Language and Evolution

The field of evolutionary linguistics is one I’ve long been interested in even before I knew that such an academic discipline existed. Because it seems to me that many elements of evolution theory can be applied usefully and successfully to the evolution of language.

We all know how evolution works but here’s a quick summary anyway. Organisms make copies of themselves and in the copying process random mistakes or mutations occur. The rest – the whole extraordinary panoply of life on Earth – follows as a natural consequence: some of those organisms with mutated genes will be better suited to their environment than existing members of the species and will therefore live longer or have more sexual partners and, as a result, more offspring. And the offspring will inherit the mutated gene and pass it on to future generations. The survival of the fittest.

When we look at the evolution of language we can, I think, see similar processes in play. For example, when a new social or cultural phenomenon occurs – let’s take genetically-modified food as an example, to continue the evolutionary theme – it’s often the case that a number of competing terms for the phenomenon appear. So along came “genetically-modified foods” and “GM-foods” and, for a while, “frankenfoods”. The latter didn’t survive of course, perhaps because it was felt to be too whimsical or too tabloidy. Either way, it wasn’t well-suited to its environment and eventually died out, while the other two terms lived on.

Or consider the events that took place in New York on September 11, 2001, which came briefly to be referred to by several competing terms: we had “the attack on the World Trade Center” and “the Twin Towers attack” and “the September 11 attacks” but also, more simply, “9/11”. Of course “9/11” won the battle, perhaps because of its very simplicity. It even won the battle here in the UK, where “9/11” would more naturally be understood as referring to November 9, not September 11. And “9/11” didn’t merely survive, it had offspring! So in London in the July of 2005 we had the attacks on the London tube station and bus, which were swiftly dubbed “7/7”, clearly a direct descendant of “9/11”. Who knows, in the future there may be many more such catastrophes labelled with numeric codes of the same type.

There are other parallels between evolutionary theory and the evolution of language. There is for example something I like to think of as “verbal inflation”, where the hyperbolic (that is, mutated) form of a word supplants its immediate ancestor and becomes the dominant form. So today we’ve gone from calling something the centre of violence or crime or whatever to calling it the epicentre of violence or crime, as if it’s no longer enough to be merely the centre of something, a more expressive term is called for. Similarly, it’s no longer enough to say that someone merely exaggerated, no, these days that person is usually said to have over-exaggerated, as if a little exaggeration has become the norm. Likewise, they didn’t merely give a hundred percent in their effort to win something or other. No, they gave a hundred and twenty percent or two hundred percent or a thousand percent.

Many more examples like those above could be given — the double comparative form, as in “more happier”, springs to mind as another example of verbal inflation. Words and expressions and even syntax, like everything under the sun, have their brief moment of glory, then grow old and die. Eventually, like the dinosaurs, they end up as fossils, interred in dead languages.

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