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Language and Evolution

I have always been fascinated by language. This is somewhat ironic since I have a really hard time learning a new language and almost did not make it into college in Sri Lanka because of extreme difficulty in passing the 10th-grade language requirement in my own mother tongue of Tamil! (How that happened is a long and not very interesting story.)

But language fascinates me. How words are used, their origins, how sentences are structured, are all things that I enjoy thinking and reading about. I like playing with words, and enjoy puns, cryptic crosswords, and other forms of wordplay.

All this background is to explain why I recommend an excellent book The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, who used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the book he discusses the complexity of language and points out that the evolution of language is very similar to that of biological life. He suggests that there was originally just one spoken, very primitive, language and as the people who spoke it fanned out across the globe, the various languages evolved as separated communities formed. And in the process the languages became more complex and sophisticated, and evolved intricate features in their vocabulary and grammar that now seem to have little functional purpose, in a manner very analogous to biological systems.

The precise origin of spoken language is hard to pin down. McWhorter argues that it probably arose with the evolution of the ability to form complex sounds and roughly synchronous with the arrival of homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago. Others have suggested a more recent date for the origins of language, about 12,000-15,000 years ago, but pinning this date down precisely is next to impossible given that spoken language leaves no traces. What we do know is that written language began about 5,000 years ago

McWhorter points out that purely spoken languages evolve and change very rapidly, resulting in an extremely rapid proliferation of language leaving us with the 6,000 or so languages that we have now. It was the origin of writing, and more importantly mass printing, that slowed down the evolution of language since now the fixed words on paper acted as a brake on further changes.

He also makes an important point that the distinction between standard and dialect forms of languages have no hierarchical value and is also a post-printing phenomenon. In other words, when we hear people (say) in rural Appalachia or in the poorer sectors of inner cities speak in an English that is different from that spoken by middle class, college-educated people, it is not the case that they are speaking a debased form of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English. He argues that dialects are all there is or ever was, because language was always mainly a local phenomenon. There are no good or bad dialects, there are just dialects.

We can, if we wish, bundle together a set of dialects that share a lot in common and call it a language (like English or French or Swahili) but no single strand in the bundle can justifiably lay any intrinsic claim to be the standard. What we identify as standard language arose due to factors such as politics and power. Standard English now is that dialect which was spoken in the politically influential areas near London. Since that area was then the hub of printing and copying, that version of language appeared in the written form more often than other forms and somewhere in the 1400s became seen as the standard. The same thing happened with standard French, which happened to be the dialect spoken in the Paris areas.

McWhorter points out that, like biological organisms, languages can and do go extinct in that people stop speaking them and they disappear or, in some cases like Latin, only appear in fossilized form. In fact, most of the world’s languages that existed have already gone extinct, as is the case with biological species. He says that rapid globalization is making many languages disappear even more rapidly because as people become bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and as a few languages emerge as the preferred language of commerce, there is less chance of children learning the less-privileged language as their native tongue. This loss in the transmission of language to children as their primary language is the first stage leading to eventual extinction. He points out that currently 96 percent of the world’s population speaks at least one of just twenty languages, in addition to their indigenous language. These languages are Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portugese, Japanese, German, French, Punjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Italian, Korean, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and Vietnamese and thus these are the languages most likely to survive extinction. It is noteworthy that the population of India is so large and diverse that seven of these languages originated there, and two others (English and Arabic) are also used extensively in that country.

He also points out that languages are never ‘pure’ and that this situation is the norm. Languages cross-fertilize with other languages to form language stews, so that language chauvinists who try to preserve some pure and original form of their language are engaged in a futile task. For example, of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, more than 99 percent were originally obtained from other languages. However, the remaining few that originated in Old English, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from turn out to be 62 percent of the words that are used most.

McWhorter is a very good writer, able to really bring the subject to life by drawing on everyday matters and popular culture. He has a breezy and humorous style and provides lots of very interesting bits of trivia that, while amusing, are also very instructive of the points he wishes to make. Regarding the ability of language to change and evolve new words, for example, he explains how the word ‘nickname’ came about. It started out as an ‘ekename’ because in old English, the word ‘eke’ meant also, so that an ‘ekename’ meant an ‘also name’ which makes sense. Over time, though, ‘an ekename’ changed to ‘a nekename’ and eventually to ‘a nickname.’ He gives many interesting examples of this sort.

Those who know more than one language well will likely appreciate his book even more than me. It is a book that is great fun to read and I can strongly recommend to anyone who loves words and language.

POST SCRIPT: Whipping up war frenzy

Jon Stewart show how it is done.

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