Monday, February 14, 2011

our ever-changing language

I’ve spent the last week reading The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, which is an humorously detailed account of the English language and how it got that way. The first thing that fascinated me about the book was how early in time he needed to start in order to properly explain how English came to be; first by explaining the descent of the larynx into the throat, which is why we can talk but other animals cant, and then starting about 30,000 years ago when the Neanderthal man was replaced by the Homo sapien, who not only produced astonishing artistic and cultural advancement, but whose lifestyle indicates some sort of linguistic progression that allowed man to communicate differently with others. 30,000 years ago! Crazy. 

What’s ironic is that even though the story of the English language takes requires a 30,000 year span to tell, because the book was written some 20 years ago (1990) it can be, in some ways, dreadfully out of date. Certain words the author used carry very different, often derogatory meanings for us today, and much of the geographical and political landscape has changed since the time the book was written. What surprised me most is how very little Bryson dealt with the idea of globalization and the spread of English worldwide. Sure, he talks about how many students are required to study English to compete in the world economy and the embarrassingly small number of Americans who bother to learn another language other than their own. But what I’m most curious about is how technology is changing the landscape of language, something Bryson barely touches on. Rightly so, since he was writing at a time when the World Wide Web as we know it was just being invented. Words like blog, Facebook, IP address, e-book, and countless more we use every day hadn’t even been invented at the time this book was written. What’s so fascinating is how rapidly the words we speak, the syntax with which we employ them, and the amount of people worldwide using the same words are changing. There have been a number of times in history that language has gone through a rapid shift or upheaval: the invasion of three Germanic tribes into Britain in the 400s, the arrival of the French during the time of Chaucer, Shakespeare’s some 1,685 newly invented words, Gutenberg’s printing press, and the spread of English to the New World. But I have a feeling that we’re living in a time of upheaval as well. The way we communicate with each other, the speed at which information is transmitted, the far reaches to which our language extends, and the increasing global presence of American language and industry all has the possibility to change our language in ways we never thought possible. 
Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Gutenberg would have never thought it possible that I could write down words as I’m doing now and that, seconds later when published, anyone in the world could see them even comment on or ‘like’ what I’ve written. I’m just so fascinated by languages and the ways that we communicate, and I can’t wait to see how our language continues to change in our lifetime! 
Next week I’ll be reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. Some of you have probably read The Time Travelers Wife (wonderful book, horrible movie) by the same author. I’m excited for what I’m sure will be another page turner! Also, I think I might abandon my fiction/non-fiction rule, at least for the time being while I’m still in school. I’ve got great profs who are assigning some interesting non-fiction reads, but I end up getting overwhelmed at the end of a night of homework and just about the last thing I want to do is pick up a book that feels like it could be for school. Hopefully this change will help me get more excited about doing my reading every week instead of waiting until the weekend. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad to be doing this challenge, because there is something beautiful about deciding you’re going to do something and actually following through. I always feel so accomplished at the end of the week, have learned and thought about so much, and am excited to share it with all of you, both online and in person! 
Happy Monday everyone!


  1. Very insightful post, Julia. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I like the new layout as well :)

  2. I'm loving your weekly posts! It makes Monday more interesting =). If you're looking for a good non-fiction read that does not feel like schoolwork, check out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. Both are fascinating page-turners. I read Blink in high school and still think about stories from it on an almost weekly basis.