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How have languages evolved?

How did languages evolve2

While many other species have conceptual systems, humans are fairly unique in their use and development of languages. It is the result of thousands of years of human evolution and as an entity, language is self-evolving. Linguistic development is a continuous process and refers to words that are abandoned or added to a language and adjusted or reformed as a result of a change in usage. Such change typically occurs when two cultures meet and interact. As ideas are exchanged, language is consequently affected and words become adjusted and incorporated into other lexicons.

Every form of writing, from poetry collections and cook books to newspapers and magazines, contains thousands of words that have been adopted from foreign languages by writers. For example, over a third of English words are derived from French. In fact, there are a staggering 1,700 words that are identical and shared between the two languages.

How and why do languages change?

A loanword or borrowed word is a word that was taken from a language and adopted into the speaker’s language with or without translation. For centuries, English has borrowed words from other languages, through strong cultural links, historical events and quite often, invasions.

This process may take years or even decades, but there are plenty of examples to showcase the popularity of loanwords. Some common examples in English are ‘café’ from the French café, ‘kindergarten’ from the German kinder garten (children’s garden) and ‘dollar’ from the Czech tolar.

English has lent words to other languages too, examples of which include ‘e-mail’, ‘computer’ and ‘mobile’. Nowadays, new technology has increased the number of English loanwords, but others date back further. The French, for example, say le week-end which derives from the English ‘the weekend’.

However, there are examples that are not so straightforward. The word “banana” for instance, has a more complicated origin – it is believed to have come from West Africa and been adopted by the Spanish colonists during the 16th century, before eventually being incorporated into English.

Adapting a word into a different language is not a quick process. When cultures interact, words are usually adopted and used by a native speaker. They crop up in conversations and are gradually assimilated into the language. From that stage onward, the loanword is ultimately either adopted into popular usage, or dropped and discarded.

Why do we use foreign words?

The primary reason people generally use a foreign word is to cover a gap in the speaker’s vocabulary that the foreign word can fill. For this to happen, the speaker has to be able to understand the full meaning of the foreign word and how it is employed.

Other socio-economic reasons could lead to loanwords: social groups adopt distinctive norms of dress, adornment, gesture and so forth and language is a part of this. Linguistic distinctiveness can also be achieved through vocabulary (slang or jargon) and sometimes pronunciation (usually via exaggeration of some variants already available in the environment).

Generation by generation, pronunciations evolve, new words are borrowed or invented, the meanings of old words drift, and morphology develops or decays. The rate of change varies, but no matter whether the changes are fast or slow, they build up until the "mother tongue" becomes arbitrarily distant and different and thus, the evolution of language continues.

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