How did languages evolve?

languages evolve

We use it every day, when we wake up, talk to our loved ones, go out, and even when we think. Most of the time, we hardly realize that we are talking, thinking, writing or typing in the spoken word. The existence of language has shaped mankind in many ways, allowing us to establish communication and setting us apart from the primates. How did our language, such an integral part of our lives, come about? 

A Study of English

Most of the languages we have today evolved from the same base tongues spoken thousands of years ago. It is believed that spoken English first came about in the fifth century by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. They all spoke the same Germanic language, except in different dialects. When they came together, they formed a new Germanic language which is now referred to as Old English or Anglo-Saxon. Later on, the Vikings came in the eighth to tenth centuries, introducing another version of that Germanic language, called Old Norse. 

In 1066, the Normans had a variety of languages, including Old Norse, a French dialect, Flemish and a Brythonic based language. During the Middle English period, they introduced about ten thousand words into the English language, including words related to authority, administration, legal professions and royalty. Other words introduced were everyday words in food production such as beef, herb, juice, pork and poultry. They also introduced words with the prefixes “con-”, “de-”, “dis-” and “en-”, as well as some words with the suffixes “- age” and “-ence”. However, the language was still far from being as fleshed out as it is today. 

The Renaissance period introduced thousands of Greek and Latin words to the language. Many poets and playwrights were central to this development, including William Shakespeare, who himself created an approximate 1,750 new words and idioms. During this time, there was the Inkhorn Controversy, referring to a debate over the new words being introduced into the language by these writers. One particular advocate for inkhorn words, Thomas Elyot, had a profound knowledge of Latin and Greek, and as such came up with many new words stemming from these languages. However, other scholars were against the inventing of new vocabulary and opposed the extravagant speech the advocates were using. They sought for a simpler vocabulary made of words derived from Old English instead of Latin and Greek. Despite the opposition, inkhorn words still became the newest additions to the language, and many of these words and phrases are ones we still use today. 

Another source of additions to the English language came from the explorations, privateering and piracy during the Elizabethan era. These included words from the Portuguese, Spanish, Caribbean and Native Americans, such as “tobacco” and “potato”. In particular, the colonialism on the eastern side of America resulted in many words from the Native Americans being adopted into the English language just as they were, such as “canoe” and “hammock”. 

When Britain started having a greater share in world trade during the explorations of Tudor and Stuarts, there were more words introduced to the language, including words from the Netherlands such as “scone”, “booze”, “knapsack”, “sketch”, “easel”, “avast”, “schooner”, “skipper” and “landscape”. 

Soon after, the British empire expanded to encompass about a quarter of the Earth’s land. With its extended rule and increased populace came hundreds of millions of people from different cultures that spoke different languages, resulting in a large addition to the English language. Many words came from India, including “pajamas”, “thug”, “bungalow”, “juggernaut”, “curry”, “chutney”, “shampoo”, “jodhpurs” and “khaki”. 

Then the American influence came to the language as American literature grew popular in England. The turn of the century also saw the rise of Hollywood and popular media, together with songs, dance and television programs. Additionally, the United States contributed to Britain’s effort in the two World Wars and invented the Internet, further adding to the vocabulary of the English language. Some American words that made it into the vocabulary include “bedrock”, “raincoat”, “showdown”, “joyride”, “cocktail”, “skyscraper”, “smooch” and “cookie”. 

With all of these influences coming together to create the language we have today, one thing is for sure – the pattern of speech is malleable and adaptable. No two individuals speak the same way, their languages being influenced by where they were raised, the languages they speak and their age, gender and background. One might wonder at how people find ways to communicate with one another despite not speaking the same language from the beginning. The beauty of mankind adapting its words to facilitate easier communication has blossomed into an amazing product that billions of people around the world rely on today. 

From its roots as a humble Germanic dialect to a global first language, English has come a long way. Indeed, the history of a language tells a lot about the history of its people as well. Despite all its progress, there is little cause to believe that the evolution of English is at its end yet. In the 21st century, we have seen numerous new words being added to the Oxford English Dictionary, including words from popular media, Internet culture, other dialects and colloquial speech. With the invention of new technologies, devices and even job positions, we now have even more terms that people in the last century would never have heard of, such as “Wi-Fi”, “smartphone”, “big data”, “Internet of things” and “webcam”. 

The only fact that has not changed with the evolution of language is the ready incorporation of foreign words, expressions, pronunciations and terms into one’s vocabulary. Every day, we are seeing new occurrences and learning new things, and we come up with expressions or words to describe them. 

Another interesting point is that the usage of terms changes over time. At some point decades ago, “gay” was a synonym for “happy”, but these days “gay” has an entirely different meaning and relates to homosexuality. “Wireless” used to refer to what we call a “radio” today, while our own definition of “wireless” means something else. Even our sentence structure changes with time, which anyone would notice from reading plays written in around Shakespeare’s era. 

While people may understandably be hesitant towards change, in some ways, the evolution of language is a good thing, as it points toward the progression of our civilization. After all, if our language remains stagnant for a long time, what does that entail for our societal advancement? We can expect our version of the English language today to be only a temporary one. Perhaps some decades laterlanguages evolve, we will be able to witness further changes according to the needs of the language – and possibly even make them ourselves. 

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Jun 04, 2020

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