Watching Your Language

The transition from primitive origin to current incarnation is the story of life.

It happens across organisms of all types, whether animate–from baby to man–or inanimate–from blueprint to building. The whole of the universe is in a constant state of flux, growing in new directions and evolving into unrecognizable shadows of what existed before.

Language is a striking example.

I recently completed Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter, a book I picked up because the cover suggested it is the convergence of two high-ranking interests for me: history and the English language.

To be honest, it’s a bit more academic than I prefer, filled with theories and grammar terms I’ve long since forgotten. I did, however, find an interesting parallel between the study of how we communicate–in our 6,000 native tongues!–and the tectonic shifts we undergo during change.

English has been exposed to different influences than his Germanic brothers.

Just like a sibling that left home for a faraway college, English comes to the table with loads of words the Danes, Dutch and Germans are unable to understand (and vice versa). All four are from the same parent, but time apart has shaved away a lot of what they have in common.

Encountering new perspectives breeds unforeseen and irrevocable changes.

Remember when you started school? What about beginning a new job or having a conversation with a stranger?

Each of these events precipitates growth. Sure, little comes from the majority of our first meetings with someone, but what if that person turns out to be your significant other or a loyal friend?

The impact, in hindsight, is unquestioned.

You see, English moved a short–but important–distance from where it grew up. While there, it mingled with Celtic and Norse languages, the former by choice (as an invader) and the latter by force (from invasion). These interactions give us Beowulf, the epic Old English poem everyone “reads” in high school.

Then, the French overran the island in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings. For 150 years, the softer Romance language was all that is written on either side of the Channel. When the shackles were thrown off, Middle English arose and led to the flowery “thou” and “doth” of William Shakespeare.

Before and after are remarkably different.

The same thing happens to each of us when exploring our own boundaries. We grow up and take on a “language”–a peculiar set of habits, if you will–in the way we speak, think and act. These are, in large part, the product of our environment: the place we live and people we admire.

Setting out to change means we are confronted with different patterns of speech, manners of approaching things and modes of acting. We thus develop something all our own, a hybrid blending useful concepts from the past with fresh ideas and techniques.

This is evolution, what drives us on to a future unlike our history.

As you continue down this road, you may find it difficult to communicate with what you knew before.

You’ll have morphed into something almost unrecognizable to the person you were.

Looking back, you’ll wonder how you got there.

If you want to see how far you’ve come, simply watch your language.

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