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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.

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