The Evolution of Language

As this article on Forbes.com demonstrated, language is never static. It is constantly changing and evolving. But why? Why the English we speak is today different in so many ways from the English our grandparents spoke? Or the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote in?

Language evolves for a number of different reasons. One common reason is to accommodate new concepts or technology. For example, the word “Internet” didn’t exist a hundred years ago because there was no need for it. The word “touchscreen” didn’t exist until we figured out how to make computer and cell phone screens that could sense and respond to human touch.

Language also changes when the commonly understood meanings of words change over time. Sometimes, these changes happen when a new language “need” is created, but sometimes, people just abuse and twist the meaning of words until the “incorrect” word or meaning becomes the “correct” one.

The article referenced above gives several interesting examples. For example, take the word “empower.” Empower used to be strictly legal term, meaning “to give legal authority or power to.” However, over time, talk shows and self-help gurus have twisted the word so that it is commonly understood as “to make someone feel powerful.”

Another interesting example of this phenomenon is the word “literally.” Once upon a time, if you were to say something like “These guys are literally killing me,” you would mean that people were really, seriously trying to kill you-perhaps with a knife. Now, you might just mean that they are seriously giving you a hard time. When used this way, “literally” takes over the meaning of its antonym, “figuratively.” Confusing, isn’t it?

That’s why when you have material translated into another language, it is important to choose knowledgeable translators who are aware of both the “textbook meanings” of different words and the way those words are understood in common use.

2 replies
  1. Harry Runsfeld
    Harry Runsfeld says:

    I think we should be a little bit wary of the idea of language consistently evolving and changing. It’s undeniably true and very liberating that new meanings and new langauge forms are consistently being created – viewing language as an adaptable tool can result in it being used in creative new ways. Language fascism is a very bad and archaic thing and I’m not saying we should go back to Victorian ways and start viewing RP as the one true path again. Far from it.
    But we still need to emphasise the point that having a large vocabulary, and being able to express oneself clearly and precisely is a good thing. If language liberalism becomes too prevalent then the more precisely defined meanings of expressions like literally will die out. Only meanings that are absolutely necessary in our everday lives will remain. The following might end up all meaning the same thing:
    “These guys are literally killing me”
    “These guys are seriously killing me”
    “These guys are dramatically killing me”
    “These guys are undeniably killing me”
    “These guys are unreservedly killing me”
    “These guys are cumquatastically killing me”
    OK. Ignore the last one but you get the point. An education expands our language beyond basic everyday meanings and allows us to use more precise distinctions. Yet if we don’t keep a tight enough hold upon those original denotational meanings then perhaps our ability to use more precise distinctions in our everyday lives will die out.

    You could say that language is largely metaphorical anyway and that the greatest wordsmiths of all time are those that put new meanings upon old expressions. True but in order to understand the way old words are used in new contexts we need to understand the original meanings don’t we? I don’t think that just blindly accepting that “empower” and “literally” have lost their old meanings is a step in the right direction.
    Further, I don’t see how literally takes over the meaning of figuratively – “killing me” is being used as a figurative expression with or without “literally”. Similar to the way that “seriously killing me” is virtually identical in meaning to “killing me”, just with the former having added emphasis.

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