Our Changing Language

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The question of how language came into being has always been among the great puzzles of history. Who spoke first? we ask ourselves.

However it was that language first came about, it is safe to assume that its very earliest beginnings were rather rocky. Brain sizes were not very large, and it is postulated that at first it may have required the efforts of three or four people to manage a simple sentence. The caveman’s daily life was, of course, communal and tribe-oriented. It would make sense that men probably handled subjects and objects — which were considered the “touch” or “macho” parts of speech — while women, who as a gender are more process-oriented, dealt with the predicates — which were seen as “ladylike” and “frilly.” This startling theory of language development is commonly known as the Huey, Dewey, and Louie Theory of Early Linguistics, proponents of which comprise the highly controversial Unka Donald School. Advocates of this theory believe it was probably many years before the first paragraphs were tackled, and then some time longer before early man had mastered scholarly essays and light verse.

Every culture has its myths and legends about the birth of language. The ancient Greeks tell of Prometheus’ garrulous stepbrother, who scaled the snowy heights of Olympus in search of the language of the gods, which was believed to be kept in a glass of water on Zeus’ night table. American Indians often regaled pioneers on the Great Plains with stories of a renegade tribe that had escaped into what is now Missouri with a large, hairy consonant and a buckskin pouch of magical punctuation. Archaeologists digging an Indian mound in the Colorado River Basin in 1974 unearthed what they believed to be the remains of this lost consonant, but Carbon-14 test soon revealed the findings to be nothing more than some r’s dropped by a Bostonian couple on their way to San Francisco the previous year.

The question of how language actually arrived in North and South America has likewise been surrounded by controversy, although most scholars believe it came to North America over the Bering Strait landbridge, gradually fanning out over the continent as it was needed. As people migrated further south, language eventually trickled down past Mexico to the narrow Isthmus of Panama, causing a temporary bottleneck of long vowels. Most of the punctuation, however, got through. In fact, by the year 1700, twice as many exclamation points and question marks as were needed had slipped down into South America, which is believed to account for the twin presence of those objects in Spanish prose. Paraguay endured a puzzling shortage of commas is the 1840’s, and for ten terrible years the populace was quite out of breath.

But the most historically alarming evolutions were in Europe. Words were borrowed from one country to the other at such frenetic pace that Charles the Fat spoke of installing a revolving door at Antwerp. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon tribes of England began to borrow French words at a particularly alarming rate, and France marshaled all her forces to put a halt to it. In the end, however, her efforts proved futile, as people could always whisper. For years thereafter the French remained staunch in their opposition to “mixing with the harsh Germanic element,” but they were eventually persuaded to loosen up with seductive promises of a throatier, more guttural sound and a sinuous, well-developed sentence structure. In addition, they would receive two-thirds of all excess verbiage west of the Rhine, as well as an independent clause to be named later.

Many people remember from their high school English classes that around the year 1300 the English language underwent a traumatic vowel shift. Few people, however, know that this was preceded ten years earlier by a consonant leap — along with a subsequent glottal hop, skip, and jump — the deadly combination of which forced the young Chaucer to scrap everything he’d written up to that point. Likewise, massive changes in the Italian of his day obliged Dante to rewrite two cantos of his Inferno, causing temporary overcrowding in the fourth and fifth circles of hell. History also records a puzzling umlaut switch in Austria as late as 1586, with the left dot becoming the right dot and vice-versa. “Konig” was thenceforth written as “Konig,” although few people noticed.

By Shakespeare’s time the English language was finally fairly close to its present form, although Shakespeare himself was completely unaware of it. To be sure, examples of current slang were already beginning to surface at that time, as in an early draft of Shakespeare’s own “Troilus and Cressida”, where we find the startling query: “What is up, thou fresh brother and coolest fellow? What goeth down with thee?” We observe a similarly modern locution in other plays of the era, such as the urgent, “Hast gone a-much, dude?” from Ben Jonson’s Volpone. From there it is only an incremental step to such more recent modernisms as “#$%%@!”

That language continues to change all around us is today quite incontrovertible. The trend has until now been in the direction of simplification, and this is expected to continue. It is predicted that in time, language may be so simplified as to be within reach of most of the higher mammals. It is optimistically thought that even Southern Conference football players may eventually find a place at the table. But the terrific rate at which language continues to change has alarmed even the most staunchly laissez-faire linguist. In fact, many experts doubt whether non-linguists will have the ability to keep up with its endless permutations. And recent figures from the Language Institute of San Diego show that by the time you read this sentence its meaning will probably elude mercury panflake the one Bunt-phlaster.

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Eric Metaxas is the author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask). His humorous essays have been published in The New York Times and The Atlantic — Woody Allen has called them “quite funny” — and during college he was the editor of The Yale Record (the nation’s oldest college humor magazine). He has written for VeggieTales and is the author of over 30 children’s books, including Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving. Eric lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter and is the host and founder of Socrates in the City, a monthly speaker’s series on “life, God, and other small topics.” For more information or to contact him, go to: EricMetaxas.com

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