Friday, 30 July 2010

On Language

Today I received news that the company I work for are considering paying towards a Spanish language course for me. This got me thinking.

Once upon a time, there was a tribe of cavemen, cavewomen and cavebabies who lived in an nice area that would one day be known as England. They communicated using gestures, facial expressions and grunting which suited them just fine. Until one day, from the mist and darkness that surrounded their home, they heard one of their number shout 'ROCK'. He had returned from the hunt not with mammoth for dinner (which his wife had specifically requested) but with his newly-christened pebble and a word. At roughly the same time, not so far away - just a hop, skip and a jump across the Caveman Channel - another brainy caveman (this time a cavehomme) returned with a similar object and shouted 'PIERRE!'

This happened all over the place, with every brainy cavehombre, caveuomo and caveotoko coming up with a different sound to describe the object in his hands. And lo, language was born, and cavemen all over the world began to argue over the correct words for flowers, stars and mammoths. And it didn't stop there. Oh no. Somewhat more than a few years later, though they had left the caves and eaten all the mammoth, the descendants of said cavemen were coming up with new words to describe various new-fangled technologies that enabled them to communicate their thoughts in 140 characters or less, or even be virtual friends with people they hadn't seen since their sixth birthday party.

Now, take a few seconds to re-read the above and ensure that you've really grasped the thoroughly researched, completely accurate history of language that I've just given, and then consider how strange it is. I am completely fascinated by language - how it evolves, travels and mutates. I'm in awe of its ability to overcome every obstacle thrown at it and how quickly new terms and phrases can become commonplace.

But what intrigues me most is the differences between one language and another. I can't even begin to imagine how it came about. I studied French and Italian at university and even though they share a common ancestor in Latin, they're pretty bloody different. Not as different as French is to Hindi, of course, but you know what I mean; as powerful and resilient as a language is, it's also extremely vulnerable to external influence - hence, I imagine, why Latin didn't survive unaltered after the fall of the Roman Empire and why English-speakers still use words that were originally Persian or German. It's organic and always changing, new words invented and others forgotten.

At this point I stopped thinking, as I'd confused myself, and had a nap.

I must add that my appreciation of the organic, changing nature of language does not, extend to 'refudiate' - Shakespeare may have invented words, but the chances are he meant to invent them, you daft mare.


  1. I have very well grasped the completely accurate history of language you just shared. But where was the part where they called that awesome drink "vodka?"

    Well you know, while reading this I thought, since Sarah Palin invented "refudiate," we should all be allowed to invent our own words/languages. Just to be fair.

    Okay, so seriously, I love how you think about stuff. You're opinionated but not arrogant. And you're deep. And you make sense.

  2. Hehe. Your history of language is most excellent. I love how your brain works.

  3. Haha, I often end up napping after thinking (or what passes for thinking in my head). Language sure is fascinating.

  4. I can't tell you how much I loved this post.

    You see, English is practically the only language I can claim to 'know'. I don't know why there needs to be a comma in one place and a semi-colon in another, I just know. I'm not always right, but usually I am. I can't do that in any other language. I speak two Indian languages- and my grandmother contests that every chance she gets. I understand German much, much, much better than I speak it..and let's not even get to the bit where I had to cheat to pass my year 9 French exam.

    And yet, language fascinates me. How did we get where we are today? All these words to try and accurately convey meaning- to convey thought and feeling..with something as inadequate as words? Don't get me wrong..I absolutely LOVE words: have a mad, all-in affair with them. But to sort through all these wonderful ways of sharing, of communicating and to strive to improve it... oh, it thrills me.

    Oh and by the way;


    Erm. If you want.

  5. @ Gnetch - ah, vodka. I'll have to dig through my HISTORY OF LANGUAGE research papers and get back to you on that. I think it was a cavechelovek that first muttered the word though. After you comment, I started developing my own language, the first word being GNETCHIFEROUS, which means dangerous and bit mad, but nice underneath. Kind of like a pineapple.

    @ Lauren - I thank you; it's so nice, after so many years of compiling my thesis, to hear it praised by one so hip.

    @ Leavespaceblank - a nap is always necessary after a strenuous brain workout. Otherwise you risk overheating, and no-one wants that.

    @ Risha - I'm exactly the same re: commas and semi-colons, except I don't usually get them right. I whack them in wherever, the grammatical equivalent of shutting my eyes and hoping for the best. It's the same with French & Italian - I 'know' them, but I don't, all at the same time. I'm please you share my fascination and don't think me too much of an oddball.
    And by the way - I thought we already were?! That's what I've been telling everyone. I feel embarrassed now. Thanks.

  6. I thought we were too! Just confirming, you complete oddball!