Thursday, February 26, 2009

Can we save “dirty” and “stick”?

Fascinated by this news story about the oldest words in English. It’s one avenue of research by Reading University’s evolutionary biology group. As their page on linguistics and cultural evolution says:
“Our studies of cultural evolution investigate the idea that human cultures behave as if they were distinct biological species.”
As Charlie Darwin worked out (with a splendid sketch on page 36 of notebook B, in 1837-38), evolution means branching development – a great long family tree.

My chum Millennium Elephant once nicely explained why tree-branching means there’s no such thing as a “missing link”. In his example, you go back in time 500 years and find that human beings are still human beings. They might be a bit cruder and smellier than folk today, but they’re still our species. Make sure you’ve packed your condoms.

The English language of 500 years ago is likewise a cruder, smellier version of ours. Our speech patterns might raise some eyebrows, but we would probably be understood. Their plays and essays might feel “ye olde worlde” to us now, but we can follow the meaning.

The further back you go, though, the cruder and smellier the people and language become, and the less like us you will find them. About 250,000 years back, the branch of Homo sapiens merges with Homo erectus. (No need for condoms, but shame on you.)

Language changes much quicker than genes: a bit less than 1,000 years back, English splits between Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. But English is made up of all sorts of words nicked from other and earlier languages. So the clever Reading fellows have devised a clever comparative wossname to guesstimate which of our words would still be intelligible to the crude, smelly past. This would be useful if you didn’t have a TARDIS to translate for you (or you did but that bit wasn’t working).

The Word changes gadget lets you set the dematerialisation controls on 200 common, modern words. My Slitheen Excursion is set in 1,500 BC and in Greece. But 3,509 years ago scores 11/200 matches:
I; we
How; who
One; two; three; four; five
I can see the stickiness of simple, everyday concepts for getting across vital information quickly. But “tongue”?

Presumably they had their own words for “dirty”, “stick” and “guts”. (Although not a word for “zero” which is a much more recent concept – we didn’t have it when we created the Anno Domini calendar, which is why the millennium celebrations were a year out. I keep meaning to read this book.)

But the news report also suggests that “dirty”, “stick” and “guts” are “likely to die out soon”. Note they don’t define “soon”. It’s discussing words suspected of being 40,000 years-old, so does soon mean next century or next millennia?

Second, if I understand it right it’s not that the words will die out but be superseded. We’ll use other words to say the same things. But which words will we use? Does the research give any idea? Surely these new words will have to be better than the ones we’ve already got.
“Evolution is NOT a process of "mistakes". It's an ongoing series of triumphs over adversity, and every species alive today is a gold medal winner. We're NOT just the recipient of a spoonful of divine generosity. We have worked our way up.”

Millennium Elephant, “Stupid by design”, 1 March 2008.

George Orwell’s splendid "Politics and the English language" is a manifesto for more concrete, less pretentious writing. He favours short, Anglo-Saxon words because they’re simpler and more vivid. It would be a shame to lose our guts.


Rob Stradling said...

I'll take some convincing that I could find myself mutually intelligible with a 16th Century peasant. Nobility perhaps, if barely.

I'm wholly more fascinated by the interstice between 400,000 and 4000 BC, when we were complete homo sapiens, and yet in all that time, not one of us thought to make marks on stones to help remember stuff. That's dead weird.

"rusnest": Cold War era KGB safehouse.

IZP said...

Zero's a nice quick easy read actually, probably only a day or two, my mother read after me and she's generally not that up for pop science/maths/philosophy stuff. I think you know most of it though.