Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The English of today may not be the English of tomorrow.

The nature of language is that it’s always changing, says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University.

“If today you go to a play of Shakespeare, there is a chunk of vocabulary and grammar you’re not going to understand, but you can sort of make your way through it,” she says. “You ignore the things you don’t understand. It’s what we do when we’re trying to understand language.”

The English language is a progressively altered form of the languages spoken in previous generations, all the way back to the origin of language itself — and English continues to evolve.

The language has an attested history of about 13 centuries, says professor Jay Jasanoff, chairman of the department of linguistics at Harvard University. He holds a doctorate in linguistics.

“There are written records of it from about 700 A.D.,” he says, “but the English of that period was as different from modern English as a foreign language. And the English of 700 A.D., of course, was descended from the prehistoric English of 600 A.D., which was descended from the prehistoric English of 500 A.D., and so on.”

In about 449, the British Isles were invaded by a group of Germanic tribes that didn’t speak the same language. As time passed, French became the biggest contributor to the English vocabulary, other than native English, namely because England was invaded by the French-speaking Normans in the 11th century, Mr. Jasanoff says. English, like other European languages, also has words borrowed from Latin and Greek roots.

In fact, Old English, dating from about 700, had inflections (changes in the form of words to indicate grammatical relationships), says Ms. Baron, who also has a doctorate in linguistics. It had nominative, accusative and genitive word endings, similar to modern German. It also had masculine, feminine and neuter endings.

Ms. Baron says she is not sure why the inflections disappeared in English. She hypothesizes that people who spoke different languages and were trying to speak to one another dropped them to simplify communication.

“English used to allow for free word order because of the endings,” she says. “By the time Chaucer was writing his ‘Canterbury Tales,’ at the end of the 14th century, English was losing a lot of its inflections. By the time Shakespeare was writing, even more were gone. Today, we only have the relics of inflections.”

To put it into categories, English progressed from Old English to Middle English (Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”) to Early Modern English (Shakespeare) to Modern English.

Pronunciation and vocabulary are the two areas of language in which variations are more readily noticeable over long stretches of time, says Anca Nemoianu, a professor of linguistics at Catholic University with a doctorate in linguistics.

Starting in the end of the 15th century, the way people pronounced vowels began to change, creating a passage from Middle English to Modern English. In academic circles, this progression is frequently called “the great vowel shift.”

More noticeable than sound change is the continuous influx of new vocabulary, Ms. Nemoianu says. Most English speakers are aware that “sushi” is a relatively recent borrowing from Japanese, just as speakers of Japanese may know that “sekuhara” is their rendition of the English “sexual harassment.”

“Few contemporary English speakers are aware that ‘very’ and the French ‘vrai’ [for] ‘true’ have the same source,” she says. “And most speakers therefore have no qualms, not that they should, about saying ‘truly very sad.’”

Language adapts to accommodate society, says Bill Frawley, dean of arts and sciences at George Washington University. He holds a doctorate in linguistics.

“Look at the preposition used: the war on Iraq, the war with Iraq, the war in Iraq, the war against Iraq,” he says. “What is it? It’s all of them. Thus, we have a lot of words in English that reflect how the world has changed.”

The 500,000 to 750,000 words in the English language can reveal the values of much of the West, he says. For instance, he says, in a fishing community, a word representing “the area just beneath the surface of the water” might exist, whereas a similar word probably wouldn’t exist in a financial community such as Wall Street. Today, new words are needed for items associated with technology such as the Internet.

However, adding words to a dictionary is an expensive endeavor, and the collection of words is printed only every few years. Therefore, publishers try to make sure words are going to last in the language before they are added to a dictionary.

“Language is connected to your identity, who you are to other people and who you are to yourself,” Mr. Frawley says. “It’s connected to your region, to your socioeconomic persona and who you are as a social being and cognitive being.”

Large cultural shifts can be understood sometimes through language acquisition on the part of children, says David Lightfoot, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Georgetown University. Mr. Lightfoot holds a doctorate in linguistics.

Children grow up expressing themselves and eventually become the adults of the next generation, which leads to alterations in language. Experts are still waiting to see how the Internet, e-mail and instant messaging affect the English of this era.

“Little kids are exposed to bits and pieces of language, and they end up getting a system, which enables them to say anything that’s on their mind,” he says. “If you change the bits and pieces kids hear a little bit, that can trigger a very different system.”

The capacity for language is something unique to humans, as if it is hard-wired in them, Mr. Lightfoot says. In fact, all human languages, even in the remotest tribe, are organized the same way, with the same tools. Therefore, almost every child, regardless of education and nutrition level, has words for thousands of objects.

“Apes don’t have systems like this,” Mr. Lightfoot says. “They are pretty smart, but even if you take an ape and you are very nice to it and feed it well with good TV shows, and you persuade it to use words, … you can get them to identify symbols as representing words for about 200 objects. What you cannot do is get them to acquire a productive system.”

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