Language is always evolving

By | May 10, 2014

One frustrating thing about learning foreign languages is that many aspects of language (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.) can appear to be random or arbitrary. I remember when learning Spanish my teacher used to respond to such comments by saying “One day, a long long time ago, there was a man who sat on a hill and decided on Spanish grammar”.

However, while parts of language, including your own native language, can seem mysterious and arbitrary, thats far from the truth.

Languages, just like the culture they are a part of, evolved over many hundreds of years through many small (and sometimes large) changes. Like with other types of evolution (such as that of biological organisms, if you happen to believe in that), most linguistic changes over time happen for a reason, namely because they serve some purpose that benefits the speakers of that language in some way.

For a moment let’s imagine a time when prehistoric humans didn’t have any established spoken language, only hand signals. Now if a certain tribe happened to discover (by accident or otherwise) a way of communicating with a system of grunts, they would have the advantage of being able to communicate better than other tribes who had no spoken language, allowing for more efficient hunting, foraging, and general cooperation amongst themselves.

Step forward to modern day, where world languages have much more advanced grammar, allowing the expression of a variety of ideas with relatively few words. Another interesting example is countries which have many dialects or regional languages, such as India or Japan. In environments like there were often reasons each tribe was separated from others, either a physical boundary (like rivers or mountains), or a cultural one. Dialects also serve the important function of associating you with a certain culture or group of people, and that helps with cohesion within the group.

For those of you like myself who are  studying Japanese, you may have wondered why the Japanese system of polite language is so extensive, and as a result so difficult to master. I haven’t studied Japanese history as much as I’d like to, but I’d bet it has something to do with the extensive caste system which was present until the society was westernized. I’ve seen some indications that there may be a gradual decline in the (proper) use of Japanese polite language, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in 50-100 years it’s importance had greatly decreased if not disappeared completely.

Another thing I’ve realized while studying the Japanese language is that words that are used commonly and express some simple concept are relatively short, which can be seen as an example of efficiency as a result of linguistic evolution. Take for example words that express body parts in Japanese. The following everyday words are all one or two syllables:  ‘me’ (eye), ‘i’ (stomach), ‘chi’ (blood), ‘ha’ (tooth), ‘yubi’ (finger), ‘ashi’ (foot), ‘kata’ (shoulder), ‘hana’ (nose),  ‘kubi’ (neck). Conversely, this set of words which are used less frequently are much longer: ‘fukurahagi’ (calf), ‘futomomo’ (thigh), and ‘kakato’ (heel). I’ve noticed this pattern with verbs too, where simple, common verbs tend to be short: ‘miru’ (see), ‘kiku’ (listen), ‘iu’ (say), ‘kaku’ (write), whereas verbs expressing more complex ideas are typically longer (‘kokoromiru’ (try), ‘furikaeru’ (reflect back), ‘hikkurikaesu’ (overthrow)).  I haven’t done an unbiased study on this and there is a certain amount of cherry picking here, but on the whole I feel these trends are too strong to be coincidence.

A final example of the evolution of language is the number of new expressions which have become popular in any major language, or the number of words which have retreated from popularity. If you pay attention to the language used by your grandparents, you’ll probably see they use many different words than you do. Of course, if the language you are speaking in is not their native language that is a different story.

So how can you use this information to improve your foreign language learning? First, it can help reduce your frustration, since most things related to language that appear arbitrary in actuality have a good (historical) reason for being the way they are. Second, if you so choose you can investigate word origins and evolution, and besides satisfying your curiosity it may help you memorize words better or have a deeper understanding of how that language works. And finally, it’s always good to keep in mind that language is tightly connect to the culture it originated from, and to really understand a language well you need to learn a great deal about it’s culture.

(Image taken from Wikipedia Commons:

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