Evolution of language Back in the 19th century French naturalist Lamarck proposed the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. According to his theory, physical or other changes acquired over the life of an organism would be transmitted to its offspring.
The giraffe’s long neck apparently resulted from repeated straining to feed off leaves in tall trees, with every succeeding generation’s neck growing a little longer. This theory has now been debunked in favour of random mutation and survival of the fittest, but what’s all this evolutionary gobbledegook doing in a vocabulary column?
Simply this: changes in and of the English language adhere more to the Lamarckian theory, ever altering and adjusting to the needs of the era. It isn’t a bad thing, and is inevitable: back in the 1950s you didn’t have terms like ‘fax’, ‘modem’, or ‘bariatric surgery’; still earlier, ‘telephone’ and ‘automobile’ were unknown; earlier still, and if you look only at general speech and usage, Shakespeare becomes barely comprehensible, Chaucer even less so. And if you have a go at reading passages in Beowulf that read “Hwae twe Gar-dena ingeardagum…” you’d be forgiven for assuming that its unknown Anglo-Saxon poet was writing gibberish.
Why does language change? As with ‘fax’ (originally facsimile), above, new technologies, new products, and new experiences require new words to refer to them. The 21st century is also the era of the true global village, with more migration, travel and assimilation of cultural facets; language being a huge one.
Then there are the changes that are introduced by teens and young adults. As young people interact, their language grows to include words, phrases and constructions that are different fromthe older generation. Some have a short life span but others stick around to affect the language as a whole. Still, the jury’s out on whether ‘goes’, ‘is like’ or ‘is all’ best fills the blank in this teen’s sentence: “So Jill –, ‘Wow, I wish I’d been there!’”, or if the trusted ‘says’ would simply do fine.
Do these changes annoy you, and do the new phrases grate on your ears? Hang in there – English is a work in progress.