How the English language has evolved like a living creature
Some linguists think of language as a living thing: It grows and changes, and every time a child learns it, the language reproduces itself. Now, a team of researchers is using the analogy of evolution to explain language change, arguing that key factors in biological evolution—like natural selection and genetic drift—have parallels in how languages change over time. And it turns out that the random changes, known as “drift” in biology, may have played an outsized role in the evolution of the English language.
Historians of English have long acknowledged that social and cognitive factors shape language over time. For example, languages lose irregular verb conjugations or other word forms that are hard to remember. And certain words or pronunciations get used because they are associated with people who have status and power—think about how new arrivals adopt the local accent in order to fit in. These pressures on language are based on concrete factors, similar to the biological pressures of natural selection.
But that explanation didn’t satisfy University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) evolutionary biologist Joshua Plotkin. He was puzzled by oddities such as a growing preference for the word “clarity” over its synonym “clearness.” According to standard linguistic theory, “clearness” should be more common because adding “-ness” is an easy-to-remember rule for making a noun out of an adjective. But that’s not what happened in English. “As an outsider,” Plotkin says, “this increase seemed at odds with the notion that language … regularize[s] over time.” So he decided to roll up his sleeves and apply some theories from evolutionary biology.
With another evolutionary biologist and two linguists from UPenn, he analyzed three databases of historical English together containing more than 400 million words and ranging from 1100 C.E. to the 21st century. The researchers used statistical methods from population genetics to analyze three well-known changes in the English language: how past-tense verbs in American English have taken the “-ed” ending, (as when “spilt” became “spilled”), how the word “do” became an auxiliary verb in Early Modern English (as in “Did you sing?”), and how negative sentences were made in Old to Early Modern English.
They found that selection was the likely cause of how negative sentence structures changed over time (like how the Old English “Ic ne secge” became the Early Modern English “I say not”). But the two other changes were likely the results of random drift, they write today in a letter published in Nature. That’s because, rather than having an even rate of change, the frequencies of alternative forms changed in fits and starts—jagged fluctuations that were obvious in the data set. When it came to the verbs, they found that drift’s influence was stronger when the verb was less frequent. Only six past tense changes in their data set, such as “lighted” to “lit,” were deemed to have changed for purposeful reasons, such as being easier to learn and use.
Explain how the English language evolved
There are many species of life that are more than able to communicate, but humans have a unique form of communication. We are the only species capable of using language as a form of communication. Think about the first human and how difficult it would have been for them to communicate without language. From never having a single word to a hundreds and thousands of words in modern times, all the words that we created in order for people to communicate are a part of a complex system. It is a difficult concept to understand because we've been using language for most of our lives and all of these words have been place for thousands of years. Language is sometimes that is constantly changing, it is not an everyday change, but it is gradually evolving. For the most part, language is passed down through generation so parents and children are able to communicate with each other. Changes in language has occurred throughout centuries over a short period of time and have evolved through different degree of English such as old English, middle English and modern English.
However, old English wasn't the first form of English created, but it's the foundation of our modern day English. It has come down from many forms of languages, but its roots comes from the West-Germanic language. The old English language had many variation occur from the fifteenth century to the mid-twelfth century. This was due to all the wars in Europe over land and the struggle for power. The language spoken was, for the most part, a result of whoever had power. Generally, a society would speak the language of the king since these earlier eras believed on the divine right of the king. Most people in modern day America would not be able to understand the language and writings of this time. As a matter of fact they, wouldn't be able to recognized some of the letters. Beowulf was one novel written in the old English language during the year 1066 and is just one example of the complex form old the old English language. Written towards the end of old English and the stat of middle English, there were many centuries before and after Beowulf where the old English language was still evolving. However, it was the first writing recorded in history that used the old English language Many of the characters an spelling are far from similar to modern day. It is obvious that the English language has come a long way taking a look at an example from Beowulf. Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu Ã°a æþelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena/ þreatum.” To the majority of English speakers this writing makes no sense at all, but when it is translated into modern English like so “LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings, of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped, we have heard, and what honor the athelings won! Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes.” It is much easier to comprehend.
In addition, middle English has evolved a great deal since the beginning of its time into forming the language we speak today. Middle English started around the twelfth century and evolved into modern English at the beginning of the sixteenth century. In the beginning of this era, language was used as a barrier to define one’s social class. Generally the wealthy would speak French and people of a lower socioeconomic class would speak a little more advanced form of old English. Then in the fourteenth century the English language became more dominant again, but this time some of the French language was added into the mix. During this time period the first dictionary was written. This would supply the English language with more structure. Now there was a correct and incorrect spelling of a word and now the word had it’s absolute meaning. To get a better understanding of how much language has changed from middle English to modern English, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is an ideal example. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote. The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote. And bathed every veyne in swich licour. Of which vertu engendred is the flour.” This frame tale is extremely difficult for modern day English speakers to understand due to it’s awkward sentence structure and spelling. After being translated into present day English it would be, “When April with its showers sweet. Has pierced the drought of March to the root. And bathed every vein in that liquid. By whose power is produced the flower.” This frame tale becomes much easier to understand. People that originally migrated to America would have spoken middle English which was the same as other cultures of Europe, but in modern times our much of our English language has changed just recently. When comparing the United States to the United Kingdom there are a few minor changes. Both English speaking countries pronounce words similarly, but have different accents and spelling. In the United States words spelled with -or, -er, -se, or -ction, are generally spelled differently in the United Kingdom like -our, -re, -ce, -or -xion. It’s interesting to see that we had exactly the same language at one point in time and as soon as America separated itself from the British, both cultures began to have their own distinct differences implement their language.
Similarly, modern English has made many advancements in changing our modern day language. Modern English started in the early sixteenth century, but this language breaks down into two groups, early modern English and late modern English. Early modern English lasted three centuries and only had small scale changes to the English language. The largest change was the Great Vowel Shift, which caused vowels pronunciation to get shorter and shorter. The beginning of the printing press started in this time period and mass publishing resulted in catching on to new words and phrases.
Consequently, the late modern English era was created. Late modern English started in the nineteenth century and goes all the way up to present day. The biggest boom in language reform has occurred just recently. The main factor behind this is the new improvements in technology. Within the last few years technological advancements have exploded. One of the easiest ways to communicate with people in modern times is to send a quick text. Generally speaking, a person will change the spelling of words, drop vowels or a repeated letter, replace words with numbers, and even use made up acronyms while texting to make things quick and simple. This poor use of grammar, spelling, and punctuation creates bad habits for the youth. Another form of language change involved with advancements of technology would be the use of computers. Social networking sites such as Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter have slowly reshaped the way people talk with one another.
Language is always evolving and the English language might have gone through the quickest phase of evolution which can be seen through examples of old English, middle English, and modern English. These changes may be subtle or drastic as verbal and written methods of communication change with cultures and societies. Language reform has occurred for centuries now and as long as societies and cultures evolve, language will continue to change to meet the needs of communication.