Hello! Last year, I posted about wanting to continue to learn about subjects I’m interested in, even though I’m no longer in school. I have over a dozen subjects/topics that I’m extremely interested in and I want to study them in my free time. And, I want to share what I’ve learned here. It’s kind of like a homework assignment, once a month, to summarize what I’ve learned.
One such subject, and what I’m going to be posting about for the next few months, is Language. The history of languages and how they were formed, change, and intertwine is fascinating. I’ve always wanted to know things about English, specifically, like why bologna and colonel are spelled the way they are, why the words ‘effect’ and ‘affect’ aren’t just spelled the same and be homophones, and why there’s so many other languages mixed with ours — like all the French and Latin.
And we’ll get to all that. But first, I want to start way before English even existed. Today we’re going to talk about the origin of language and how it has morphed for centuries, continuously, since from the beginning of speech to today. Okay, that’s a big topic that there’s literally an entire book about it, but I’m just going to give a brief summation of that, plus some other fun facts that I’ve learned, and my thoughts thrown in along the way.
(I’ve been reading primarily from John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, but I have several books in line to learn from. Information in this post will primarily be from this source, unless otherwise stated.)
The First Language
So, to begin — every language on our planet originated from a single language. That’s an insanely cool fact that I wasn’t really aware of until recently (for real, this is why I want to do this — I want to learn all the interesting things that high school and college didn’t teach me). We all originated from a single village of early humans that spread throughout the world over thousands of years. With each migration, with each generation, that one language morphed into other languages, and those morphed into other languages. Each one branching off and changing itself.
Now, unfortunately, we don’t know what that first language sounded like. In fact, we don’t know what most of the languages sounded like before a certain time. Most of these pre-history languages weren’t written languages, only spoken. We have no record of them. We can, however, piece things together from more recent times.
There’s a family of languages that is spoken by almost half of the entire world. It’s the Indo-European languages, a family of connected languages that stemmed from a single language. The Indo-European languages include English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Hindi, German, Persian, Portuguese, and many others. The language these languages branched off from is known as Proto-Indo-European. This language hasn’t ever been recorded, but linguists have pieced together what they can to reconstruct the language from the many similarities between the language families across Europe and West Asia. These languages and language families include: Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Slavic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic (Greek), Indo-Iranian, and Italic (Romance).
There’s several other language families, like the Afro-Asiatic languages (Northern Africa) and Sino-Tibetan languages (central Asia). There’s many more, all of which overlap and are complicated for me to understand. I assume it’s because they all technically came from the same, there’s a lot of overlap. Everything’s a spectrum, even language.
One of my favorite images is below (illustrated by Minna Sundberg), which shows the branches of many of the Indo-European languages as well as the Uralic languages, and how they’ve branched out. It’s a beautiful illustration and shows how connected many of these languages are, even if they’re further away on the tree than others.
How Language Changes
So, how does one language morph into thousands?
I’ve always known that the Romance languages (specifically I knew of Italian, French, and Spanish, though there are others) derived from Latin. But I never knew how that was possible, I’d never even thought about what that exactly meant. How could one language be derived from another? I knew that Latin was, for the most part, a “dead” language. It wasn’t used by many people, but it had predated the Romance languages. Then, while reading The Power of Babel, it clicked with this quote and I understood:
“…French is nothing other than Modern Latin: Latin as it changed through several centuries into a new language in the area that would become France. We only happen to be able to juxtapose the two stages in the development of this one language because the advent of writing has preserved Latin for our perusal. When Latin arose, French did no yet exist; without Latin, there would never have been anything that could turn into French–in other words, French is Latin.”The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, page 18
This blew my mind. These languages, French, Italian, and Spanish are Latin. The generations of people that lived in the general region of France, spoke Latin and over time, as Latin morphed and eroded, it became modern French. This is the same for Italian and Spanish and the others. At what point in this transition was there an equal amount of Latin as there was French? Could this middle “language” — or “Fratin” as John calls it in the book — be understood by a native Latin speaker and a native French speaker? Just like there’s Old English and Middle English, there’s an Old French and Middle French. And just like we are unable to understand most of Old English, I’d assume the same would be for a modern French speaker trying to understand Old French. However, I wonder if one learned both French and Latin, would they be able to understand the ones in the middle?
