How Languages Evolve, Part II: Linguistic Tug-of-War

Over the course of Ancient Egyptian history, the Egyptian language simplified, then grew more complex, then simplified again. Why? How?
Isolated tribes in New Guinea or the Amazon (pictured) often have enormously complex grammars, but lack words for concepts that we can hardly think without (source: VOA News).
In German, Billion actually means trillion (our billion is “milliard”). The concept of a billion is still so novel that European languages disagree on whether the word refers to a thousand million, or a million million.
Some of our earliest sources on the development of Romance languages come from graffiti on the walls of taverns in Pompeii.
Inter-linguistic liaison: observe how the time-travelling aristocrat refers to “Eating coq au vin at the Château de Chambord and then the maître d’…” Typically one would pronounce these words, roughly, “coc oh veh” (with a nasal vowel) and “Chambohr.” Yet he liaises the terminal consonants, even when switching between French and English. This is a silly example, but it is a fascinating demonstration of how people intuitively obey foreign languages’ rules even when they are not trying.
When King Arthur first visits an enchanted forest in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he finds it guarded by the Knights Who Say “Ni!,” as well as “Peng!” and “Nee-wom!” A few days later, he returns to discover that they are now the Knights Who Say “Ekkeekkeekkeekke-ptang-zoo-bing!” Although their vocabulary has declined by 67%, one could hardly say their lexicon has gotten simpler.



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Sam Quillen

Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets