When was I a child and I haven’t taken my autodidactical study in Linguistics, I used to ask myself questions “How the language that I, my dad, and mom speak today was created? Did my ancestors gather to work on the grammar and vocabulary of my language or did another way take place?”
Now, after 12 years of autodidactical study in linguistics, I can tell that not a single language that we speak today was intentionally invented by its early speakers, except for languages like Klingon (Star Trek), Na’vi (Avatar), Elvish (Lord of the Ring), and many others that are created by professional linguists. While there are about 6900 languages known to the 21st century (according to SIL Ethnologue), linguistics unfolds that there could be only hundreds of languages in the 4th century AD, and only tens of languages at the start of Homo sapiens in Africa about 200.000 years ago. Other intensive studies have helped conclude that the multitute of languages that we know today derived from common ancestors, less in number, in the past. Language evolution is the subject of study of Evolutionary Linguistics.
Languages that derived from a common ancestor are said in linguistics to belong to the same Language Family. Languages in a same language family will demonstrate great similarity in term of basic vocabulary. Below I’ll compare my language (Indonesian, of Malay origin) with other related languages from the Austronesian language family. Not included below is Hawaiian.
B. CONDITIONS FOR CHANGE
What makes a language evolve? The answers to this are human migration and isolation. In the past, when the number of humans was far less than it is today, population grew and people searched for new places to live. As a human population could migrate so far from the others, they could end up being isolated. This would allow their language to develop in its own way, by receiving only minimum influences and updates from other populations’ languages.
In the modern age, language evolution runs at a very slow rate because of the widespread of modern communication media (TV, Internet, etc) and the teaching of national languages. Thanks to the aforementioned, the trend that happens now is language extinction, in contrast to language growth that happened in the past. Local languages are cornered to the edge due to the rise of national languages.
C. STAGES OF CHANGES
Before a new language can eventually emerge, it goes through stages of evolution from its ancestor language. I’ll explain the process simply as follows.
1. Evolution of Sounds
Sounds in a language continue evolving over time. Sometimes you can observe this in your own language in your life time. I’ve succeeded to find this phenomenon in my language. Below is how Indonesian words were written and spoken in 1940s and they are now in the 2000s.
The list above is not exhausted. You can see that there is a tendency to not pronounce “h” in the beginning and middle of words. This change is already accepted as standard for most words, leaving only a few as exceptions. There is also a tendency to shorten words, as in “ceritera”. All these changes howevent don’t take place and are considered as non-standard in Malaysian, a related language of Indonesian, which also derived from Old Malay.
Another phenomenon of sound changes can be demonstrated in German that belongs to Indo-European, a language family that contains Indian, Iranian, and all European languages, except Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, and Euskara. In history there have been 2 stages of sound shifts that gave birth to modern German.
The First Sound Shift took place between the 3th and 2nd century BC. This was the sound shift that disintegrated Proto Germanic (the ancestor language of modern German, Dutch, English, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish) from its parent/Proto Indo-European. The sound shifts are described in Grimm’s and Verner’s Law that can be summarised as follows.
The Second Sound Shift took place between the 5th and 9th century AD. This sound change gave birth to Modern German and differed it in sound from other Proto-Germanic descended languages. The sound shifts are as follows.
2. Invention of New Words
When a population settles in a new area, they develop new technologies and found new concepts that demand the introduction of new words. In most languages, this is usually done in one of the following ways or combining some of them:
- Expanding the Meanings of Existing Words
This can be observed in the Arabic words zakkah and salah. Prior to the advent of Islam, zakkah meant “purification” and salah meant “to pray”. After Islam, the meaning of zakkah is extended to “alms giving to the poors as described by Islamic law” and salah is extended to “praying ritual in accordance with Islamic law”.
- Combining Existing Words
Germanic languages (the descendants of Proto-Germanic), except English, are among the most productive languages in the world in coining new words by combining their existing vocabulary. An example of this is the German word for "truck" der Lastkraftwagen, which is a combination of Last (“load), Kraft (“power”), and Wagen(“vehicle”).
Das Laufwerk is another example. It means "CD drive" and is formed of Lauf (“running”) and Werk(“work”). The longest official word in German is das Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz that breaks into 6 English separate words "beef labeling regulation & delegation of supervision law"
- Reintroducing Words from Parent or Related Language(s)
This can be observed in Indonesian. Indonesian had had no native words for many borrowed English terms, until recently Indonesian neologists tried to coin new words by making use of the vocabulary of Old Malay, from which Indonesian descended, and Indonesian regional languages. Now, words like griya tawang, cenayang, penyeranta,cakram padat, and telepon genggam often appear in newspapers to replace the English words “penthouse”, “psychic”, “pager”, “compact disc”, and “handphone”.
- Borrowing Words from Other Languages
In this modern age, it can be said that no language is absolutely resistant to the influx of English words. In Japanese, this phenomenon takes an interesting form, where English words enter daily usage with only minor change in pronunciation to adapt to Japanese tongue.
3. Evolution of Grammar
The grammar of a language will develop in accordance with the perspectives retained by the language’s speakers about their surrounding world. While verbs in English, German, French, Arabic, and Turkish change according to tenses, there are also languages like Malay, Sundanese, and Javanese, where verbs remain constant, despite the tense that the speakers use. Context of time is described in the sentence by using adverbs like “yesterday”, “now”, and “tomorrow”.
Interestingly,Old Javanese, the ancestor language of the last mentioned, did acknowledge tenses and change its verbs according to tenses, just like what modern English does. Tagalog, a related language of Indonesian, also acknowledges tenses and changes its verbs according to tenses.
In nowadays’ English, we also often express continuous/progressive actions, such as:
1. I am reading a book
2. She was at the taking of a bath
3. James will be at attending of a party tomorrow night.
The tense in which those sentences are expressed is called (Present/Past/Future)Continuous Tensein English. However, it is interesting to know that before the Middle English era, Continuous Tense wasn’t known in English.
Continuous Tense made its way into English grammar when there emerged a need to express progressive actions in the middle of the English people at that time. In the early stage, continuous tense was described by employing the preposition “on”, the gerund, and the object of the sentence. Hence:
1. I am at reading of a book.
2. She was at the taking of a bath
3. James will be at attending of a party tomorrow night.
Later, the “at” in the sentences started being shortened and the “of” started being dropped.
1. I am a-reading a book
2. She was a-taking a bath
3. James will be a-attending a party tomorrow night.
Ultimately, the construction assumes the form that we know today.
1. I am reading a book.
2. She was taking a bath
3. James will be attending a party tomorrow night.
Sometimes a society can have so bizarre a world perspective that makes their language appear so different from those of others. While most of languages on Earth acknowledge noun, verb, andadjective, the Navajo language of the American Indians acknowledges only verb and adjective. Yes, Navajo has almost no nouns. We can think of the Navajos as people who see their surrounding as a continuously moving and form-changing world (as expressed by verbs and adjectives), rather than a world that takes permanent identity (as described by nouns).
Thus to express daily things, the Navajos make use of their verb and adjective in a highly creative way –a thing we would consider impossible and insane until we find people who really do this. Follow the following examples:
Above is a part or whole of the process that your language, just like anybody else’s, has taken through to come into being as what it is known today.