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Mo laime toi vs. I love you: The Merging and Divergence of Evolving Languages

eglaser's picture

All things evolve, biological, literary, and cultural, that is one thing that has become clear as this course has progressed. All things grow and change over time either fulfilling some purpose or slowly disappearing. Language is no exception, and is in fact, exemplary of this rule. Through an examination of the evolution of language, it is possible to shed light on the ideas of merging and divergence that are present in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Whitman urges that we come together, Darwin that we will always drift apart. In language, both principles are evident.

The concepts of merging and divergence are exactly what one would think they are. The principle that all things are outgrowths of one another, that no one group can remain fully intact over the years but will split into a dozen other forms, that is the most basic meaning of divergence. Merging follows Whitman’s belief that all things could and should come together in one larger group. Language follows both of these properties as it passes down the river of time, both splitting off and then coming back together in unexpected ways.

Language can be described as “a stream of sounds that give rise to phonemes, words, sentences, poetry and publications” (Mitchener, 701). It is a basic tool for communication and nothing more. Languages do not have a self-aware desire to flourish, or a sense of self-preservation. Like biological evolution languages fill niches and depending on the status of that niche the language will flourish, die or change. English survived because it started out as a second rate language. It was considered to be the language of the low status, uneducated masses who, not unsurprisingly, outnumbered the educated by quite a lot. Thus English survived among the lowest classes as other, more fashionable languages (most notably, a dialect of French) came and went among the upper classes (Bryson, 54). Irish Gaelic, on the other hand, is slowly disappearing from the linguistic map. Once spoken by about a quarter of the population, the British occupation and subsequent control of the Island (and the loss of individuals in the Irish famine of 1845) has had an extremely detrimental effect on this language. Now 94 percent of Irish citizens only speak English with only one percent preferring the use of Irish Gaelic (Bryson, 44).

Languages are closely interconnected, tracing backwards to common roots. Although one would think that Dutch and English are wholly unrelated they both are West Germanic languages from the Germanic family (Bryson, 32). As this split was occurring in other parts of Europe, Latin was disappearing from the map, not dying out but slowly evolving into the romance languages of French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian (Bryson, 33). Just as Darwin’s finches separated to their individual islands and changed form, so too did the languages of Europe, separated by rivers, mountains and vast plains, evolve into related but distant versions of their common ancestor. When one language is moved to a new environment, it does change. American English has been growing away from English over the last 200 years or so, it may still be the same language but that does not mean we understand one another. “…a British vest is an American undershirt. Our vest is their waistcoat. Their knickers are our panties” (Bryson, 79). There has been some speculation that in another century we will not understand each other at all.  This level of difference can be done by the splitting of one into multiple other forms separated by geographic space or time.

The merging of several languages into one can also form new languages. An example of this is the variety of creole languages that have sprung up in areas of mixed linguistic backgrounds. Creole serves as an intermediary linguistic link for a group who do not share a language but must communicate. “We assume that language evolved as a means of communicating information between individuals…hence, we assume that both speaker and listener receive a reward for mutual understanding. If for example only the listener receives a benefit, then the evolution of language requires cooperation” (Krakauer, 8028). Louisiana Creole, came from the strange mix of West Africans, French and Spanish settlers and English colonialists who found themselves living side by side In the swamps of Louisiana. The resulting language combined all of these diverse languages into a compound language that bore similarities to all of the languages from the area. For instance the Louisiana Creole word for a hen is “momon poul” a derivative of the French word for chicken “poule” (Valdman, 313). It is neither hen nor poule but it allows both speakers to communicate without favoring one language over another. With additional grammatical changes you find sentences like, “mo se rantre dan la chop” which is creole for “I went to the shop”  (Valdman, 4). This sentence bears phonetic similarities to English but includes many elements of French grammar. And thus, through the merging of a multitude of languages a new form of communication is born that spans cultures.

More commonly, the merging of languages occurs with the appropriation of words from one language into another. “French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refueling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikkunikku (Bryson, 12).” Although this does not create a new language it is still a form of merging two dissimilar languages and it can alter how each culture sees both themselves and each other. In some cases it is welcome as a way to expand the language of the country, others find this linguistic invasion to be an attack on the basic principles of their nation.

Language can tear apart countries, bring them together, demonstrate ancestry and further cultural development. The way a person uses language can indicate where they were born, who they are speaking to, their economic status, their gender, their level of education, the list can continue indefinitely. Our ability to play with language is highly prized and often highly rewarded (think of Shakespeare, political speeches and stand up comedians) and our language indicates in what ways a culture has developed. Look at a word such as ‘nice.’ Over time this word has meant, “foolish… lascivious… extravagant, elegant, strange, slothful, unmanly, luxurious, modest, slight, precise, thin, shy, discriminating, dainty, and… pleasant and agreeable” (Bryson, 78). Now it seems impossible that we could call someone nice and be insulting them but, less than 300 years ago that is exactly what the word ‘nice’ was used for.

Language is constantly evolving into new forms by diverging from its ancestors and recombining with other languages. There is no one way to accomplish change. Darwin foresaw a system of indelible breaks. Ancestor roots torn into a thousand different strands, branches twisted into opposite directions. But with Whitman’s ideas we can see that when we come together we can also be changed. By merging with one another we too can evolve into new forms.

Works Cited

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way. New York:
HarperCollins, 1990.

Mitchner, W. G., and Martin A. Nowak. "Chaos and Language." Proceedings: Biological
Sciences 271 (2004): 701-04.

Nowak, Martin A., and David C. Krakauer. "The Evolution of Language." Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96 (1999): 8028-8033.

Valdman, Albert. Dictionary of Louisiana Creole. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana UP, 1998.


Anne Dalke's picture

language evolving

What a nice (and important!) extension of our discussion of the evolution of literature: a review of some of the basic principles underlying the evolution of languages. What is especially striking to me here is your acknowledgement that linguistic evolution is a process that entails both divergence and convergence, that the always-changing forms of language—much more than the biological evolution described by Darwin—involve lots of re-mixing, re-gathering-together.

My questions (as always!) involve the implications of the study you have conducted. When you describe (for example) the flourishing of English and the decline of Gaelic, I want to hear some larger generalizations: language tends to survive when….? What conditions are present? And it will die when….?

The question of “dying” languages is also of particular interest to me. We were told in class recently that “in biological evolution, extinction is really a misnomer.” What (is thought to) go out of existence just takes a different form: genes persist in other populations, mass converts to energy…but nothing is ever lost. How applicable is that phenomenon on the linguistic level? You say, for example, that when Latin disappeared “from the map,” it was “not dying out but slowly evolving into the romance languages.” Have other languages actually become “extinct,” or do traces always remain in newer forms (like the etymologies of individual words that you evoke)?

I’m also curious about how you would define a “language.” Asking that question, I am mindful of the quip that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy,” which suggests the influence that political conditions can have over the perception of status. When and how, in your terms, does a dialect reach the status of language? Is the language of “speciation” useful here? What would define a language “species”? Since inability to breed can’t be the determinate, is it ability to communicate? But what counts as “communication” (“men are from mars, and women are from venus”—that is, using such difference systems of communication that they seem to come from different planets).

Many different possible directions here, all intriguing. I look forward to your further thinking….