• Pia Barve

From Long Before ‘Thou Art’ to ‘You Are’

Tracing the Journey of the Most Profoundly Spoken Language

Among the many things that changed in the year 2020, is the composition of the language spoken by a majority of the global population. Each year, the Oxford Dictionary commemorates a ‘word of the year’. The year 2020 however, set itself a class apart by being indescribable in just one word! Such yearly additions to the English vocabulary certainly hint at the gradual development of the language. However, the sweeping changes witnessed in the wake of 2020 perk interest in the very evolution of the language. It is no surprise that the language spoken by a majority worldwide; across seas and continents, has had a dynamic evolution.

The primary question to answer before delving into the journey of the English language is-how does a language really evolve? It is often claimed that the evolution of language is as convoluted as the evolution of the human race. There is no doubt that language originated from the need to communicate; the need to communicate is an intrinsic biological quality and ability. Despite the agreement on this fact, the variation in the inquiry into its origin, evolution, and genetics has varied intensely. The speculations around its flourishing outpaced hard evidence, giving birth to this inherent variation in inquiry, which caused the Société de Linguistique de Paris to ban the very inquiry into the evolution of language in 1866.

Language and its evolution have mainly been studied in two lights; that of the biological sense and that of the cultural. The biological understanding acknowledges language as the outcome of the human ability to piece together object-associated interpretations in order to create complex structures. In this light; speech, sign, and caricature form the semantics of a language. Evolution then, in this sense, largely relies on the hinges of articulation. Using the suffix /ed/ to enunciate on the past tense of a verb; including those that aren’t conventional verbs, is a case brought about by articulatory association. The next time someone says ‘googled’, it’s because they knew that the past tense to ‘type’ was ‘typed’. This ability to draw association comes from the ability of articulation, a shard of biological evolution.

The cultural evolution of language is largely a reflection of social traits and the changes within them from a time to its subsequent. The evolution that the English witnessed came from changes in power; within monarchs and within classes of society. English, much surprisingly, didn’t really originate from Britain. It comes from the Angles, a tribe during the 5th Century AD, from the regions of present-day Denmark and Northern Germany, which spoke a language known as Englisc. This set the edifice for what we now know as Old English.

Following the base established by the Angles, the subsequent Viking and French invasions had multiple contributions to make. With the Viking invasion, their Language of Old Norse mingled with that of Old English to produce words as simple as ‘give’, ‘take’, ‘egg’, ‘knife’, ‘run’ and of course, ‘Viking’ itself! The French invasion reduced English to the language of the peasants and herdsmen. It grew under the French influence, the then language of the royals, to accommodate words such as ‘people’ and ‘city’, the months of the year, and other words with Latin roots. The French concepts of Liberté and Justice became ‘Liberty’ and ‘Justice’ in English.

The era of Early Modern English, was by far the most rewarding period for the English Language. What began with the end of French rule in the British Isles, saw an enriched victory with much development of the language spearheaded by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare alone invented almost 1700 words. The Middle Modern English era gave shape to the English we use today. Marked by changes in pronunciation; linguistically acknowledged as the Great Vowel Shift, the era witnessed the renaissance of classical learning. New words and phrases entered the language and the invention of printing saw a prerequisite in standardization. The London dialect became the benchmark, while there now was a right and wrong to spellings and grammar!

The Late Modern English era saw a boost in vocabulary. The industrial revolution, along with Britain being the center of technical progress and scientific advances added much more to the basket of English words. In addition to scientific influence, the many waves of colonialization inflicted by Britain itself gave rise to the influx of cultures. This only meant that practices, rituals, and even the cuisine from the colonialized countries now had English names, or rather, were adopted into English from their local languages. Industrial development led English to go global and going global brought with it the need to accommodate. The profound influence of colonialization on the language can be well gauged from the fact that there are only 22 countries in the world that haven’t been colonialized by Britain!

English has moved with times; from the Angles, the Vikings, the French, and the Industrial revolution, to 2020’s very own Covid-19, amongst other present-day rulers! It is an irrational expectation then, that the language most spoken in the world would undergo no change. The Oxford dictionary forgave the annual tradition of adding just one word a year in 2020. Its report titled “Words of an Unprecedented Year” details the most important words used during this truly ‘unprecedented’ year. From ‘bushfire’, ‘lockdown’, ‘cancel culture and ‘mailing, to ‘covid-19’, ‘moonshot’ and even ‘superspreader’, the list does serve as a journey down the year. As English speakers amassed new vocabulary over the course of the year, it becomes evident that a language is nothing but a reflection of the events it witnesses. Just as a man is nothing, but a sum of his memories; a language is no more than the sum of its times!