How Languages Evolve: Explained in a Winning TED-Ed Animation

Lan­guage. It’s as adapt­able as Darwin’s finch­es.

It’d be inter­est­ing to know how the Inter­net changes the game. Seems like it would go a long way toward democ­ra­tiz­ing the process by which lin­go gets min­gled.

Alex Gendler’s TED-Ed les­son, win­ning­ly ani­mat­ed by Igor Coric, rolls back the clock to a time when com­mu­nal groups would sub­di­vide and strike out on their own, usu­al­ly in order to beef up the food sup­ply.

This sort of geo­graph­ic and tem­po­ral sep­a­ra­tion was bound to take a toll, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly. Evo­lu­tion is need-based. Vocab­u­lary and pro­nun­ci­a­tion even­tu­al­ly betray the specifics of the speak­er’s sur­round­ings, their cir­cum­stances and needs.

It takes some foren­sics to fig­ure out how, or, even if, var­i­ous lan­guages relate to each oth­er. A cun­ning lin­guist (for­give me) will also have the pow­er to fill in his­tor­i­cal gaps, by iden­ti­fy­ing words that have been bor­rowed from neigh­bor­ing cul­tures, as well as more tran­sient acquain­tances.

As a lit­tle exper­i­ment, look at the way you talk! Those of us with­out roy­al blood or a stick up our heinies tend to speak a mon­grel patois cus­tom tai­lored by our own expe­ri­ence. A lit­tle bit of region­al­ism, some pro­fes­sion­al jar­gon, a few col­or­ful words gleaned from life’s char­ac­ters, lines from long ago enter­tain­ments deployed as if the ref­er­ences were fresh.

I’ll bet a lin­guist would have a field day with you, Bub.

Even if you’re the most straight­for­ward con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist on the plan­et, the peo­ple who can’t under­stand a word you say would great­ly out­num­ber those who can.

Maybe we  should all “speak Man­darin,” as per the bill­boards I saw in Sin­ga­pore on a post-col­le­giate trip. (As a West­ern back­pack­er in Birken­stocks and a wrap-around hip­pie skirt, I was exempt, leav­ing me plen­ty of time to wor­ry about being caned for spit­ting gum on the side­walk, a thing I’d nev­er do, by the way.)

Back to the ani­mat­ed les­son, above. While I agree that polit­i­cal and nation­al inter­ests can be huge­ly influ­en­tial with regard to lan­guage devel­op­ment, I’m not sure a pig is the wis­est choice when depict­ing this lin­guis­tic phe­nom­e­non as an ani­mal’s worth of re-zoned pri­mal cuts, labelled a la the for­mer Yugoslavia.

Pork is haraam, and treif, and  ‘pig,’ in and of itself, is hard­ly a flat­ter­ing epi­thet, a sit­u­a­tion that’s sort of insult­ing to a nat­u­ral­ly intel­li­gent and fas­tid­i­ous beast.

I digress.

As does lan­guage, which explains why there could be as many as 8000 of them in use. A more con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate puts the num­ber at 3000. Not to alarm you, but if the num­ber of peo­ple who speak your lan­guage is what the food­ie hip­sters of Brook­lyn would refer to as “small batch,” there are lin­guists who would down­grade your tongue to mere dialect.

In which case, this list of obscene ges­tures from around the world might well come in handy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Ali G and Noam Chom­sky Talk Lin­guis­tics

The Ideas of Noam Chom­sky: An Intro­duc­tion to His The­o­ries on Lan­guage & Knowl­edge (1977)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day’s high­ly idio­syn­crat­ic approach to lan­guage can be stud­ied in sev­en books, a num­ber of antholo­gies, and her long suf­fer­ing zine, the East Vil­lage Inky. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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