Unnatural evolution

While human cultures and societies grow from simple to complex, languages seem to evolve in the opposite direction.

The ancestors of most European languages were far more complex, convoluted and intricate than the languages we have today. Old English was more tortuous than modern English. The same story with Old French and Old German. Not to mention ancient Greek, Latin and Old Church Slavonic.

And languages continue to evolve, down to these days. In areas like morphology, syntax, even lexicography, our languages push towards further simplification and more uniformity. If language were a natural organism – and to some extent it is –, it would be like a genus reducing the profusion of its species down. Some languages are endangered and many have died out, just like breeds in the natural world.

The evolution of language, however, feels unnatural. No new idioms are born, though new words emerge all the time in particular cultural contexts. And it’s worth pointing out that the growth, as much as it is, occurs in areas of little to no linguistic control, like slang and jargon.

As post-industrial societies grow increasingly more atomised, the globalising effect on language means that our idioms tend towards ever more uniformity. And uniformity is often synonymous with impoverishment, especially as dominant languages push regional idioms to the brink of extinction. Despite the latter-day denunciation of imperialism, few are willing to admit that the languages we couch our censure in are themselves instruments of conquest and dominance. And the poor record of acquired multilingualism in Western societies shows that we are quite comfortable to assume the role of conquistadors.

3 Comments

  1. “few are willing to admit that the languages we couch our censure in are themselves instruments of conquest and dominance.”

    Isn’t it really that languages are instruments that can be used for anything?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s true, but my point was that many of those people who lash against the evil of colonialism and imperialism are the same who expect the rest of the world to speak their language – which to me is another form of imperialism.

      Liked by 1 person

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