Philology: The Evolution of Language

The words you find yourself speaking every day did not always exist. So, how exactly do languages come about?

The evolution of every language has a deep connection to the people who speak the language. A language controls how people speak, by choosing the words and grammar which the people are forced to use, and the rules of every language are so intricate that it is difficult to truly comprehend any language. Only through years of education can one obtain a substantial enough grasp on a language to use a language for anything but its surface value – a way to tell people things. As a result, most people have no choice but to shape their life around their language. This can account for one factor towards why different countries have such different ideologies and patterns of behavior, dominant in the majority of the people of each country.

In the Medieval world, global interconnectivity was almost nonexistent, so language had an even more substantial impact on people’s behavior than in today’s world, where people from different cultures can share their ideas without leaving a chair. In the Medieval world, the only way in which different cultures could meet was through extensive travel, often across mountains, deserts, or seas. Because of this, the only people with any knowledge of the outside world were the nobility, but the nobles themselves rarely knew much more than theory. Only on extreme occasions did different cultures ever collide, often in times of war.

It is because of the infrequency of different cultures mixing that languages rarely changed, and the evolution of language was so gradual it was hard to even notice; it took numerous decades for the rare additions to a language to be accepted by the general populace. It has always been the job of a select group of people to guide the evolution of a language, a group chosen for their expertise in the language, scribes and people of similar occupations. Often, the members of the group likely are not aware of their involvement in this group, but their significance to the culture as a whole earns them this position. In the medieval world, these people spent most of their time translating old Latin texts into English; this explains why Latin has such a significant role in many European languages, even those without a basis in Latin. However, when these people came into contact with other cultures, they found a completely distinct set of words, and, like all people did then, they thought about these new words, when given the chance.

It is not every day, though, that a person finds the chance to analyze another language. If an English man were to speak to a French man, all he would hear is nonsense. This exchange of language offers no opportunity for analysis besides the inane thought “those French people, they speak funny. I don’t like them.” No, in order for the intellectuals to find the opportunity to analyze a language, first they must obtain written samples of the language. The exchange of written language was withheld completely to the courts for the most part, so scribes usually had to make do with royal documents. This explains why words such as duke, sign, and seal—all of them stolen from French—were so ingrained in the English language by 1258 that a proclamation extremely anti-French used them despite trying to assume a pure English attitude. The proclamation did withhold the use of several possible words loaned by the French language; the nobility, having substantial interaction with the French due to their extensive conflict in the French province of Gascony, had a significant knowledge of Anglo-Norman French, so the amount of French loans must have been greater than the proclamation shows. Whoever wrote the proclamation was trying to downplay the significance of the French culture in order to discourage their supporters and to rally the English pride. The assumed course of history this author was trying to push England towards was that of a more isolated culture, and it very well may have worked, had not the tide of war turned after the proclamation was written, which enabled the English people to become more open towards the French culture, and it eventually became more acceptable to use even more French loan words.

In summation, the evolution of a language relies on the interaction of different cultures. Every culture, in the beginning, was entirely isolated, so, in Medieval society, languages were still very unique, though each with a basis in Latin, to an extent. When different cultures met, in times of war or politics, new words were introduced to the people who determined the evolution of a language because of their importance to the language. Languages, however, could not change at will. Only at times when those in charge desire change can a language change, but when people want change, it doesn’t take much to make it happen.

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Gayle Haynes
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Posted on Jul 24, 2010