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Language evolution

Even the survivors are of course never static, but equally alive and mutating on a daily basis. There is no clear pattern of what defines a ‘halflife’ during which most of a written version of the language can still be generally understood. From a parochial viewpoint of citing only changes in English in Britain, then it is clear that pre-electronics (so, say, 50 years ago), written documents by a Victorian author, Charles

Dickens, would generally have been intelligible to, say, 80 per cent of the population, except for words that had vanished from daily use. Moving back 500 years to the plays of Shakespeare would cause more language problems, but still some 50 per cent of the text would have been recognizable to most people. However, stepping back a little further to the writings of Chaucer would be far more problematic. Here I doubt that 25 per cent of the general public would truly understand (even if they have the broad spirit of the subject matter). So this would put an evolutionary half-life for English around, say, 500 years.

To emphasize that loss of understanding is just as obvious on very short timescales, I will give two examples. The first is that spellings, as in Dutch or German, have changed substantially within a lifetime; handwriting before the Second World War used Sutterlinschrift, which is mostly unintelligible to a modern generation. The second example is from even more recent times. Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s, any good secretary or reporter would be totally skilled with shorthand. However, even if the notebooks have survived that were reporting key events, virtually no one can now read what was being said.

In the modern UK over the last century, there have been large influxes of immigrants from across the world, and for them the earlier texts will be effectively a different foreign language, so a modern survey would estimate that the earlier English has a much shorter half-life than my first guess at 500 years, and many sections of the population would struggle with English that was written, say, 80 years ago. Even shorter timescales apply to dialect and teenage slang. Familiar words may be used, but teenagers attribute totally new meanings to them. The survival timescales of fashionable teenage variants have a half-life equivalent to the time spent as a teenager. Future historians will be bemused that what was ‘hot’ became ‘cool’, as well as overuse of multipurpose words such as ‘like’ and profanities.

Overall there is a worldwide trend to fewer and fewer languages, and although almost 10,000 languages are still in use to some extent, half of the world’s population use only ten of them. At the other end of the scale, around 5 per cent of the population is spread across about 7,000 languages, often with fewer than 1,000 speakers. At this level loss is inevitable within a few generations, not least because overall there is much more mobility away from one’s original village (or country), especially by the young. In fact, I am citing optimistic estimates, as many linguists predict that between 50 to 90 per cent of minority languages will be extinct by 2050. This modern loss of languages is frequently driven by changing technologies of transport and electronic communications.

 
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