The living language is like a cowpath: it is the creation of the cows themselves, who, having created it, follow it or depart from it according to their whims or their needs. From daily use, the path undergoes change. A cow is under no obligation to stay – E. B. White
I never attested to the belief that language originated abruptly; or that the complex formation of a group of characters was planted into existence. It had to have evolved gradually, had to have become simpler, yet complicated at the same time as it got used broadly. As Ralph Waldo Emerson had aptly put it, “language is a city, to the building of which every human being brought a stone”. This is true not just for English, but for every other language in use today.
And yet, the exact origins of language as a notion are yet unknown. This issue features some insightful essays that attempt to decipher and explain the past, present and the future of this complex obscurity.
As to the origin of the term ‘language’, all we have are theories about the emergence and development of language in human societies. There are of course attempts from linguists to explain how humans planned and worked this fascinating system out. Though Richard Nordquist from ThoughtCo. presents the theories from each of the viewpoints, the exact proofs, unlike the origins of writing, are yet to be found.
Today, opinion on the matter of language origins is still deeply divided. On the one hand, there are those who feel that language is so complex, and so deeply ingrained in the human condition, that it must have evolved slowly over immense periods of time. Indeed, some believe that its roots go all the way back to Homo habilis, a tiny-brained hominid that lived in Africa not far short of two million years ago. On the other, there are those like [Robert] Berwick and [Noam] Chomsky who believe that humans acquired language quite recently, in an abrupt event. Nobody is in the middle on this one, except to the extent that different extinct hominid species are seen as the inaugurators of language’s slow evolutionary trajectory.
As fascinating as the history of the language is, the concept itself is no less bewildering. There is no designated body controlling any aspect of the numerous languages that are spoken today. The rules keep changing, the meanings keep evolving. Did you know that “unfathom” was only recently added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it means exactly what “fathom” does? It’s unfathomable how we humans communicate with one another, and yet unfathom the innate complexities of this self-regulating system.
Language is a system. Sounds, words and grammar do not exist in isolation: each of these three levels of language constitutes a system in itself. And, extraordinarily, these systems change as systems. If one change threatens disruption, another change compensates, so that the new system, though different from the old, is still an efficient, expressive and useful whole.
Begin with sounds. Every language has a characteristic inventory of contrasting sounds, called phonemes. Beet and bit have different vowels; these are two phonemes in English. Italian has only one, which is why Italians tend to make homophones of sheet and shit.
As English became the widely accepted official language of the nations across the world, the inefficiencies of this “global” language came to the fore. The more it adapted and relaxed the rules of the usage and the semantics, it risked losing the chance to become native for any community. “Just as fish presumably don’t know they’re wet, many English speakers don’t know that the way their language works is just one of endless ways it could have come out”. That’s how this wonderful essay at The Atlantic begins as it contrasts English’s efficiency, or the lack thereof, against a few native languages.
Languages are strikingly different in the level of detail they require a speaker to provide in order to put a sentence together. In English, for example, here’s a simple sentence that comes to my mind for rather specific reasons related to having small children: “The father said ‘Come here!’” This statement specifies that there is a father, that he conducted the action of speaking in the past, and that he indicated the child should approach him at the location “here.” What else would a language need to do? Well, for a German speaker, more. In “Der Vater sagte ‘Komm her!’”, although it just seems like a variation on the English sentence, more is happening.
Featured Writer - Joanna Pearson
I recently read a wonderful short story “Summer Night” from Joanna published as part of Craft Magazine and, right away, I wanted to read a lot more from her. This one is such a brilliantly narrated mystery. You know right from the beginning that something is off with the characters and the environment, and yet you continue to read along. The opening itself reveals so much, yet keeps everything concealed – a story that “announces their secret from the beginning yet still seem to unfold surprisingly”. Joanna manages to write the story that she sought after.
Featured Tool - Calmly Writer
If you ever need a clean, distraction-free interface online, when your editor of choice on your system is no longer available with you, you can access the online editor of Calmly Writer. All it provides is a blank slate with a blinking cursor, hiding away a few settings it has as you begin writing. However, if customization interests you, it also provides “focus mode”, “dark mode”, formatting, backup, export options and a lot more to get the editor to your liking.
One Final Inspiration
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Thank you for reading and sharing.