WDYT? How did we get from “old” English to where we are today?

Language is the hidden currency of thought. It gives structure to the shapeless, tears down barriers and make new ones, triggers movements beyond all conception, and conjures feelings from thin air. Most importantly, language makes each and every one of us who we are.

Yet, we’ve all had that moment where we pick up a great literary classic, take perhaps Shakespeare sometime in middle school, and all this goes out the window because we can’t understand a single sentence (don’t worry, I’ve been there too). With phrases such as “how art thee” replaced with “HRU”, it is so easy to forget that these are both English, just different versions of it.

A little detour to the cognitive benefits of language

Before we dive into the way languages evolve, it is important to understand why language is important in the first place (who doesn’t love a bit of science!). In a world that is centered around globalization, communication and connection is key to our wellbeing. Yet the process of learning a new language, or one in the first place, has been repeatedly shown to have positive impacts on our brain!

For one, learning a new language is like exercise for the brain. The juggling of translation, grammatical rules, accents, and more, takes effort, and this effort trains different parts of the brain. Several studies have correlated learning of language to the development of the executive function system in the prefrontal cortex that allows for focus, the ability to ignore irrelevant information, and shift between tasks.

A study conducted by Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University researched the impact of language acquisition and cognitive developments specifically focused on the latter two. She specifically looked at two groups of children, one group of children who grew up as bilingual and others who grew up as monolingual. She analyzed their patterns in their brain and eye movement using MRIs and electroencephalography while they read; she saw that bilinguals' eyes jumped through phrases while ignoring parts that were irrelevant. However, this is just one of the many experiments Bialystok has come to the conclusion that bilinguals have certain advantages that monolinguals don’t share to the same extent.

There has also been mounting evidence that shows that learning a second language also helps with strengthening memory. A study conducted in Italy analyzed a group of 85 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that targets memory. 45 of these participants were classified as bilingual and used German and Italian in their daily lives, while the rest were monolingual. It was found that those who were bilingual did drastically better on memory and thinking tests and were on average five years older, highlighting the correlation between language learning and memory.

Aside from the cognitive benefits, learning a new language acts as the key to other’s cultures, mindsets, and conventions. Being exposed to these other’s view of the world drastically widens our perspectives and way of thinking.

Back to what we were talking about: how is it possible that language can change so much within the span of so little time?

Every time period is marked by its own beliefs, events, trends, and technologies. For us in 2020, that might include the Black Lives Matter protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Twitter fights. And it is not a surprise that all these have impacted our language with Blursday, cancel culture, COVID-19 being just a few the Oxford dictionary has recognized.

But times don’t just stop moving! Our world even just 100 years ago was drastically different from what it is now. As our world continues to evolve so does our language.

Joshua Plotkin, a biology professor at the University of Pennsylvania (UPEN), has been among many scientists who have used the science of biology as an analogy for that of linguistics. He explains that just as the genes of species mutate over generations, whether that's at random or the cause of genetic drift and natural selection, language does the same. Similarly, language is “replicated” as it is passed down, and parts of it are also changed or mixed due to random chance events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, worn out, or replaced due to the lack of applicability in the current state, or just mixed with outside influences. Throughout time language begins to branch out into different variants much like a biological tree.

UPEN has outlined five key methods that lead to language variants:

  1. Language Learning: change in language that occurs when components of language are taught to younger generations with small changes which over time might compile to become new conventions.
  2. Contact: changes in language that occur with the contact or interaction of different languages and cultures due to trade, immigration, and other means of communication. This can trigger the incorporation of foreign words, dialects, changes in construction, and spelling.
  3. Social differentiation: changes in language due to the development of “slang” as a result of cultural changes around us.
  4. Natural processes in usage: changes in the pronunciation of a word based on how the majority sounds a word out.

Whether this comes in the form of sound change, the development of new words, or the alteration of existing ones, they all contribute to the evolution of language as we know it. But to fully understand the extent of changes that language experiences over time, let's specifically look at the progression of English.

A Short Summary of the English Language History

The roots of old English lie behind the west Germanic Languages and hints of Latin and French that were brought to Britain after its invasions. Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes were three of the most prominent tribes in this conquering and their languages became three different dialects of English. Old English is often associated with Beowulf, an Old English epic poem of around 3000 lines which often is referred to as the first “important” piece of English writing. It was written around the 8th century CE by an anonymous poet. The poem not only reflects the language, but also the events that shaped such as Christianity.

Around the 12th century, Norman conquests in Britain lead to a series of changes that drastically changed writing and speech. For example, alterations in spelling arose with the aim of making written language smoother and more elegant, while in spoken language, short syllables were made longer in syllables ending with a vowel (for example, nosu (“nose”) became nōse and nama (“name”) because nāme).

Furthermore, word order became more important in conveying grammatical information in comparison to word endings, silent letters grew more common, and french influences caused the establishment of French lingual roots that persist today. This period lasted for a considerable time and is often associated with Geoffrey Chaucer known for his poetic work, The Canterbury Tales.

This general structure persisted until the 15th century in which the Great Vowel Shift took place. Vowels were made shorter and pronunciation drastically changed. This was also the start of the Renaissance period and eventually, the Britain Industrial Revolution which both shaped what language became.

William Shakespeare is one of the most well-known writers in the early modern period, known for his works such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. Since then many changes continued to take place including alterations in spelling and definitions.

So, let’s talk about texting…

There are a lot of changed opinions about how texting is impacting the English language. (I can already feel the strong disapproval of many of you who are shaking your head and curling your lips at the mere thought of texting language. ) And as someone who loves words, I understand that! But the truth is, texting is just one of the many forms of language there is and it does not mean the end of everything as we know it!

Texting is a gray area between the written form and casual speech, meaning it is meant to be short and casual. This combination of two different aspects of language has led to the development of many of the abbreviations within texting (the infamous YOLOs, IDKs, and HRUs, and TTYLs) along with some that have totally transformed from their original meaning.

A study conducted by linguistics University of York undergraduate Francesca Duchi, which studied the usage of “lol” on Twitter. She found that even though lol, meaning Laugh out Loud, was initially used to denote something as funny, it is now often used “to switch to a more light-hearted tone in order to protect themselves from mockery” of the online audience. This is just one example of how the language of texting is growing and evolving with time.

So what does this all mean?

Our language is constantly changing, and this is not new! The journey from old English to what we have now all tells the story of our growth as a civilization and that is something that we should be proud of.

Maybe in another 1000 years, our speech will be replaced with 4 letter acronyms, and emotions with be expressed with emoji-like facial expressions, but realistically but I don’t think so. Change is natural, and it should be embraced.

Key Take-Aways

  • Language learning is key to the development of focus, the ability to ignore irrelevant information, shift between tasks. Bilinguals show advantages in this area and memory.
  • According to UPEN changes in language occur as a result of language learning, contact, social differentiation, and natural processes in usage.
  • English, just like any language, has changed tremendously throughout the past centuries ranging from old, middle, and modern English.
  • Texting language is a current example of language evolving.
  • Change is natural and should be embraced.

Hi there! I am Andri, a super curious and passionate young researcher who loves biomedical and computer sciences. I love to read, write, and debate!