Over many, many years, after many, many generations, words begin to change. That’s just how language works. There’s a good chance if I were to travel back in time to visit my great-great-great-grandparents, I wouldn’t be able to understand them, even if they did speak “English,” because “English” has changed over time. That’s why we have “Old English” and “Middle English” to reference back to. It was on its way to what we speak today, but it would be in no way intelligible to us English speakers if we were to hear it — spare a few words here and there that sound similar today (but they may have changed in meaning!) And, generations from now, our great-great-great-great-grandchildren probably wouldn’t be able to communicate with us very well. Language is always changing.
Here are some ways that it does:
The way words and sentences are spoken erodes over time. One example John gives is the Latin/French transformation of the word “woman.” In Latin, it was femina and it became femme in French, the first syllable remaining but the rest falling out of use. An English example, is the phrase Did you eat? whittled down to simply a word sounding like Jeet? It’s a simplification that worsens (or I should say, continues) with each generation until the one that is most used comes out on top and becomes official.
Many words in English changed case endings over time to simplify. The plural of fox was once foxas, the plural of tunge (tongue) was tungan, the plural of waeter (water) was the same as the singular, and the plural of bōc (book) was bēc. One plural ending took over, after many times, to become the “official” way to pluralize these words: the -s ending. Now we have foxes, tongues, waters, and books. Though, a few remain, like mouse to mice.
This is, by far, my favorite way languages change. It’s as beautiful as it is hilarious. I love that, we as humans, just change words because it’s easier to say and we forget, over generations, what it was originally. The best example is the work “nickname.” The word, in early English, was originally ekename (eke meant also, so basically you were saying also-name.) And because we use “an” in front of vowel-fronted words a lot, one would have said “an ekename” which, if you tried to say allowed right now, it would sound a lot like “a nekename.” This is how we, eventually, went from [an] [ekename] to [a] [nickname]. Amazing! This is also how we went from Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus, from the Dutch “Saint Mr. Nicholas” [Sant] [Heer] [Niclaes] shortened to Santerclaes, to [Santa] [Claus].
Now this one is more about how meanings of words and phrases change over time. In early English, hund referred to all dogs and dog (originally dogca) started as a new word for a specifically large, new breed. Eventually, hund became hound and was associated with hunting dogs, and dog became the word for all breeds, gradually over time. Another such time is the changing meaning of the word silly, originally “blessed” in Old English, then changing to mean “innocent” in the 1400s and then “weak” in the 1600s and then “simple” or “ignorant” and then finally meaning “foolish” today.
Favorite Facts & Tidbits
• I’ve always wondered why the abbreviation for pound is lb. It never made any sense. So, I decided to look it up, and it turns out that it’s an abbreviation of the word “Libra.” I immediately knew this as the constellation/zodiac with the weighing scales, which made enough sense, but then I learned the word “libre” or “libra” is Latin for a pound (it’s unclear which, or if there’s another word needed, I don’t know Latin so I did my best to search for it).
• Going off of the re-bracketing thing, one other example is the word ‘apron.’ It originates from a word meaning tablecloth or napkin in Old French, nappe, which became naperon in Middle English, which became napron in English. Eventually, a re-bracketing occurred over time, and [a] [napron] became [an] [apron].
• There’s a few languages in Africa in which its speakers use clicking sounds to distinguish certain words. It’s been suggested that it’s more likely the first language ever spoken had these clicks and they eventually fell off over time as language spread, evolved, and became thousands, except for in the the few that still have them, rather than those few languages taking on the click sounds individually.
• The word “goodbye” began as the phrase “God be with you.” Over time it was re-bracketed to “goodbye,” and today, it’s been shortened to simply, “Bye!”
God be with you
Isn’t the history of language nuts? Of course, there’s conflicting information about whether or not there was a first language, or several that evolved separately and merged, but I’m going with what I’m learning, one book and article at a time. Maybe at the end of this, I’ll understand more about all of that. And of course, if you know what you’re talking about (I’m doing this to learn and share, not teach — I’m an amateur here) please feel free to comment with more information!
Next month, I’m going to be talking about one specific section of language: English. That will likely not be the last on just English, as it’s my native language and the one I’m most interested in to learn why the hell it’s so complicated. And I’m very much looking forward to that!