How many of us complain about the ‘reprehensible state of the English grammar’? All of us? ok. Cool.
“Why can’t verbs just be regular? Why can’t it be pronounced the way it’s written? Why- why why why…” Well quit your bitching. You’re not the only ones, and you’re not the first.
Everyone has been whining about the natural processes of change within languages… since, like, ever. No, seriously, even Cicero did it. He and countless others have always compared themselves to older sources, citing that because things become more irregular as time goes by, the older a language is, the more ‘perfectly constructed’ it is.
Once again, I turn to Guy Deutscher, whose book, The Unfolding of Language, deals with precisely this subject. (You can look up more about him and his two awesomely books at your leisure).
I realize I look like a total Guy Deutscher fangirl… and that’s because I am. Moving on.
This book spans dozens of different languages across time, and they all point to the same ‘conclusion’ There is a perfect, prehistoric version of every language, that society messed up immediately once it got going. Which is a stupid theory, but… hindsight, and all that. Meh.
This is a classics blog, so we’ll focus on Latin, sorry Anglophones… we’ll clean up the mess that is English another day.
Yes, while Cicero claimed Latin had an age of perfection… it didn’t. Le gasp! Latin, in all its grammatical niceties, imperfect? Well, duh.
Because, if we follow the logic of 19th century linguists, Latin itself descended from something: Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, for those of us who enjoy punny acronyms.
Consider Latin’s nominal case system; something that elaborate and complex and subtle must have always existed, right? No.
It was built off of something, but what? That is answered later in the book. But, to keep myself on track, which I’m horrible at doing, there was a time when “Latin” had a completely regular case system. No irregularities, no declensions of nouns, just a set of endings for each grammatical situation, and that was that. (Of course even that’s not true, but there was a time when the same endings were used for each and every declension)
Lupos, the reconstructed early Latin word for wolf, coupled with Canis, and, say, Herba, look completely different. It makes sense to us that they have different endings for the dative, but those were all derived from the same source. A long i attached to the end.
lupoi, cani, herbai
Because the o is long in lupos, it ‘swallows’ the i, and we get lupo, the a in herba diphthongizes with i and makes herbae, and the i in canis stays put, because there is no pressure phonologically to change, thus, cani.
lupo, cani, herbae
all respectable datives
That is the force that drives languages: pressures. Pressures from people. People are three things. Lazy, neurotic, and imaginative. They are lazy, so words that are tricky to say by the merits of grammar rules (like Lupoi) will get smoothed over (Lupo). But, people like to see patterns in things, so they will make analogous changes in as many places as they can get away with to make their linguistic world consistent. (once Lupo and others were changed, a wholesale typefitting campaign must have gone underway). And people are inventive, they need to express themselves. Why is this important? We’ll get back to that in a second.
It appears that, yes, these linguist/philosophers were right. Latin used to be more universal and regular. All languages must appear this way. But as irregularities arise, and are recorded, and noticeable, and measurable, the vice versa are not.
Old English: ceas curon- the third person singular and plural of the verb: to choose.
It’s irregular. But… isn’t it just chooses, choose nowadays? What happened? The opposite of what we expect happened. These occurrences are way harder to notice. Because we the current speakers can’t say, gee, why do we say ceas curon? It’s already been ‘fixed’ for us. We do notice things like, gee, why do we say choose chose? That has yet to be ‘fixed’… even though it doesn’t need to be but whatever. (don’t listen to the descriptivists!)
So, this brings us… somewhere, I suppose. Oh yeah, to a point. There’s no need to whine about how irregular or irrational one’s language is. All of them always have been. There’s little rationality to it. It’s a tool. People speak it, and it’s easiest to communicate when things are easy to say. Thus, some things get ‘ruined’ by people’s laziness and conformity. Some things are uttered more commonly, and are thus safer from changes, or on the other hand, more vulnerable. (these are all fascinating subjects in the book in question here and he explains it all much better than I)
Language wasn’t invented, and yet it was. It’s impossible to know what it was in its infancy as a concept. No one will ever be able to know. We work with what we have. And what we have most of the time is a jumbled mess. But it still works, because it’s the people who speak it, and convention dictates if something works or not (but to be fair, the language intrinsically does have it’s own right to exist as it does, I’m not arguing for descriptivism or anything, ew no).
So, you can whine about English being the worst language ever, but you speak it, quite well I’m assuming. So is it that much of a big deal? I don’t care for those who shove philosophy into language (Esperanto I’m looking at you). It’s a tool, and also an art. But it’s not a toy.
But things brings up something else. That expression I mentioned. You may in fact, be wanting to back up and take a look at things. How does language change exactly? What does this all mean?
Language is created from its own destruction. It’s how French and Spanish were born from Latin, and English from Germanic. Systems like case endings are smooshed onto words because people are too lazy to separate the noun from the postposition. Then, wholesale changes are enacted, and boom! Case endings. But they don’t stop being lazy. They keep eroding at the word, until the case endings are meaningless and left behind as the world changes around the speakers.
Why do you think Spanish speakers don’t say “me gusta el perrum”? It was left in the dust. Changes like these happen everywhere, all over the planet, across every culture.
Wait! You must think- then how is language not devolving as we speak? It’s not. Creation from destruction. People want to express themselves. They need to say longer things to give more of a punch. The English “not” was originally in Old English, ne a wiht, not a bit. It got reduced to it’s current state. Not as a word was pretty weighty back then, because the role of not was formerly taken up by ‘ne’. But what about now? We say things like, not at all. What will that look like in the future? Notal?
It’s like French, ne… pas. Pas used to mean the same thing as wiht. And was added to sentences to add punch. Now it has no punch. It’s required.
And, as a final example, the future tense of Western Romance Languages. It’s built off of the infinitive of Latin verbs with habere added on.
Parlere habeo… parler-abeo… parleraveo… parlerae… parlerai
What can we take form this as modern humans looking back though time on the languages and cultures of our predecessors? We can learn to chill out about our own language’s inconsistencies. They’ve always been there, and always will be. And they’re both made and fixed by us, so we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we are to take a deeper meaning from this pedant lesson on linguistic evolution, it should be that human beings are fascinating creatures- with the power to shape a system of communication that no animal has achieved before or since. And we hold within ourselves a power to both create elaborate, exquisite, and unique ways of expressing ourselves, and the sloth to completely erode those in an almost depressing way. We’re human. We’re both incredibly motivated and incredibly lazy. And I think it’s telling that humans thousands of years ago were just the same way as we are today.
Also, this was super rambly, and for that I apologize.