Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Genealogy of Language

What language did your ancestors speak? Are you sure? If you were transported in time and space to meet an ancient ancestor, how well would you be able to communicate? Would it matter that the ancestor supposedly spoke "English"? What is "English" anyway? Do Creoles speak pidgin? What does Mickey Mouse have to do with the development of language?

I've been reading a fascinating book called The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, by John McWhorter, a linguist formerly at the University of California at Berkeley. He might well have subtitled it, The Genealogy of Languages. Turns out, you see, that languages are like people--they come in families, they are born, they migrate, they mature, and they die. And they have off-spring and ancestors. Newer languages can be traced "genetically" to their forebears. McWhorter's highly readable book is entertaining and informative as he describes these linguistic phenomena.

Modern linguists believe that "in the beginning" (my construction, not McWhorter's), there was one "proto-language": the mother of all languages, which migrated with the humans who spoke it and spawned the tongues that today number more than 6,000. The metamorphosis of that first language is emblematic of the way all languages continue to change. Languages evolve by sound changes, extension of rules of grammar, a concept called "re-bracketing," changes in expressiveness, and semantic changes. As a result, a language spoken today is quite different from its ancestor spoken a few centuries, or even one century, ago. For example, McWhorter says that "Old English might as well be German to the Modern English speaker." And so it is with all languages. Without an historical form of Berlitz training, it's doubtful that any of us could communicate effectively with an ancestor who lived six hundred years ago. Just as we are not them, our language is not theirs.

Most people generally know something of families of languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian all are of the Romance family, descendants of Latin. Few, however, would guess that Moldovan and Romanian (notice the name!) are part of the same family. English and German are cousins, of course. Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian are like triplets who dress alike--telling on from the other sometimes can be difficult even for those in the know.

Languages change as people move. "English" is in part the result of the various invasions of the British Island. Like people, languages exchange "DNA" with one another (don't try to picture that!), resulting in new dialects.

McWhorter gives the example of a language spoken in Papua New Guinea called Tok Pisin (can you tell from its name what its ancestor was?). Tok Pisin is a "creole," though not of the "New Orleans" variety. A creole is a language that grows out of "pidgin," which, roughly, is a term used to describe rudimentary communications developed between people who speak different languages. If for example, you met your fifteenth century Polish ancestor, the two of you might create a pidgin by which to communicate. If somehow, the "Way Back Machine" malfunctioned, and you ended up staying in 15th century Poland with a tour group from this century, eventually your immediate offspring might speak a Polish creole!

One comes away from McWhorter's book with several observations: if he's right, then language mixture, and hence language change, are inevitable and perpetual (although modern technology perhaps has had a braking effect on the pace of linguistic evolution). Attempts to keep a language "pure" are almost certainly doomed to fail. The grammar police are fighting a losing battle. The designation of a "standard" language ("standard English," "standard German," "standard French," etc.) is an accidental choice among any number of worthy "alternate" dialects.

McWhorter's book contains a number of insights about life, popular culture, and the nature of human progress. It's great read that anyone interested in people will enjoy.


Jasia said...

Sounds really interesting. I'm going to have to pick this one up one of these days. Thanks for the tip!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Manson,

I saw one of your stories about how your ancestor served with Captain John Bowie. I am a direct descendant of the Captain. I would like to talk to you to see what news you may have on him and South Carolina in those days.

You can email me at NOHBowie@aol.com