The End of the Evolution of Language

When the forces of preservation overpower those of change, language ceases to evolve

Who Created the Rules of Language?

The ability to communicate with advanced natural language is arguably the thing that makes us human. It’s how we convey ideas, build relationships, start wars, end wars, plan, learn, teach… The list goes on.

And yet, despite all of its power and flexibility, here’s the most remarkable thing about language: It developed without anyone ever sitting down and defining its rules. The complexity of the world’s tongues emerged over time through the interactions of individuals and societies, entirely unsupervised. This should sound familiar to anyone interested in either evolution or machine learning. Language is probably the all time greatest human experiment in unsupervised learning and emergent behavior.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a book called The Unfolding of Language by linguist Guy Deutscher. It’s dense and technical—certainly not a book I’d recommend to just anyone—but few books have changed my worldview as much as this one. That’s because it provides a brilliant and very compelling argument for how this unsupervised evolution of language emerged. How did we go from our prehistoric days of identifying objects by pointing at them to what we have today: a rich and infinitely adaptable ability to describe anything (tangible or intangible) as combinations of sounds?

Consider these two fascinating examples that showcase how mind-boggling this is.

First, Latin is the common ancestor of many of Europe’s most spoken languages. Yet virtually none of these languages share its inflections, its cases, its three genders, and so on. And on top of that, despite developing in geographic proximity to one another, these descendent languages are extremely dissimilar to one another (not only in grammar and spelling but also pronunciation). If you didn’t already know these “Romance Languages” all evolved from Latin, it would be very difficult to spot. For instance, the English sentence the beautiful birds sing in the gardens, is translated as follows to other languages. Notice how different they are from one another.

  • Latin: Pulchri aves in hortis cantant.

    • Adjective before noun, verb at end, no articles

  • French: Les oiseaux magnifiques chantent dans les jardins.

    • Distinctive conjugation, distinctive inflection

  • Romanian: Pasările frumoase cântă în grădini.

    • Unique accents, no articles, irregular pluralization

  • Portuguese: Os pássaros bonitos cantam nos jardins.

    • Distinctive conjugation, contraction of “em os” as “nos”

Second, consider how that same sentence would have been written in English around the year 1000 AD: Þa fægerra fugelas singað on þam gardum.

Not only is it surprising how utterly different Old English is from modern day English. But it becomes shocking when you consider that one millennium—despite seeming like a long time—was only forty generations ago. You, your parents, your grandparents: You might all speak roughly the same English. So if we experience virtually no change over the course of two or three generations, how is it that we achieved that much change over the course of forty generations?

Deutscher’s book provides a beautiful explanation to these mysteries. And I won’t go into them in detail here. But what I do want to explore is something that recently occurred to me while reflecting on all of this.

I asked myself: Is it possible that humanity has reached an inflection point where the forces that prevent language from evolving have surpassed those forces that allow it to evolve? Has the advent of certain technology and the transition of communication to digital channels effectively fixed language in its place?

To put it bluntly: Are the languages we have now the languages we’re stuck with?

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The Forces of Change

Let’s start with the reasons for why language does in fact change over time. In The Unfolding of Language, Deutscher describes the constant push and pull of constructive and destructive forces of language.

On the one hand, certain natural human behaviors cause languages to grow in length and complexity. For example, the need to express things via metaphor and analogy causes unexpected combinations of words to form. A great case in point: Using the word “will” for English’s future tense came from the other meaning you know of “will” (to want, as in “I will this to happen”). That meaning morphed into a way to describe things the speaker would eventually do (i.e. “I will go” meant “I want to go”). Over time, that use became more generalized, resulting in the future tense we use today.

But at the same time, there is an innate human need to simplify. And so, while they grow, languages also shrink via contraction or erosion. For instance, the term “goodbye” is an eroded version of the longer phrase “God be with you”. And today, it’s actually even more common to say “bye” than “goodbye”. Somehow “God be with you” has morphed into “bye”.

It’s the interplay between these various mechanisms of growth and shrinking that causes the evolution of language. Let’s refer to these all jointly as the forces of change.

In a world (circa 1000 AD) in which language is primarily vocal, in which social interaction rarely extends beyond local groups, and in which most people are illiterate, these forces dominate unchecked. There is little that keeps a language static, and so there is little to counterbalance the forces of change.

But what happens when the opposite forces of inertia and preservation begin pushing back?

The Forces Against Change

So let’s now ask: Are there societal dynamics that today have turned language into a more static system? The answer is, of course, yes.

First and foremost, never before has humankind used language primarily as a written means. Yes, writing has been prevalent for centuries, but only in our modern digital age has the majority of our communication shifted from oral to written. Talk is the dynamic version of language (the kind that mutates regularly through games of telephone, analogous to our genetic code mutating through successive generations). Writing on the other hand is the static version (a force of preservation).

Even in past eras when written language was ubiquitous, its distribution has never been as frictionless and widespread as it is today. Moreover, the internet doesn’t forget. The languages of today—with their grammatical rules, their irregularities, their pronunciations—are embedded into the very fabric of digital communication in the form of cheaply, eternally stored text, audio, and video.

But there’s another key reason technology has created a force against the evolution of language.

Cross-cultural interaction, once the bedrock of the fusion of different languages, no longer works as it once did. Yes, we’re in a state of unprecedented globalization, more likely than ever before to meet people across the world. But we’re also living in a world where the need to have languages interact is as an all time minimum. Every foreign website I visit or document I read can be instantly translated. Spoken word can now be converted by AI from languages I don’t know (and will never learn) to my native English. The impact of other languages on English (and vice versa) is mitigated by the ease with which translation can now be done, rendering the need for common ground less relevant than it’s ever been.

It’s quite ironic, isn’t it? It’s easier than ever before to interact with speakers of foreign languages, and yet at the same time, there’s never been less of a reason to actually learn those foreign languages.

The Future of Language

Have we therefore reached a point where those forces of preservation are stronger than the forces of change? Consider what happens to an object with forward momentum on a frictionless surface (say, a hockey puck on an ice rink). It travels far. Now consider what happens when the object is met with the counterforce of friction (say, the same hockey puck on a sandy beach). It decelerates and eventually stops moving altogether.

We may even be past the point of deceleration and have already reached the point of stationary language. Global access to the internet and its archive of human communication, as well as global access to tools that make language interaction less necessary, all suggest we’ve entered a new phase. Perhaps language, that thing I earlier referred to as “the all time greatest human experiment in unsupervised learning and emergent behavior”… Perhaps that experiment has reached its end.

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