The Evolution of Language

Most of the people who actually think they are the ones who care about language […] moaning about the confusion of disinterested and uninterested, and then thinking that they’re terribly educated and that they really understand language and they know the derivation of words, and someone has said less when they meant fewer and so on. But that’s not being a guardian of language. Being a guardian of language is enjoying language, understanding it.

When I was in high school, I managed to avoid the English class where everyone had to read Beowulf. Of course, you can’t just read Beowulf, because it was written at least 1,000 years ago in Old English. What we read today are translations into Modern English. That’s how much language changes — so much that the same language from 1,000 years ago is complete gibberish to us today.

But I skipped that class (opting for American literature and poetry instead), so I missed out on that particular revelation. Instead, I discovered how much language changes when I got to college-level Spanish. One of my first Spanish classes was an introduction to Spanish literature. I had passed out of all the Spanish language classes, so I figured my language skills were pretty good and literature would be a breeze. And then we started reading Lazarillo de Tormes, a 16th-century picaresque novel. I felt like a total dunce. Even though the words looked familiar, I had no idea what they meant in the sentences I was reading!

When I went on to study linguistic anthropology, I got to see how many factors go into how we use language. We speak differently at home and at work, with our parents and our peers, with acquaintances and our inner circle. We don’t have to use a different language to make those distinctions (although sometimes people do). Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to use language, and each moment is an opportunity to introduce a little change in our language. Those changes add up over time.

When I worked full time as a translator, I often “cared” about language in the ways that Stephen Fry described. I watched like a hawk to be sure my students used the right terminology and proper grammar. I read and re-read my own translations to be sure that each word was in its proper place. And I still cringe whenever I see someone use it’s when they mean its, or (I admit) less instead of fewer. Those things do matter in some situations, and a translator who doesn’t know the difference isn’t going to get very far. But these days, when I open my mouth to correct someone, I try to take a moment and consider: Does it really matter in this context? Or am I policing language instead of being its guardian?

P.S. I highly recommend watching the whole video above. It’s really book. 😉

5 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language”

  1. Of course, you can’t just read Beowulf, because it was written at least 1,000 years ago in Old English.

    This is really interesting to me. I’m currently reading a book that has been translated from French. No matter how accurate the translation is, I can’t help but wonder if something has been lost in translation.


  2. Of course, you can’t just read Beowulf, because it was written at least 1,000 years ago in Old English.

    To me, this is the important point. We cannot easily communicate with those who came before — nor with those who will come after.

    The purpose of language is communication, and a language that is allowed to evolve is therefore less than ideal. While I agree that English is a mishmash and continues to evolve — and that there is little to be gained by fighting against that — perhaps that simply highlights that English is a poor choice for a lingua franca, and what’s needed is a different tongue specifically designed not to evolve, so as to facilitate communication across long time spans.


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