Ask Your Question

Revision history [back]

Language Variation and Change

A recent advertisement for Lockheed products claimed that if William the Conqueror had not had technological superiority when he invaded England in 1066, "this very ad might have been written in Anglo-Saxon". What's wrong with this picture? Two things: First, all living languages are always changing, so the Old English spoken by William's adversaries would be greatly different from Modern English even if there had been no Norman conquest. (Just try to read the 14th-century Middle English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales without special training and you'll see how ordinary wear and tear can transform a language even when there are no dramatic military reversals to complicate things.) And second, although the aftereffects of William's adventure did bring a flood of French loanwords into English, English remained, and remains, a Germanic language: The bulk of the basic vocabulary and the bulk of the grammar are as Germanic as they ever were. The English population never did switch to French, the language of the conquerors; instead, the Norman French eventually switched to English.

Language Families Other Germanic languages include Dutch, German, Icelandic, Swedish, and more. All of them arose from a single language, called Proto-Germanic by linguists, which was spoken over 2500 years ago. Proto-Germanic was never written down, but its existence and much of its vocabulary and structure can be confidently inferred from the many systematic correspondences in words and grammatical structures shared by its descendants.

The break-up of Proto-Germanic happened when subgroups of the original speech community became separated: 500 to 1000 years of independent changes first produced divergent dialects, and then these became separate languages. The same thing happened to Latin after the Romans spread it over large parts of Europe; it split into dialects that turned into the modern Romance languages, among them French, Spanish, and Italian. Latin and Proto-Germanic were also related. Their ancestor, and the ancestor of many other languages of Europe, India, and points in between, was Proto-Indo-European, the parent of one of the world's most widespread language families.

There are dozens or even hundreds of other language families around the world, ranging from huge families like Niger-Congo in Africa and Indo-European to one-language families like Basque, which has no known linguistic relatives. Linguists still hope to connect many of these families, but the chances for reducing the number of separate language families to a handful are slim. Although most historical linguists believe that human language probably arose just once, in a single place at a particular time, most of them also believe that language change is too rapid and too sweeping to permit the verification of family relationships older than about ten thousand years. (This very rough estimate is based on the estimated time depths of well-established families and on the amounts of change over thousand-year periods.)

Language Variation Everyone speaks at least one language, and probably most people in the world speak more than one. Even Americans, most of whom speak only English, usually know more than one dialect. Certainly no one talks exactly the same way at all times: You are unlikely to speak to your boss in the style (or vocabulary) that you'd use in talking to the idiot who just rammed your car from behind. All dialects start with the same system, and their partly independent histories leave different parts of the parent system intact. This gives rise to some of the most persistent myths about language, such as the claim that the people of Appalachia speak pure Elizabethan English. Non-Appalachians notice features of Shakespeare's English that have been preserved in Appalachia but lost in (for instance) Standard English, but only Appalachian fans of Shakespeare would be likely to notice the features of Shakespeare's English that have been