Thursday, 17 January 2019
Evolution of Language
I have been getting very frustrated lately. As an autistic person, I have real issues about accepting when things are "wrong". I also have obsessions! I've had a tough time adjusting to "house rules" which don't always make sense to me.
Another thing I've had a tough time with is adapting to the American version of English. Until I started writing, I'd not really been aware of how different the two languages are. (I know American is not technically a different language, as officially it's a dialect, but it is to me). Initially, I reacted very negatively to insistence that I learn to write the American way. In particular, written American simply looks wrong and I hate to see my own words on a page spelled wrongly and expressed wrongly. For example, the words color, theater, realize all look very strange to me, and my teachers at school would have marked them wrong if I'd spelled them that way. I would also have been corrected for using all right to mean okay instead of all correct. It's been quite an uncomfortable process, and if I'm honest, it still is.
My latest obsession is about the fact that certain things are becoming acceptable merely because they're used wrongly so many times. My pet peeve (yes, I am going to mention it AGAIN) is the misuse of the verbs to lay and to lie. No, you do not either lay down or have a lay down or go for a lay down. No, you were not laying on the bed and neither was anyone else. I appreciate it has become an obsession of mine, but that's what my autistic mind does and I'm not going to apologise for it. Sadly, this is rapidly leading me to the point where I'm having to abandon books, even my favourite series, because it's become a trigger.
On the bright side, all this has led me to an interest in the development of language, and I'd like to share that with you.
1. Early days
From the days when most of the inhabitants of the British Isles spoke a common Celtic language until the Rennaisance, the Engish Language changed mainly through -
Over the centuries the British Isles have been invaded/settled many times. First by the Celtic races (thought to have come from Asia), then by the Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Romans,Vikings and French. After each occupation, the Language of the invader/settler became either the primary language or absorbed into the language, with many of its words and phrases being adopted.
Some of the invaders also brought elements of other languages, for example, the Romans introduced not only Latin (which was the first language, in Britain, that was written down to any great degree) but the language of their scholars, which was Greek. While Latin words and phrases dominate many disciplines, Greek also has its place. For example, Latin is the primary language used in Law and Politics, especially the making of laws. Words such as affidavit, prime (as in prime minister), testament, etc come from Latin. Latin is also used almost exclusively in naming plants and animal species. On the other hand, many Greek words have found their way into disciplines such as Medicine (words such as oestrogen, carcinoma, dysentery, and even doctor), as well as Engineering (arch, aeronautics/aeroplane, median etc) and mathematics (parallel, parameter, arch, graph, logic etc)
Along with their language, invaders such as the Romans brought with them their ideas of a strict class system, with the upper classes speaking a different, more refined version of the language, while the common man spoke a coarser version that lagged behind the aristocracy in absorbing new languages. Those with access to written material had a far wider and more refined vocabulary.
Divisions also arose between the secular population and those who chose to study professions (such as philosophy, law, medicine etc) or became involved with the church.
The French invasion in 1066 brought another wave of massive change across the board. After the war, William portioned out a great deal of land to those who assisted him in the war. These French landowners, who became the new aristocracy, clearly spoke French, and in order to find favour with the new power, the upper echelons of English society quickly adapted to the use of French, which then filtered down to the general populace, although Latin still retained its hold on the professions. An example of French words would be languor, encore, deja vu, matinee, souvenir, fiance.
2 Middle Ages
A major revolution in the language occurred when Mr William Shakespearem, along with his contemporaries, swept in and owned it. Many common words and phrases were simply made up by him. Examples of words are critic, discontent, eyeball, negotiate, premeditated, swagger. Examples of phrases are "break the ice", "method in his madness", "naked truth". "pitched battles", "the course of true love never did run smooth" and "the milk of human kindness".
3. The Navy
Britain has had an effective martial and merchant navy since very early on, trading with places as far away as China and the Americas. Sailors have developed their own language, and were often the first "ordinary" people to make acquaintance with the culture and language of the lands they sailed to, often needing to quickly find a means to communicate, at least on a basic level. Many words and phrases passed down into common usage. Some fascinating examples are -
Freeze the balls off a brass monkey - A monkey was a brass tray where cannon balls were kept. Extreme cold would cause the tray to contract and the balls would fall off.
Over a barrel - Sailors were often strapped over a barrel to be flogged for wrongdoing.
Long shot - Refers to the range of a cannon. Successfully firing beyond their range didn't happen very often.
Above Board - On the deck and therefore clearly visible.
Pipe down - In order to extend the range at which commands could be heard, a whistle (or pipe) was used as the clear, high notes carried further than the human voice. At the end of the day, the pipe would sound the command to stop whatever you're doing, turn off the lights out and sleep.
Phrases that don't need explanation include - All at sea, Between the Devil and the deep blue sea, Close quarters, Give a wide berth, High and Dry, Know the ropes, Panic stations, The cut of your jib etc
4. The British Empire
As well as being influenced by invaders, further major developments in the English language came about with the expansion of the British Empire, when words from the languages of those places invaded by the English were absorbed. Examples are jungle, swastika (which ironically came from the Sanskrit word for inner peace and harmony), juggernaught, loggerheads, cage, commando etc
5. The Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution brought a host of new words, simply because it brought new things that needed to be named. For example telephone, lightbulb, steamboat, ship, electricity, camera etc
The development of English in the US clearly did not begin until the seventeenth century. The first known British settlement was Jamestown. Virginia in 1607. They would have been exposed to the likes of William Shakespeare, but as many of them were escaping religious prejudice and were highly religious, it's by no means certain they would have been exposed to his culture.
The US was not as involved in exploration and expansion as Britain so the influences of the British Empire would have been muted, if they happened at all. On the other hand, they would have been infuenced by the previous settlers, mainly from Western Europe, principally Italy and Spain. Naval influences would also be present, although the US didn't develop its navy formaly until the end of the eighteenth century,
In the US one of the most sudden and drastic changes in language was with regard to spelling. This was largely the result of a unilateral decision - to make the language look more like it sounds - by Noah Webster who published his first dictionary in 1828. He is responsible for things like the replacing of "ph" for "f" in many scientific terms eg sulphur/sulfur, the omission of letters eg aluminium/aluminum, colour/color etc and completely changing words such as aeroplane to airplane.
7. The Printing Industry
Another significant influence came from the printing industry who charged by letter and encouraged their customers to shorten words and phrases when they could eg aniseed/anise, press stud/snap etc.
8. Modern Times
In modern times, the internet had led to a far closer relationship between peoples of many different countries and cultures. Language has, again, become fluid and dynamic. The innovation of texting and things like twitter that limit the length of comments, have also led to changes in the way language is used and the introduction of new words and phrases (lol). Slang has been alive and well since earliest times and has, again, become more influential since the internet opened up the world.
It would seem there has been an almost about face in the way language is developing. Whereas before it was the upper echelons of society who, on the whole, had the greatest connection with peoples of other countries, resulting in changes filtering downward, today such contact is universal, with young people being the most dynamic in the adoption of new trends, slang etc, and the development of language appears to be moving, rather than upward or downward between classes, but rather sideways between young and old.
9. The Future
Language will continue to grow and develop as we move forward but I have to wonder about the future. Whereas in the past, changes have mainly been brought about by the introduction of some new culture or language, with the world opening all its doors and moving toward a truly global existence, surely there will come a point where there is no culture or language that is new anymore. At that point, will the development of language simply stop and language become fixed?