The Story of Language

Written on February 8, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen


I have recently read two fascinating and expansively written books on the development and role of language and society (both published in 2005): Nicholas Ostler’s modestly titled Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World and Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language : An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention. For anyone who has had to learn English as a second language and suffer through the seemingly endless number of irregular verbs, this second book offers the following poetic gem:
The teacher claimed that it was plain,
I only had to use my brain.
She said the past of throw was threw,
The past of grow – of course – was grew,
So flew must be the past of fly,
And now, my boy, your turn to try.
But when I trew,
I had no clue,
If mow was mew
Like know and knew
(Or is it knowed
Like snow and snowed?)

The Teacher frowned at me and said,
The past of feed was – plainly – fed.
Fed up, I knew then what I ned:
I took a break, and out I snoke,
She shook and quook  (or quaked or quoke?)
With raging anger out she broke:
Your ignorance you want to hide ?
Tell me the past form of collide!
But how on earth should I decide
If it’s collid
(Like hide and hid),
Or else – from all that I surmose,
The past of rise was simply rose,
And that of ride was surely rode,
So of collide must be collode?

And on it goes… The two books treat different subjects but in a complementary fashion.

Ostler examines how language communities thrive, or fail to thrive, based on any number of factors: religion, trade, political authority, or cultural impact, for example. Thus, languages like Sanskrit or Hebrew  have managed improbably to endure because they are inextricably linked to specific religious traditions, even though both largely disappeared as spoken languages. (Indeed, one of the more improbable  feats of Israeli culture, from the perspective of historical linguistics, has been the resuscitation of Hebrew as a spoken language.) Other languages, like modern, Chinese have been remarkably stable; the language of Pharaonic Egypt furnishes another example. Interestingly, these languages survived intact (in the case of Egypt for something like 3500 years or more; for Chinese to the present day), despite political and cultural turbulence which replaced at various points the power structures of both language-communities with foreign-speakers. A famous example is the reduction of Manchu to an obscure dialect now confined to a remote corner of China, despite the fact that the Qing Dynasty was, originally, Manchu-speaking and attempted (unsuccessfully) to promote Manchu language within the administrative culture.  By that point, however, the civil service examination was already 1000 years old and little changed over that time. There’s nothing like an entrenched bureaucracy to keep a language alive, a point that Ostler makes as well with the now forgotten tongue of Akkadian. But one notable factor largely absent from Ostler’s discussion is the utilitarian and practical question of how easy languages are to learn. The relative ease or complexity of a language system seems to have played almost no role in determining its survival.

Thus, in the evolutionary nature of things, the world has come to adopt English as its universal language and with it, for the non-native English speaker, the appallin g prospect of having to cope with the many barbarisms of  the language: completely irrational spellings, pointless diphthong variations, scads of irregular verbs, and horribly complex prepositional structures. From a purely utilitarian perspective, Ludvic Lazarus Zamenhof was right: Esperanto would be much easier. 

This is where Guy Deutscher’s lucid and thoughtful book may be of some solace. Deutscher shows the underlying evolutionary forces that make our languages what they are today. If you have ever wondered why "voy a comer" has come to mean the same as "comeré", or why the French future endings (e.g. "j’aimerai") are as they are, this book will be highly satisfying. Even if those questions haven’t been keeping you up at night, you will still find the answers interesting. (The first is too complex for this forum. The second is a derivation of the Latin construction amare habeo/habes/habet, etc… which became shortened to a simple ending.) He also provides a compelling and elegant answer to that plaguing question why semitic languages are constructed around an apparently highly logical tri-consonantal system (e.g. S-L-M = peace; hence iSLaM, muSLiM and SaLaM). If that hasn’t vexed  you either, you will be wondering why not after the fascinating exploration of its development.

But beyond the many fascinating incidental details in Deutscher’s book, the real achievement here is to show that despite the many apparent irrationalities of modern languages, they are nonetheless the product of highly rational forces that redound to how societies use language and how that usage results in predictable patterns of change. One (final) example I found fascinating, which answered a question that has always bothered me slightly: Why do the French have such a lengthy term for "today" – "au jourd’hui" – when in most languages this is routinely one of the simplest words around (hoy, Heute, oggi, etc…). This French mouthful is the consequence of a natural impulse to provide emphasis in our language to common concepts (as in the Spanish construction hoy día). French evolved from the Latin "hoc die" (this day) to the simple "hui". Over time, however, the need for greater emphasis reintroduced the longer phrase "au jour" (on the day), thus providing the modern formation: literally "on the day of this day."

There are many other fascinating gems in both these books. For the student of English (or other foreign languages), they sadly won’t make coping with the language’s irrationalities any easier. But they offer a source of solace. As more people start taking up the Byzantine spellings and pronunciations of English, they are unlikely to survive in their present form. In time, English mite even be spelt as it soundz alltho that may be kwite a wayz off yet.

So here’s the last stanza to Guy Deutscher’s hommage to English verbs:
Oh damn these English verbs, I thought.
The whole thing absolutely stought!
Of English I have had enough,
These verbs of yours are far too tough.
Bolt upright in my chair I sat,
And said to her ‘that’s that’ – I quat.


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