]> In Finland

In Finland

Part 3 of 11
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This is a blog of various impressions and experiences during the first of my settled life in Finland, home of my Finnish vaimo, 2010-2011 and 2013-.


November 6, 2010

No one really knows for sure how language evolved. We know that it did evolve -- that at some point there were some apes that, like chimpanzees, were pretty much limited to a few different fixed calls, their meaning carried as much by their tone as their sound, and at some later point there were humans talking to one another. But we aren't sure if that talking started happening in just the last hundred thousand years or so, with the emergence of our own species, or at some earlier point in the last million, perhaps with the first erect hominids with larger brains than any existing ape.

It's also difficult to speculate on how it happened that we have thousands of different languages such that a speaker of one cannot understand a speaker of any other. How is it that we don't just use different sounds for things, but different structures as well? We say "birds are in the trees", a Finn would say "lintuja on puissa", and a Chinese, "niǎo shì (nàxiē) shù shàng". We've added an 's' and used the preposition 'in' to paint our pictures of multiple birds/trees and how they are related, but the Finn has used 'ja' in one case, 'i' in another, and attached an 'ssa' to "tree" to indicate "in". Meanwhile the Chinese uses no plural and uses a word meaning 'up' instead of 'in', which comes after rather than before "tree". The Chinese might use 'those' to indicate multiple trees if it wasn't clear from the context, and only the English speaker needs to clarify the specificity of his statement by using 'the'. Very strange indeed!

In the Biblical explanation of all this, it was the result of God trying to put an overeager Man in his place. Men united and set about building a tower which was to reach to the heavens and establish Man in the same realm as God. While I question whether Man really needed to be pushed down here or if maybe that great show of unity was something good, let's stay away from moral assessments and consider the "facts". We don't need to argue about them literally -- the tower may metaphorically represent the mental aspirations of man, individually or collectively within the culture at the time, and God could have accomplished his/her goal by changing something in the way humans learn and use language that leads them to diversify over time. Of course, we can't understand or assess this without some insight into how exactly it is that languages diversify now, so let's think about it.

We can easily look around us and see some evidence for how languages may change. Slang, for example. Some kids like to say, "Do you dig this?" when they want to know if you've understood or like something. Let's suppose for whatever reason a group of these young teens moves off to Hawaii to found a better community away from their elders, the media, "suits", whomever -- and they end up raising kids there. These kids might know about words like "like" and "understand", but they are only occasionally used in formal situations, seen in book and so forth. To their kids these words sound as strange as "thy", "thou", etc. to us when we read Shakespeare or the King James Bible. And so it goes.

What about grammar? Of course people are always complaining and debating over the "sloppy" language of young African Americans -- "He be good," "What you doing," etc.. Of course in Chinese neither the verb "to be" nor any other is ever conjugated, and many languages have progressive verb tenses that don't require auxiliary verbs. As we've seen there're many ways to put together a sentence, and once these African Americans are off forming their own community we'll start seeing a diverging language.

Wait. Not so fast. Where are these separated communities of rebellious youth headed off to Alaska or Hawaii? And won't they end up reading the same books and newspapers, watching the same movies as everyone else there? Well, probably so. But in the old days things weren't like this. Travel times and lack of media (or even writing) limited communications. If a group of popular kids in the village started saying "dig", "ace", or whatever for different things, and then they had the most kids and got the most other people talking their way as the generation passed, we can start to see how great gramps might have trouble getting what he wants at the local shop a few decades later.

Not only that, but there's something else going on too. Sometimes groups of humans for whatever reason get uppity. A thousand years ago there were a group of Germans living on an island, who had come to talk a bit differently from some of their neighbors on the mainland. Some other of these neighbors, to the south, for some reason woke up and said, "My, that island looks mighty nice." Over came the Norman French and a whole bunch of confusion. Some people were speaking a form of French, some were speaking a form of German, and for various reasons neither group was that keen to speak the other's language. But still they had to communicate somehow, and so they strung words together made up out of the shortest and most easily-learned words in one language or the other. The Germans liked to change the forms of nouns depending on how they were used, and the French loved to do the same with verbs, but neither side could be bothered with the other's when trying to just communicate.

Eventually the kids took the lead. Growing up in mixed families, surrounded by this environment of a simplified hodgepodge, they did what kids have been documented to do time and time again throughout recent history: they melded and seasoned this pot of disparate chunks of meat, vegetables, and water into the smooth soup of a new language: English. The awkward new child didn't have the noun complexities of German nor the verb complexities of French -- these had been lost already in the "pidgin" of French and German that had gone into the pot. But it did conjugate verbs to some extent because the Germans had done so too -- but the Germans did this in a funny way by changing the vowel, and so the words that stayed in from that source: "run", "speak", "drink", etc., did so too. Meanwhile one of the French tenses for the past added an 'e' sound onto the end of the verb stem, and so most of our verbs ended up like 'blend'/'blended', 'walk'/'walked', etc..

Would English ever have shaken off this obvious legacy of its origin in collision, if decreased travel barriers, as well as writing and later broadcast media had not so drastically sliced into the opportunities for dialects to differentiate? Perhaps to an extent, but likely not entirely. When we look closely at almost any language we can see multiple ways of doing things -- different patterns of verb conjugation, different types of sounds, different ways of forming compounds, etc. -- that are surely the mark of influence and contribution from some other source. Human languages are a sea of eddies and currents, of influences flowing in, then getting diluted, then gathering again and flowing out.

So what then, could a hypothetical pre-Babel state have been like? We must suppose that instead of being susceptible to changing trends in ways of talking, instead of being willing to mix languages in speech to be better understood, that these proud predecessors behaved conservatively and inflexibly. They continued speaking the language they grew up learning, because new words or structures were "wrong". And if they actually encountered, due to some drastic circumstances, anyone who did not speak the way they did, they either learned that other way completely and used it, or kept with their own way and had the other person learn that.

What about those times when something new was encountered, and a new word was needed? A new animal perhaps, or a new type of stone or tree? Surely different words would come into use, as a group over here encountered it and started using one word, but another group encountering it before they heard from the first made up another. Somehow there would need to be some way to resolve the matter. Possibly a simple rule, like everyone uses the word they have heard the most. Would this lead eventually to one word coming to dominate, or would it result in "islands" of use of one or the other alternative? Perhaps this interpretation of the Tower of Babel allegory brings more questions than answers.

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