Saturday, 10 December 2011

The evolution of language

It seems almost a truism that languages evolve. Taking English as an example anyone can see that this is the case: look at the development of English from Beowulf to the present day through Chaucer, Shakespeare and the rest. The concept does not even seem controversial, partly because evolution is almost universally seen as a positive process (largely I presume because humans, for some reason, see themselves as the pinnacle of evolution). However many people (not all Daily Mail or Telegraph readers) appear to accept the concept of language evolving whilst bemoaning any "decline" from the "correct" use of English, particularly by teenagers.

The metaphor of evolution for the process of development of language is actually a very interesting one. Evolution in the natural world is driven by two forces- random mutation and natural selection by survival of the fittest. Note that the mutations are random and the selection natural- neither is controlled or designed. In fact, both concepts apply very neatly to language development.

Mutations in language come about either through imports from other languages, or from neologisms (new coinages, often produced to name new discoveries or processes) or from simple errors. Of these only one source, neologism, is by design. Natural selection is the process by which new words or new usages enter the language: their formal entrance often being marked by an entry in such an august publication as the Oxford English Dictionary. We sometimes like to think that this demonstrates an element of design or control- that such dictionaries represent some over-arching authority that defines what is and what is not "correct" in our language. However in fact such dictionaries are simply a means of making a post hoc recognition that changes in language have already occurred. The actual selection, just as in natural evolution, is driven by survival of the fittest. Anyone can come up with a neologism, but it doesn't enter the language until it has become common currency: until enough people have decided to use it often enough for it to be accepted as a new word.

Over time, many people have felt this process to be worryingly random and chaotic. How can the beauty of our native language be subjected to such mauling in the court of uninformed public discourse? So attempts have been made in some languages to replace such natural evolution with a properly designed and systematic controlled approach. Classical Latin was one such, with its systematic definitions of conjugations and cases, declensions and moods. French attempted for a while to follow suit. The “immortels” of l’Académie Française laid down rigid rules on what was and was not “correcte” in order to root out anything “impur” from the language. So "self-service" was replaced by the clumsy (and to me equally unFrench) "libre service" and "le weekend" by "la fin de semaine."

Of course, what happened to Classical Latin is well known: it died. In its unchanged purity it simply fell out of use, whilst "Vulgar Latin" evolved into a whole range of languages from Romansch to Romanian. It will be interesting to see whether French goes the same way: certainly there are increasingly two different languages in use by French speakers, so that the same speaker can say “bonjour messieurs dames” when entering a cafe, then “salut les mecs” as he sits down at a table of friends. Both mean the same- more or less "Hello everyone"- despite having no words in common. The first is in formal, l’Académie Française approved French; the latter is not.
English has never taken this approach, much as Telegraph and Mail leader writers might wish it did, and this is the fundamental source of its vitality. Each of the forms of random mutation mentioned above has contributed to the development of English. To take just two examples of mistake-as-mutation, the word "adder" comes from the old English word "nadder". However over time "a nadder" appears to have been increasingly misheard as "an adder", hence the word "adder". Similarly, the phrase "apple-pie order" seems to have dervied from mishearing of one of two French phrases- "cap-à-pie" (head to foot) or "nappe plié" (folded linen). I was disappointed to discover in researching this essay though another example of what I thought was a similar mutation probably was not. I had always believed that Charing Cross got its name because it used to contain a cross built to Edward I's "chère reine" Eleanor. In fact according to Wikipedia, that fount of all wisdom, it is named after the Old English word "cierring" which refers to the bend in the river. Ah well.

So to what extent do modern usages contribute to the evolution of English and to what extent to its decline? For a start, the concept of "decline" in language is based on an odd desire to ascribe moral value to what is actually simply habit and tradition. The form of English we speak now is no more or less correct or elevated or worthwhile than the form Chaucer spoke or the form our grandchildren will speak. Nevertheless there are some random mutations that enrich or strengthen a species and others that do not. Here are my subjective judgments on just a few of the small changes detectable in modern spoken English:

  • Use of "I was like ..." for "I said ...". I cannot see this surviving. There are hundreds of synonyms for "I said" and this is neither particularly expressive nor easy to say.
  • Use of "I done" for "I have done". This is one of those examples that shows that informal English is NOT lazier nor less grammatical than Standard English. Standard English has only one simple past tense for "to do"- did, where informal English has two- did and done. However they are not interchangeable. Did is the past of "to do" as a modal verb. The sentence "I done my homework- did you?" is correct. "I did my homework- done you?" is not.
  • Multiple variations in the conjugation of to be- "We was", "I ain't", "You is", "They be". Somehow this has to be sorted out, now that regional variations that developed over time have crashed into each other. Each individual variation had its own logic (from the Devonian I be, you be, he be etc. to the Alabaman I is, you is etc. but now we hear them all) My prediction (for the little it's worth) is that in 50 years we will have I am and you/he/she/we/they is for the present and I/you/he/she/we/they was for the past.
  • The use of "disinterested" to mean "uninterested". This is fascinating as it appears to reflect the loss of a concept in contemporary society. The idea of a disinterested engagement with a topic or issue has come to seem part of some patrician, even patronising, outmoded set of attitudes. With so many claims on our attention and so much more emphasis on self-gratification perhaps the original meaning of "disinterested" is being lost because people cannot conceive of such a selfless attitude. It is the underlying attitude that is of concern; the loss of the distinction in the words is just a symptom.
  • Use of "less" for "fewer" (as in "10 items or less"). Surely the distinction between less and fewer has to survive! "Less" is for a continuous quantity that is not numerically quantifiable. Du'uh! 
Perhaps my response to the last two issues reveals just a touch of moral indignation in my own attitude to the evolution of language. Perish the thought. Not all new 'distrotions' of English get me so fired up: take the use of "laterz" for saying goodbye. In fact this will, I am sure, survive as an alternative for some time. Goodbye is nothing more than a conversational marker to show that an interchange is at an end. It exists for no other purpose and I am sure few of those who use it know it is a contraction of "god be with you" (otherwise how could it become "bye-bye"?). It is of course useful to have a word that would be unlikely to turn up anywhere in conversation for any other reason, so over time other otherwise meaningless such markers have evolved (I can think of "cheerio" and "toodle-pip"). "Laterz" is simply another in the same tradition. The connection with the word "later" makes clear its intent, whilst the "z" makes clear it is the conversational marker and not the adverb. It will survive through natural selection because it is useful.

The other fascinating neologism is "lol" as a spoken word. What is fascinating is that, although it was created as an acronym for "laugh out loud" for online chat it has now settled down (in its spoken form) as an indication that the preceding remark was funny, but not funny enough to laugh out loud at. Brilliant!


  1. On the other hand it may become anachronistic in the same way as toodle-pip. My guess is that the 'end-of'conversation-marker' is a perfect example of a colloquialism that changes quickly and easily, though 'bye' and variants has certainly lasted for a long time.

    Enjoyed the post!

  2. How to pronounce old English word "cierring"