How Languages evolve
“Dude, did you see that tweet about twerk, derp, and selfie being added to the dictionary? WTF, that’s so retarded.”
Of all mankind’s manifold creations, language must take pride of place. Other inventions – the wheel, agriculture, sliced bread – may have transformed our material existence, but the advent of language is what made us human. With language, we are able to convey extraordinary sophistication and windows to our inner thoughts.
Through the use of 25-30 vocal contractions – k, b, t, s, zh, g, a, e, etc – we are able to discuss things from the laws of physics that govern our existence in Newtonian fashion, as well as share abstraction, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs.” What’s remarkable to note is how fast these languages evolved. But if these structures and words are always changing, how can we make sense of what we are saying? How can we be sure that the recipient has a clear understanding of our inner sentiments?
What it means to share a thought
These ideas really started stirring over in my head after seeing a post from my friend Tyler, an English major and creative writer. Tyler says, “As a highly proficient writer, I think of words as a gateway into the mind of another person. Many of your minds are cluttered with grammatical errors, logical fallacies and poor spelling, and, following this, I value your opinions and insight less than that of those who believed enough in their message to see it sent properly.
tl;dr: Keep your observations on life to yourself if you write at a third grade level. You are not insightful.”
Now, I sense a great deal of sarcasm in Tyler’s post just from knowing his type of personality and humor (at least I think), but he raises an interesting point, particular with the last sentence of what it means to send a message “properly.” Now under Tyler’s use here, I assume by properly he means a consistent structure of grammar. But these grammatical constructs are always changing! The paradigm is always shifting; the rules are inconsistent. How do we know which set of rules to adhere to? Let’s look at some examples of older English text to examine the consistency over time.
Chaucer, 14th Century
“A yong man whilom called Melibeus myghty and riche bigat vp on his wif, that called was Prudence a doghter, which that called was Sophie. Vpon a day bifel that he for his desport is went into the feeldes hym to pleye.”
Old English, 10th Century
“Ælfred cyning…gefeaht with ealne here, and hine geflymde, and him aefter rad oth thet geweroc, and thaer saet XIII niht.”
The first one is barely legible, and the second sentences seems arcane and impossible to read. Certainly Tyler does not write with similar poise, but rather with how the rules have evolved into what they are today. The sentence used in the beginning about twerk, derp, and selfie would be nonsensical to a person even just 20 years ago. Yet in contemporary terms we can understand what the speaker intends to convey. This is the point of language; not a rigid casting of syntax and semantics that will eventually change. Perhaps 300 years from now that sentence will seem just as esoteric as the examples illustrated above.
Language in the Making
Change is inevitable; evolution is progress. Language isn’t something that is set in stone. If we are to hold aspects of life – business models, medical practices, education in our school systems – under the same lens of scrutiny of continuous improvement, then language has to be included in that list as well. It is faulty to assume that we have already reached the pinnacle of human expression; that there is not perhaps a better way to describe and accurate share our inner sentiments with the world around us.
Those who hold steadfast to former grammatical constructs have the same mentality of the people who hold onto old business models and delay progress. These are the lobbyists who fight earnestly against startups like Airbnb and Uber from disrupting old practices; clearing out the old, and make way for the new. Sure, the consistency can be nice, but they prevent progress. New words will arise, grammar will change, language will evolve. There is a reason words like ‘whom’, ‘cometh’, ‘doeth’, have lost their regularity. There is a reason new words like twerk, derp, and selfie, have been created to satisfy current needs of expression.
Are twerk, derp, and selfie how we really want to steer our modes of communication? That is, perhaps, a question for another blog post. These words aren’t one person’s doing, but rather a gradual adaptation for colloquial slang to common usage. Begin to recognize how the words you use not only shape and define your sense of self, but ultimately the world around you as well. I challenge you to closely examine how you use language in human expression. Is there perhaps a better way? I’d like to think so. Language is ripe for disruption.