Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lexicological and Biological Change

Last Night, I started reading Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth". I chose it to be first on my list because I figured it would be an interesting contrast to the literal six-day-creation, Earth-is-only-a-few-thousand-years-old perspective my most recent read, "Noah's Flood: Birth of the Ice Age" by the Biblical fundamentalist Robert Gielow (note: I plan to write a review of this book at some point in the near future). I haven't gotten very far in Dawkins' book, but it has already provoked some thought.

In the second chapter, Dawkins describes some "evolutionary basics" - every animal has some common ancestor, etc. He notes that inheritance of traits is not always as obvious as it seems; at some point, it was commonly thought that some breeds of dogs were descended from jackals, some from coyotes, and some from wolves. This was based among traits in the dogs that seemed to be more in line with one of the supposed ancestral species. However, with advances in genetics, it was proven that dogs - all breeds of them - are descended from wolves only. Granted, they do have a common ancestor with jackals somewhere. But the point is, ancestry is not always obvious on the surface; you have to delve into history to find it.

This may seem like a complete tangent, but: is the same not true of language? English is especially guilty of having a murky lineage. We have influence from both Latin and Germanic languages, so we often have two words that are completely different, but mean exactly the same thing. We also have words that are similar enough in structure - and sometimes meaning - that they seem like they could have the same great-great-great-great-great-grandfather* word. Yet, these words often have no common root word at all!
*Something that I still don't understand about the Spanish language, even after taking five years of classes, is why there are assigned genders to its words, or how the gender is decided. What makes a chair feminine (la silla) or a desk masculine (el escritorio)? What if you make a compound word out of a masculine word and a feminine word? Is there a 50-50 chance that their offspring will be gifted with a linguistic Y chromosome? Or will there be some sort of mismatch that causes it to become a kind of hermaphrodite, similar to the genderless words of the English language?
Some words are closely related, stemming from the same root word, but splitting off at some point in time, much like a genetic mutation. Often one word will survive and the other will not; however, in English we have ended up with the words "amiable" and "amicable" - different by one letter, yet having almost the exact same meaning. Why do both words remain?

How much of language is left up to natural selection? A language's words - and styles of speaking - go in and out of popularity as determined by the usage of its native speakers. Some of this may be artificial selection, as in the case of attempting to make oneself conform to a certain perceived status or style; however, there is an element of natural selection in the process: keep up with the times, or you'll be left behind.

This may explain a portion, if not all, of the immense variation and incredibly voluminous vocabulary of the English language. It's hard to get an exact number, but there are some estimates that claim that the English language contains about 900,000 words. Of course, not all of that number are colloquial; many of these terms are scientific, obscure, outdated, or slang. A college graduate's working vocabulary is estimated to be around 60,000 words, which is only a fraction of that grandiose number. However, compare that to a Japanese speaker's commonly used set of words that numbers around 30,000, or the entirety of the French or Spanish languages which are estimated to contain a total of 100,000 to 200,000 words each.

It should also be taken into account that Japanese, Spanish, and French (yes, even French - no matter how unassimilible it seems to my ears) have rigid pronunciation guidelines; basically, if you can pronounce it, you can spell it, and vice-versa. English has such an extensive range of pronunciations for the same letter or syllable, that it's no wonder we have so many mutated words, so many non-native speakers struggling to learn them, and so many native speakers botching their spelling.

Take, for example, the word "dachshund" (dear god, i can barely spell it even though I've been thinking about it all day). It is clearly a German word, and the reason so many Americans know it (or do they?) is because it is a popular breed of dog (artificial selection, anyone? I'm sure I could go much deeper into the gene-pool-discrimination and inbreeding that is the world of pedigrees and dog shows, but I'll leave that to Dawkins' book). Anyway, because the word has been incorporated into English, it has been mangled by English speakers. Let's have Google image search illustrate this for us:

Look! Three Different breeds of canine!

As interested as I am in language, and as typically good I am at spelling, I am personally guilty of this particular affront to lexicographers, linguists, and English and German speakers of the world. I thought that "Dachshund" was pronounced "Dash Hound" (simply an anglicized version of the word), and that "Doxon" (a phonetic, Americanized interpretation of the German pronunciation) was a completely separate breed. It definitely blew my mind when I made the discovery that all three were one in the same; it also made me feel like quite the dumb ass. So, does English's lack of consistency in spelling and pronunciation make idiots out of Americans? (...not that we need any help.) Or are we getting something more out of it, something that other countries lack? I suppose that's up to you.

I can certainly argue it both ways. Being entangled with other languages and having a wide variety of pronunciations and words to pick from isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it can get confusing for speakers of more structured tongues, but Americans certainly have an interesting way of speaking. As they say (whoever "they" may be), "variety is the spice of life". A bigger "gene pool" of words to pick from leads to tremendous lexicological growth and rich diversity...I guess that English is truly the "mutt" of modern language.


  1. Interesting. I, too, am interested in linguistics. In regards to some of your questions about gender in language, I can answer some of them in terms of the German language. If I'm feeling especially energetic, I might ask Professor Forester about gender in languages. :)

  2. I thing this is fitting.