How Languages Evolve, Part II: Linguistic Tug-of-War
It is a phenomenon well-established and oft-lamented that major languages often become simpler over time. As we observed in Part I, tongues from English and Latin to Mandarin Chinese shed grammatical and phonological idiosyncrasies as they became the daily languages of millions of people.
How and why languages get simpler is well-established. But if it were a one-way street, by now we would be reduced to speaking like cartoon cavemen. How simplification is counterbalanced is a trickier proposition, and a more varied one.
Early linguists hypothesised that the more complex a society grows, the more sophisticated its language must be. This sounds plausible. But it proved unsustainable as intrepid PhD students documented languages in the Amazon jungle with sixty thousand verb conjugations, and others in the Caucasian highlands with eighty-three consonants.
However, in some respects, languages of less sophisticated societies certainly are less complex than ours. Many tribal languages lack words for colours or numbers. For people living in such societies, it is easy enough to describe something as being, for example, the colour of the flowers by the river; smaller numbers can be indicated, and there is not much need for larger ones. The latter point may sound bizarre, but it is worth considering that even in a highly advanced society like 1920s Germany, psychologists worried that people would have a hard time wrapping their heads around hyperinflation because no one was accustomed to conceptualising one billion of something.
As life continues to change, languages constantly need new words to describe it. Often, they ram together native words, or borrow ones from Classical languages. English combined Greek and Latin roots to make “television,” while the Germans used the native equivalent Fernseher, literally “far-seer.” Hundreds of non-European languages have simply adopted the English word.
A few languages have borrowed so much and in such a way that they can express a meaningfully greater range of meaning than others. English is one of these: thanks to heavy influence from French and Latin, our dictionary is at least 50% richer than those of most other languages. Distinctions that we take for granted, for example between a “house” and a “home,” do not exist in many European languages.
Civilisation inevitably causes vocabulary to get more complicated, but can it do the same to grammar? As we explored in Part I, the opposite can be the case. But writing and education can also pull things the opposite way. It is easy for an illiterate soldier in the Roman Army to get lazy with grammar or pronunciation. But if he learns how to read, the written word will serve as a point of reference to drag him back to the “proper” way of speaking.
Education remains a potent conservative force in linguistics to this day. In the United States, the standard English taught in schools is sometimes at odds with the way students speak at home. African-American children, for example, might grow up dropping the copula (“to be”), e.g., “we ready to go.” But in school, they are forced to say, “we are ready to go.” Whether it is right to smother uniqueness and innovation in the name of linguistic cohesion is hotly-debated issue. But it is undeniable that education can arrest and roll back the simplification of the standard language.
Modern English and Romance languages are examples of what happens when the teachers fail. In many respects, our language is irretrievably simpler than that which our forebears spoke. However, of our rules would confound the most erudite Anglo-Saxons. For example, they could just throw words together in whatever order they liked, relying on case endings to specify their roles. The Venerable Bede would be bewildered by our highly specific syntax rules.
Once upon a time, people who were bad at Latin started appending the suffix -mente, meaning “mind” to verbs. Spaniards, for example, may have said suavemente, “soft-minded.” Over the centuries, this became a stand-alone adverbial construction (“softly”) that was alien to Latin. Romance verbs can also express the conditional mood (“I would…”) in a way their Latin ancestors could not.
Often, the a new complication arises in reaction to a simplifying trend. Two or three thousand years ago, Chinese people stopped pronouncing many terminal consonants. Of course, people still had to make themselves understood, so they started using tones instead. Today, tones play a critical role in every Chinese dialect. Mandarin dropped several of the trickier tones as it became the national standard, so now certain context clues play a more important role than ever in distinguishing homophones. The cycle keeps turning.
French was even more aggressive than Chinese at shedding terminal consonants. Today, one hardly ever pronounces them, with an important exception: if the following word begins in a vowel, one must pronounce the terminal consonant of the preceding word. One might ask how all French speakers intuitively know the terminal consonants of words, even though Frenchmen have not articulated them in a thousand years, but by some cognitive miracle, they do. For example, to tell someone to “come,” one would say venez, “ven-ay.” But to “come here” is venez ici, “ven-ez ee-see.” This level of complexity would have bamboozled the most erudite Roman.
All this makes sense on a very human level. Speakers know what they are trying to say (for the most part), but in order to make themselves understood, they have to pronounce and structure their words in a way others can grasp. Some feature might get simpler, but another must compensate. The effect is almost Newtonian. English speakers could drop case endings, but they had to bring order to their syntax; the Chinese could drop terminal consonants, but they had to add tones.
Even developments that sound like obvious simplifications are not always what they seem. Here in New York, people might say something like, “He been working” to emphasise that someone has been working for a while. Prima facie, this seems like an obvious degradation of standard English, and in some ways it is. But that use of “been” also adds a sense of duration that is familiar in other languages, but English traditionally lacks.
Unlike many linguistics enthusiasts of today, I am entirely sympathetic to efforts to uphold the integrity of standard English, French, Mandarin, etc. But unlike the linguists of olde, we can discredit the notion that we are on a one-way street to linguistic idiocy. In the place of the depressing hypothesis of perpetual simplification, we can advance a thoroughly human new one: in language, every time we screw something up, we get something new.