How did a small band of Homo sapiens speaking the same language 50K years ago eventually migrate and develop thousands of different languages, each with a special grammar and vocabulary? What forces make language change so radically?

Not fifty—seventy-five. Languages evolve each time someone arrives who is “an influencer” – lots of those, when your genus is spread across five thousand miles and your immediate contacts are spread across about one one-thousandth of that. Languages don’t so much “evolve” as “squiggle” constantly.

Pick up a newspaper from one-hundred years ago and try to imagine your current fave newscaster reading the op-ed to you. See what I mean?


Fifth to Ninth Centuries more or less – – legends of King Arthur written down at the tail end, mostly remaining oral lore. (Our versions of them are half a millennium out of date.) Beowulf written around AD 800, give or take. It’s been called the first great literary work in the English language. That is, Early English. Nobody can read it any more except the typical PhD candidate at studying English Literature.

When the Norsemen rowed up the Seine in the Ninth Century they tok over, but learned to speak what the locals were speaking. At that point the locals spoke Old French, a bastardized, morphed version of Latin. Ditto Spain, Italy – – Romania is where the language changed least.

Middle Eleventh Century: the Latin-ish language of William the Conqueror from Normandy (Norse – Normandy – ring a bell?) succeeds in routing the current ruler of a large part of the center of England. He sweeps in and unifies the whole island, UP TO THE NECK between Britain and Scotland. Getting those feisty folk to switch over the the Germanic tongue in favor south of them and now being put into a blender with Old French? That took quite a while.

Two more centuries go by. A German-ish language, i.e. Early German, a.k.a Early Dutch, Early Norse, Early Danish, and Early English, each having many confusing dialects of its own, was spoken over all of north-central Europe, Scandinavia, and much of England. (Need a foot note here about Gaelic, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland – they all still spoke versions of that.) Latinate roots become the basis of upper class speech.

Thirteenth Century – the two major language families merged, at the expense of having to abandon using word endings to signify gender, case, verb tense, etc. We come to Middle English via Chaucer. Ever try to read him? You can, but it’s a real chore and lots of footnotes are necessary. By the way, in Chaucer’s day “Middle English” was like a “horse designed by a committee.” Several hundred slightly different versions.

Late Sixteenth Century – Shakespeare. Turn the corner and in 1603, start of the Seventeenth Century, the King James Bible. These two items put the brakes on change between then and now, because they continued to be read in the original.

For review: fairly stable state up until the Danes began to raid Britain, at which point their version and the local version of Old English disagreed enough that people began to speak a patois, a simplified version. First step was to cut away word endings, because it was simpler to say the root word and add some other helper word to make your point.

GO FORWARD two and one-half centuries: Old French becomes the only way for the nobility to communicate. Thanks, William.

GO FORWARD two centuries: Middle English has evolved with one major spokesmodel, Chaucer, whose version became our idea of “Middle English.”

GO FORWARD three centuries: Early Modern English, via Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. The Renaissance has encouraged the scholarly types to adopt large numbers of Greek and Latin word roots to fill in the semantic gaps.

GO FORWARD four centuries: Us. The language is still morphing, but not as fast as before. Recall the jibe in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, rewritten as the Broadway play My Fair Lady: Professor Dolittle tells us this: “Why, in America they haven’t spoken it for years,” referring of course to the English language.

BOTTOM LINE: since it takes nation-level forces to slow a language down to the point its rate of change is a solemn plod, the rules are different now. Before, little groups gallopped away to speak new languages in the span of a few millennia. Given that we’re looking back fifty to seventy-five millennia, the enormous development into tonal languages (China, some Amerindians, many more) vs. highly inflected languages (Latin, Russian) vs. languages which rely on helper words (English and Chinese, – – ) the slow evolution of grammar and diction is slow only relative to the span of written history. Add in fifty-odd other millennia and the corners that languages have gone around (tonal vs not, inflected vs not) are no surprise.

DATAPOINT: in the seas south of Asia there is an island archipelago that extends two thousand miles. One language is spoken along the entire length of that island chain, but folks at the far ends can’t make heads or tails out of what they might say to each other. They have to use a separate, widely known language to converse. Why? Neighboring islands each have tiny differences in grammar, vocabulary, idiom and so forth. They have not problem conversing. “How they talk one island over is a little different, but we get along fine.” Extend that across two thousand miles, and it would be astonishing if folks at one end could converse with folks at the other end.

Think of this as an analogy: The game of “telephone” – ten people line up, and the one on the end whispers some gossip into the next one’s ear, then second to third, etc. Whatever the tenth player thinks the message was, IT AIN’T THE SAME.

Languages are like that.

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