Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Life of Languages

To be where you are today means that you are very lucky. For hundreds of millions of years your forebears were able to stay alive and healthy and attractive long enough to mate with another of their species and carry on doing so throughout many different species and generations. They were also able to adapt to different climates, environments, habitats, predators, prey, weather, natural disasters, unnatural calamities, wars, pestilences, violence, accidents, among many other obstacles, in order to bear you, who have survived long enough to read this post.

How has life been able to do this? By holding fast and showing unbending strength through adversity? Possibly some of that went on, but most of the time it involved bending and mutating to adapt to many different circumstances with uncanny prescient abilities. An ex post-facto game theory analysis could not have come up with a better solution in keeping life going. So while many people bemoan the loss of species (which is regrettable, although over 95% of all species that ever roamed this earth are extinct), we should celebrate the survival of ours, even though our species today bears almost no resemblance to what our ancestors looked like in the primordial soup. In fact, nothing much has persevered, save the fact that both we and they are and were living.

France is a famous example of a country wishing to regulate and promote its language. The Académie française acts as official authority of the language, coming up with new french words for new objects and phenomena, such as computers and e-mail. And the Toubon Law of 1994 decreed that all communication that had to do with any form of commerce had to be in French. This meant basically everything you saw or heard on TV (Apart from music and "original language" movies) had to be in the original French or translated into French. These are two of the reasons why French will enter a slow decline and be one day obsolete, despite France's efforts at promoting it as an international language.

English was born with the Angles and Saxons and Jutes in what is now Friesland. They traveled to the British Isles around 500 AD, where people spoke Celtic, infused with Latin from the Romans, who had left several hundred years earlier. During the ensuing centuries, Norsemen came from the North during the Viking conquests, and Normans came from the South with William the conqueror. English then became more and more standardized throughout the island. It then spread to other countries and continents during the days of the British Empire. Nowadays it is spoken from Canada to New Zealand to South Africa to Singapore, with many other places in between. Of course, at each one of these junctures, the language absorbed and mutated and grew in order to accommodate the new circumstances and situations. The result is a language considered the most expressive in the world that is thriving.

This entry may seems somewhat schizophrenic, but our species does bear a certain resemblance to the English language. While another offshoot, the Neandertals, were not able to adapt and died out, Homo Sapiens Sapiens built clothes and shelter in the winter, and hunted and gathered and traded and specialized and spoke and organized its way through existence. I am not saying the French language is like the Neandertals, but languages could be viewed as living organisms, struggling and adapting to survive. Organizations such as the Académie française will only muzzle a language without letting it grow naturally, much like insisting a native tribe not use modern technology can drive it into obsolescence.

Languages, like life, seem to find ways to adapt in order to stay alive whenever they can. So while some people scoff at the "illiterate" for ending sentences with prepositions or using modern slang, we should realize that much of that is the natural adaptation of the language. While we might bemoan the good old days, we cannot survive to see the future until we adapt to the present.