Evolution of Language
At its core, language is the means that individuals within a group use to communicate with each other. Stripped down from its rules and accumulated history, language is what makes it possible for humans to function as a group and to be essentially human. While many if not most other species have their own unique language oral or otherwise, allowing individuals to communicate within that species, human language allows for each generation to add its knowledge to that of the previous generation and thereby to accumulate cultural knowledge and evolve. In other words, language allows us to have an historical record.
Similarly, language is personal and idiosyncratic. The way we speak identifies us and sets us apart from others even from those within our group. Everyone has a unique style of talking. While it is accepted that there is an expected way of speaking, in reality there is no such thing as normal; even in one country there are many dialects that are associated with specific cities or regions. Often the different regional dialects can be traced to the diverse languages of the people who immigrated to America. There are still traces of the original languages of immigrants in the way we speak or through slang. Language reveals who we are. We guess other people’s upbringings, their values, and their overall lives, without even getting to know them. We generalize and convince ourselves that we know. We judge one another, making assumptions. We have to accept the fact that there is no universal way of speaking English, or any other language for that matter. English is still a young language and it is already so far from Old English that they are essentially completely different languages. Our language is still evolving and being reshaped.
Language is not universal but is rooted in a specific time and place. It can be understood better by looking at two comedies that are conceived in two different media – William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and the recent television sit-com Scrubs. Both works focus on using dramatic presentation to reveal to their audiences peoples foibles and let them appreciate the humor in the human predicament. Both works were very popular in their days, which confirm that they both successfully reached their intended audiences. Yet the works are very different from each other and speak to the time and culture in which they were written.
In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Act 2 Scene 1, Beatrice is talking with Benedick, but she is not aware of the fact that it is Benedick she is talking to because he is wearing a disguise. Beatrice says, “Do, do. He’ll but break a comparison or two on me, which peradventures not marked or not laughed at strikes him into melancholy and then there is a partridge wing saved, for the fool will eat no supper that night.” In this quote Beatrice is saying that if Benedick finds out what she said about him, he would mock her and make some witty comments, but if no one laughed or acknowledged his jokes, he would be miserable because he is simply a fool desperate for the attention of others. This results in a multitude of translations. For us in twentieth century America, the language seems stilted and awkwardly complex, yet sixteenth century Elizabethan Englishmen easily understood the cadence and the allusions, otherwise the humor would have fallen flat and the play would have been a disaster.
In the 2001 comedy show, Scrubs, which follows a group of quirky interns and shows the obstacles that confront them on a daily basis. Elliot Reed is frustrated about the way the Chief of Medicine, Dr. Kelso, talks down to her. When she complains to Dr. Cox about how she felt when Dr. Kelso was being so demeaning to her, he responds with his typical cutting wit, “And you, you neurotic one-woman freak show, take your blah-blah to the blah-blah-ologist; because if you're so stupid as to confront the Chief of Medicine over some quasi-offensive endearment, then you've just got to go ahead and replace the captain of your brain ship because he's drunk at the wheel!” (season 1, episode 4) While both this and the Shakespeare quote have a similar sense of wit and sarcasm, and Cox’s statement not any less complex than the great playwright’s, this quote does not require much, if any, explanation. It is written for and spoken to a contemporary audience and the references are easily understood. It is still English that is being spoken, but the language has changed significantly during the last 400 years, and Shakespeare needs to be translated to be understood by our ears.
This evolution of the English language becomes even clearer if we look at written prose as it appears in the tragic novel. It may be argued that we can see the most dramatic changes in this form of literature. In Wuthering Heights, written by Emily Brontë in the nineteenth century, the language used is elaborate, although not to the degree we found in the dramatic poetry of Shakespeare. There is a strong use of similes and metaphors, especially when describing physical characteristics. Take for example our introduction to Heathcliff, “Do you mark those two lines between your eyes; and those thick brows, that, instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil's spies?” We are meant to feel the threatening fierceness of the story’s main character, to be almost afraid of him, to both love and hate him in this deeply Romantic novel. Today we would consider this language and this attitude to be more pretentious than beautiful. We no longer enjoy being lost in long, emotive descriptions and are more prone to getting tangled in the words. Contemporary language leans toward minimalism.
This tendency is evident in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where a completely different style is pursued. Even though it was written in the 1920’s, our style of writing today remains similar to that of The Great Gatsby, for we are heirs to the Modernist style that evolved during that period. At end of the book, Nick Carraway describes his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom after they have caused so much trouble thusly, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy––they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made…” (p. 179). This quote is simply saying that Tom and Daisy did not care about others and when they created problems, they just left it for other people to deal with. It says a lot, about upper class America in general they retreat into their fortune and don’t even think about those who are poorer or lower than them. Instead of having overly complex language full of unneeded metaphors. The language in The Great Gatsby is spare. Despite its simplicity, it is rich in meaning and says much more than that of Emily Brontë.
What these examples of the English language show - ranging from highly stylized, poetic allusions of Elizabethan England to the more vernacular, allusion-rich contemporary television comedy. Similarly from the highly emotional, richly described Romantic novel to the strongly symbolic, almost abstract Modern novel is that the language is constantly changing and evolving to express the aesthetic goals and spiritual needs of the time. The language evolves in order to constantly remain as an effective means of communication. We as individuals must stay linked to the others within our group and our world. And as we need language for this purpose, language, whether spoken or written, will remain the most powerful vehicle for our self-expression.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. New York: Washington Square Press, 1995.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996.
"My Old Lady." Scrubs. NBC. WCAU, Philadelphia. October 16. 2001. Television.
Baldwin, James. "If Black Language Isn't A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is." Editorial.