The Evolution of Language

In Aiden and Michel’s “Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture”, several arguments and claims are made concerning language. It focuses on specific words and develops an idea that states that culture can be defined by our use of words in a language. The article focuses specifically on a man by the name of George Kingsley Zipf, who came up with this theory. It was his idea that words were not all equal, and that there were certain words that a culture valued more than others in a language. In an experiment, Zipf counted every time that a word was used in the book, Ulysses, and recorded it, rating its importance, only to find that his theory was proven to be true. People tend to value words such as “the” and “I” much more than ones like “quintessence”. From my own perspective, this seems obvious considering the first two words portray ideas and connections that are needed in our everyday lives, whereas the latter word is not always necessary to all scenarios because of how specific its definition is. However, what was interesting is this: Zipf found that “There was in inverse relationship between a rank of a word and its frequency of use” (Aiden 34). In other words, the higher up on the list a word appeared, the less important to the language it was.

Now, think about the American language. The reason why many people say it is so hard to learn is because of all the irregulars that are present within it. These irregulars seem to follow no rules and conjugate as they please. In this article, it points out something interesting. The words that appear toward the top of Zipf’s list, or the ones that are more important, tend to have irregular qualities while those near the end of the list all tend to follow the same rules and conjugate accordingly. Now, there’s another theory that I want to bring up that is mentioned quite a bit in this article. This theory states that irregular words and conjugations will change with time. More simply, words will be conjugated differently in the future than they are now. How close does this come to the truth, though? While this theory makes sense considering the evolution from “old english” to current language, I do not believe that our language will change that drastically in the future. The transformation from old English to current English involved the creation, if you will, of an entire new language. The way people pronounced words was different, and the words themselves were completely different as well. The word “thou” is not the same as “you”. I agree with the idea that language may change over time; however, I strongly doubt that conjugations will be the only things that change in our language. If our language is going to change, it will all have to change together, for as long as the past generations are teaching current generations, the word “stinked” will always be incorrect.

4 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language”

  1. My tenth grade English teacher taught my class with the mantra, “What sounds right may not always be right.” For instance, often times “good” sounds better than “well,” but “well” is the correct modifier for the word with which it is paired. It takes people years to become familiar with the English language, and still some never fully grasp it. With this in mind, do you think that English will continue to follow this initially confusing directive or one day evolve to become a uniform and logical mode of communication?

    1. While the English language is definitely confusing at times, I doubt that it will change very drastically in the future. As I pointed out in my blog post, the teaching of the English language is a sort of domino effect. We learn from those who teach us, and as long as those who teach us abide by the rules of English grammar and language, so will we. “We” being the next generation, will then go on to teach the same rules to future generations. I do think, however, that it’s possible for some of the less important aspects of the language to evolve over time on a smaller scale though.

  2. The idea of an inverse relationship between the frequency of a word used and the importance was a very intriguing idea for me. I never really thought about it before but now that Zipf states it, it actually makes sense but it’s not always true though. I think Zipf should take out articles of words like the, a, or an because they aren’t important to the importance of a paper so it shouldnt be ranked for importance at all. If, for example, there was a paper on unicorns, lets say. Writing the word ‘unicorns’ many, many times isn’t going to make your argument on unicorns less persuasive. Unicorns will still be an important concept to your paper.

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