The Adaptation of Language Evolution

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Your speech, or thine speech as Shakespeare would have said, has evolved with each generation that preceded you. The bubbling melting pot of language absorbs new influences with alacrity. Every time we repeatedly interact with people, we have the chance to develop a shared vocabulary. In The Walrus Gretchen McCulloch explores whether the language mix is changing faster as a result of technology. People interacting on social media often end up using similar phrases, yet we tend to follow others with the same interests, with words jumping around between demographically similar cities, regardless of geography. It’s not a surprise, therefore, that Twitter, where you’re encouraged to follow people you don’t already know, has given rise to the most linguistic innovation. And other factors, such as community and gender, are still playing a part.

Young women are also consistently on the bleeding edge of those linguistic changes that periodically sweep through media trend sections, from uptalk (the distinctive rising intonation at the end of sentences?) to the use of “like” to introduce a quotation (“And then I was like, ‘Innovation’”). The role that young women play as language disruptors is so clearly established at this point that it’s practically boring to linguists who study this topic: well-known sociolinguist William Labov estimated that women lead 90 percent of linguistic change in a paper he wrote in 1990. (I’ve attended more than a few talks at sociolinguistics conferences about a particular change in vowels or vocabulary, and it barely gets even a full sentence of explanation: “And here, as expected, we can see that the women are more advanced on this change than the men. Next slide.”) Men tend to follow a generation later: in other words, women tend to learn language from their peers; men learn it from their mothers.

McCulloch also delves into some innovative ways past linguists have studied language.

The fieldworker he selected was a grocer named Edmond Edmont, who reportedly had a particularly astute ear (it’s not clear whether this referred to the acuity of his hearing or his attention to phonetic detail, but either way, it got him the job). Gilliéron trained Edmont in phonetic notation and sent him off on a bicycle with a list of 1,500 questions, such as, “What do you call a cup?” and “How do you say the number fifty?” Over the next four years, Edmont cycled to 639 French villages, sending results back to Gilliéron periodically. In each village, he interviewed an older person who had lived in the region for their entire life, counting them as representative of the history of the area.

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