stop, drop and scroll

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

you are living in evolutionary times. it might not feel like it and we’re not likely to sprout wings in our lifetimes but there is change all around us and it’s not just the climate or political attitudes. our languages are constantly evolving and we’re both the conduits and the forces of unnatural selection. while all languages evolve over time (well, unless they’re dead, which is, actually, come to think of it, why we call them dead — ancient greek, latin, sanskrit, pali, classical chinese, etc), there is no language with the evolutionary history of english.

english began as a non-language, a hybrid mess in a country that has, realistically, given the world nothing but mashed-up messes and nightmarish invasive species. in a country famous for its world-spread language in the contemporary age, things began quite differently. the british isles was a collection of indigenous languages (we can generally think of them collectively as gaelic and variants but this is a very complex idea and i’m not going to get into it because it’s not the point here) and gradually shifted with the arrival of invaders from the norse countries (old norse), the roman empire (imperial latin) then, later, the germanic tribes (old german) and the franks and normans (old french). what do you get when you take all these and mesh them together? well, not english. not even close. there’s another piece of the puzzle. class.

britain was a class-based society. actually, at the time we’re talking about, the entire world was populated by class-based societies, even in africa and mesoamerica, though especially in europe and asia. while not quite as diverse as indian classes (if you can even count them all, i’ll be impressed cause there are literally thousands of divisions) or as structural and familial as japanese clans (island cultures definitely have interesting cultural evolutions, not just tortoises and kangaroos), what we’re talking about is a collection of meaningless islands in the north atlantic where the rulers spoke one language and the common-people spoke (sort of spoke — the then-british spoke their languages about as well then as they do today, perhaps even worse, which i’m not sure is possible) another. while not completely true, you can think of the language of the court as french and the language of the people as approximately german, though no german-speaker, even then, would have understood most of it with all the local idioms, adopted expressions and foreign borrowings already being used.

the problem was twofold. government required translation and the aristocracy required entertainment. these were two needs being summarily ignored by a linguistically-divided system. things had to change or the people wouldn’t understand their governments (not that they ever did but there was certainly an attempt to fix this) and the upper-class people couldn’t go to a show or have performers come and give them a taste of the latest trends — it would have been like trying to lipsync kpop for a monolingual native of texas.

so a gradual merging of the languages began to happen from approximately the beginning of the second millennium of the common era, producing something vaguely resembling english by the time of shakespeare as standardization was just becoming accepted in the islands. with this standardization came popularization of english not just as a dialectic mashup but a distinct language. before the elizabethan era, we really were talking about pre-english — often called “old” or “middle” but i would suggest thinking of it as a whole different evolutionary stage, not just of the same language but of the creation of a language at all. it really was more similar to other languages before then than any english that happened after.

english was born with shared vocabulary from french and german — which is why there are often two different words for the same thing, one from each — dog/hound — though this often comes from borrowing from other languages like latin (cat/feline) or even greek (philosophy) and latin (science) at the same time — yes, these words originally meant the same thing. the grammar was decidedly german but lost much of its rigid structure — it dropped german’s cases in favor of french’ caseless structure but kept germanic negatives and verb forms, adjective placement and adverb techniques. you can think of english as predominantly-french vocabulary and mostly-german grammar.

but it was a new language. nothing like this had really ever happened before — and nothing has since. other languages have evolved and certainly been influenced by their neighbors but english is realistically the only language that survived after being created as the descendant of two completely separate languages — from two totally different structural families. what’s resulted is french words pronounced and spelled like they’re german. if you hear someone speak german, it’ll sound like english but you won’t necessarily understand much of what they’re saying. french sounds totally different but if you look at the words they’ll look familiar because the majority of english vocabulary is visible cognates, even if they sound completely different because french simply treats the letters in another way.

english has evolved quickly, though, out of necessity. it was the language of a spreading empire that was then fractured by a revolutionary war. while chinese has taken thousands of years to become what it is today (mandarin chinese, i mean — cantonese hasn’t evolved nearly as much and is still plagued by historical relics), english was realistically born around 1600, fully-standardized by 1700, dominant by 1800, revolutionized and mostly-modernized by 1900 and evolutionarily-boosted by 2000. in four short centuries, the first two barely even being relevant to its development other than its creation, english has become the language of international conversation, business, trade and travel. how did it do that? well, it’s porous and self-evolving. most languages are neither, some one or the other.

mandarin chinese is self-evolving but certainly not porous — the number of foreign words is relatively low and foreign expressions are extremely rare. japanese and korean are the reverse — myriad english (and other, though far less) words and expressions simply transliterated or slightly-modified but little structural shift over time. urdu and arabic have followed much the same pattern as japanese and korean while modern hebrew (ivrit) has taken the chinese path and kept its words to itself while dramatically shifting its structure over time — also gaining for itself the honor of being the only realistically-dead language that came back to life and stayed that way, though in many ways it’s not the language it once was, despite sharing much of the old vocabulary.

