We get it wrong: language is always in motion, more like fashion, than science or math. This changes how we treat language and its uses.
We don’t quite say someone is wrong for wearing bell-bottom jeans today. It might feel outdated. We also might think they could return someday in some form if fashion and culture moves in the right way. It’s just not what most of us would consider common today. That is a pretty good approximation of language.
This concept is the big idea from linguistics that John McWhorter most gets at in his sublimely readable and thoughtful Words on the Move book from 2016. (Read the New York Times review here)
I first read this book earlier this summer, part of a binge on McWhorter’s books and linguistics generally. I finally wanted to share my notes from reading this. But if it interests you, you really should buy it, because there’s so much more.
English is a (relatively) simple language to learn enough of to communicate (rather than to master) because it’s had so many non-native adults learning and using it.
The rules are relatively flexible, so — as you’ve likely experienced — we can often understand someone speaking in simple “broken” English. Try that with Russian. But — as you also likely know — it can take a lifetime to have some kind of English mastery, and even that’s no promise. If you want to understand why, you need to look into the secret corners of the 1,500 years of English language development.
In ‘The First Word,’ a 2008 book by Christine Kenneally, the research into the origins of language are unveiled. I read it earlier this year. Critics liked it when it first came out, and I enjoyed it myself. I read it for two reasons: both as part of my on-going resolution to reading books by women and people of color and to help kickoff a deep dive I’ve been doing into linguistics.
A few weeks ago I decided I just didn’t understand enough of how language developed — or how we’d figure it out. This book was an excellent foundation for me, and I was surprised (and thrilled) by how much evolutionary biology is involved in pinpointing the origins of language. For example, if chimps can do certain language-like things (like gesture, the beginning of language), then humans likely got that from our last common ancestor some four million years ago.
I was so taken by the book and many of the concepts, that I shared some notes below. Consider reading the book yourself, and use this as a jumping off point.
There was likely once a single language, first developed 150,000 years ago. That grew to as many as 100,000 languages, before we developed farming. Today there are 6,000 and by 2100, that might be back to as few as 500.
Along the way, languages have emerged, influenced each other and continue to change.
That comes from the 2003 book “Power of Babel,” the third consecutive book I read by linguist John McWhorter, which I finished early this summer. In the last six months, I’ve become quite a big fan of his — having read his 2016 book on language evolution and his 2009 book on the lesser-known stories of the English language history, I seem to be working through his language books in reverse chronological order. (Read the Guardian’s review of this book here.)
The title of the book is, of course, a reference to the biblical story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Following the Great Flood, humans speaking a single language plan to build a tower that can reach heaven. God destroys it, sets humans into an array of languages and spreads them across the world to keep them from conspiring to do something like that ever again.
There is so much left for me to do, though. A lot of usability, design and organization elements remain janky. We’ll get to that. For now, I wanted to get over the big introduction hurdle of the redesign.
Of course, when I say redesign, I mean I switched from a free WordPress.com theme to using a free, self-hosted WordPress theme, but, hey, I’m tweaking this baby up.
It’s Memorial Day, so no one’s reading this anyway, right?
In February I announced that I was blogging for uwishunu.com, a popular, award-winning arts and entertainment blog for Philadelphia. Some months I write more for them than others, not all run as expected and some are of only middling interest to casual readers, so I’ve decided I’d like to do a monthly digest of my work there — if only just for record-keeping.
I’ll post them as I file them, not as they run. See all of my posts here, and my profile here.
Below — later than I’ll do this in the future — see my April posts.