the means of thinking itself. The first sign that one is becoming fluent in a language is that one begins to think in that language.
Of course, English has changed since, say, 1066 AD. The introduction of neologisms into the language is an excellent example of both the adaption of the English meme as a whole and of the spread of a specific meme.
When a new word is coined, it spreads only if the people who hear it think it is useful. The meme lives or dies based on its functionality--everyone knows the term "software," but how many people know the word, "quinquennia"? Thus, the introduction of a new word is an analogue to the dissemination of a lexia.
Similarly, a language that fails to adapt and accept new ideas is doomed to fall by the way-side. Certain important French officials decided that French wasn't adapting fast enough--the French language was failing to mutate in a "French" way. Instead, it was merely adopting words from that great pit of memetic infection, English. Policies were adopted to force French to create new and specifically French words. I have my doubts about whether this policy will be successful.
The genetic/memetic structure of language is an old insight, certainly not one unique to me, Derrida, or Wm. S. Burroughs. One merely has to look at the definition of the word "mutation." The symbol that changes a letter's pronounciation (an inflection) is a mutagen(an infection).
|Inf(l)ections by Steve Cook|