english, however, samples nearly 100% of its words directly from other languages — by definition as a hybrid dialect become a full language, it had no real choice and invented very few words of its own like “quiz” or “cheese”, even those born within a linguistic framework. more importantly, though, it shifts its grammar and usage over very short periods of time.

in 1980, a common phrase might have been “to whom do you wish to speak?”, which would confuse any modern english speaker only forty years later unless it was modernized to “who do you want to talk to?”. the frequent structure used even twenty-five years ago of (noun)-(which)-(secondary-subject)-(verb) became (verb)-(noun) or even (adjective)-(noun), a practice borrowed from east-asian languages. language evolution to get from the era of nixon, reagan and bush to that of gaga, drake and kim namjoon (yes, rm) has been rough and dramatic to the point that my parents’ speech now sounds arcane to my ears and i see things i wrote even ten years ago and wonder how i could have been so out-of-touch with language in the moment. i wasn’t, of course. language really has changed that quickly. things i would have been failed for in a writing assignment as a child are now not only acceptable but seen as old-fashioned and i caution students to avoid them as deprecated.

you, living in the modern world, would be excused if you imagined that this was an impact of the internet and global cultural trends and that twenty-five-year period of english hyperevolutionary modernization and standardization was a one-of. but you’d be wrong. this process is still ongoing and we are witnessing many things that are changing about the language we speak and write every day that we are simply not paying attention to.

here’s one i think you should be aware of, though. it can be summarized in a single statement — “i like it”. this sounds totally normal in english. actually, “i like it” or “i like this’ would have been seen as childish and simplistic even in the 90s and teachers would have told you to phrase it as “this is what i like” or “this is something i like” (even “this is something, which i like”, a painful anachronism but certainly a frequent one in my teen years). it’s definitely the most standard way of expressing the thought now, though.

but that’s shifting. if you have been paying attention to how things are said, written and posted on the internet, you’ll realize the object is becoming more and more frequently dropped, turning “i like this” or “i like it” into “i like”. of course, this is not the only verb where this is happening or it would simply be the birth of a new idiom. this is a wholesale structural change in the language, though.

japanese and korean already use what’s called “implied objectification” — if the object is understood, there’s no need to put it in the sentence. of course, these languages both practice “implied subjectification”, too, which is still a bridge too far for english, though i hope it finally arrives in a couple of decades because it’s far more structurally-useful. with the wave of kpop spreading across the english-speaking world and chinese and japanese culture flooding western media with anime and marketing, it’s no wonder these linguistic trends are catching on much more quickly than anyone had imagined possible — and far more permanently.

give it five years, perhaps ten, and “i like this” will be “i like”, “you gave it to me” will be “you gave me”, “we took it” will be “we took” and “do you think so?” will be “think?”. we are witnessing an online revolution in language and the people who are pushing it ahead don’t even know they’re shifting the reality of their future speech and writing. but i promise you they’re doing it with every passing day, text and meme-share.

remember, english is a language without oversight or safety-nets. there’s no government (think china or france) where a national institution is supporting the language and making decisions. english is an uncontrolled mess but it’s a freely-changing one where its speakers are easily-influenced by trends in popular culture. all it takes for a new word to be born in english is for it to appear in a song — even by accident. a single slip of the tongue in a viral video creates a whole new way of speaking (pwned? smol? tol? thicc?) and spelling is just as flexible (w/e u say, tho). no, not every internet trend will become an evolutionary trend in language. but i suspect this, especially as it’s already the norm in so many modern languages, will. you are witnessing language history in the making.

of course, there are other shifts in english that are likely to happen in the next decade or two. i have no doubt about this one. a few others are likely but less-certain. i suspect the next twenty-five years will see a complete elimination of capitalization, possibly the removal of the apostrophe (it’s useless anyway) and the deletion of the comma from most sentences. i predict by that point subject pronouns and, in many cases, subjects whenever possible will be dropped and the alphabet will have been repurposed to standardize on a much simpler spelling model — while i believe the alphabet and writing system should be wholly scrapped and replaced with a far better model (hangul), this is likely to take more than two or three decades — unless kpop is even more of a force in the west than it is today, i guess, which might make it a little easier for the american masses to accept more quickly.

these are, of course, evolutionary predictions in decades that depend on many factors that could shift more times than anyone thinks possible in the next year alone — did most people know what a corona was two years ago other than a beer? honestly, did you know what a pandemic was before the great plague of twenty-twenty hit or was that a new word for you? language, as you know, is flexible. always changing. nowhere more than in english either in speed or quantity of difference. what do you think will shift? what have you noticed in your meme-fueled travels through the cluster-fornications and black-clouded excrement-storms of the internet? thanks for taking the time to explore a little english with me. may your verbs be calm and your nouns be at peace. bye for now.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.