The Evolution of English (blog post #2: 250 word comment due Jan 24)

If you’ve done the readings by Roberts (“A Brief History of English”) and Pinker (“The Tower of Babel”) then you now know something about the evolution of languages in general, and English specifically.

Of the things you learned from these readings, choose one interesting concept that you didn’t know before or that you think much about before. Explain the concept so that someone who didn’t know it (or who didn’t read about it here) would know what it is. Then describe how this concept might be useful or interesting or influential in some part of your life: your writing, teaching, understanding of culture, etc.

For example, you may not have thought much about the Norman Conquest of 1066 (which Roberts writes about), or about how languages follow certain rules (e.g., if there’s a word for leg, there’s a word for arm, explained in Pinker). Those might be good concepts to explain in more detail and then apply to your life in some way. There are many more to choose from in the readings!

I look forward to reading about what you’ve learned.

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32 Responses to The Evolution of English (blog post #2: 250 word comment due Jan 24)

  1. Pitt88 says:

    In 1066, Duke William and many Normans crossed the Channel and essentially took over England. Although they were French speakers, English still remained the national language of England. Roberts states that, “French became the language of the court, the language of the nobility, the language of polite society, the language of literature. But it did not replace English as the language of the people” (335). This is very important because if there had been a different outcome, many people would now be speaking and mastering an entirely different language. After the Norman Conquest, many changes began taking place in the English language. Of the long list, vocabulary was the most affected. French words began to accompany many English speakers, which made them look “well-bred, elegant, au courant” (335). By 1500, English speakers knew more French than English words and the list continued to grow. With that said, the basic structure of English, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, etc., remained untouched from the French language.
    Learning about the Norman Conquest and the changes it brought upon the English language are very beneficial. If it were not for the Normans taking over England, we may have a much less complex language with few meaningful words. For instance, “There were words to do with government: parliament, majesty, treaty, alliance, tax, government; church words: parson, sermon, baptism, incense, crucifix, religion…” (335). If it were not for these French words, how could we communicate to each other about the government or religious issues? Some may argue that English would have eventually evolved, even without the Norman Conquest, and our vocabulary would have grown, but we cannot be sure of this. French changed the English language, but English still remains unique and distinctive in its own ways.
    The Norman Conquest is a useful explanation of how the English language came to be. Before reading this article, I was unaware that English added such a large number of French words to its vocabulary. Ultimately, these additions are the reason that we are all able to write interesting blogs because of our extensive vocabulary. As prospective teachers, I think it would be beneficial to teach our students of how certain words originated and came to be part of the English language. This information may interest students and help encourage them to go above and beyond and study other languages besides English.

  2. MM24 says:

    In Steven Pinker’s article, “The Tower of Babel”, an analogy of the evolution of animals and the evolution of language is introduced. Pinker first introduces this idea by referencing an account from Charles Darwin. Darwin states, “Languages, like organic beings, can be classified in groups under groups” and “like a species, when extinct, never…reappears” (Pinker 243). Pinker then himself writes that English is similar to German as foxes are similar to wolves (243). In general, the idea expressed here is that a language evolves just like animals have over time. Pinker continues to use this idea in describing the effects of three processes on language. Pinker first describes the ability to learn; here I again read something that surprised me: “Learning is found in organisms as simple as bacteria” (244). The fact that learning is an innate ability that can be found in something as small as bacteria is important for many, especially teachers, to understand. The second process is variation. Here, Pinker describes that languages borrow from each other (like how English borrowed “kimono” from Japanese). He also implies that this borrowing and variation makes languages related but also unique (245). The final process is separation, which describes the idea that language must be separate to have such successful innovations (Pinker 247). These three processes and effects on language are very important to take into account while looking at the evolution of English. The way Pinker describes language as an evolution and how he demonstrates these processes were very helpful to me in understanding how English came to be.

    I definitely think that Pinker’s description of language as an evolution could be taught in a classroom (especially because it was so helpful to me). I agree wholly with Pitt88 that the history of the English language should be taught and that it may open students’ eyes to new languages. Also, sharing this connection between subject areas might help students learn where English originates and give them a deeper understanding of the words they use every day.

  3. Osprey says:

    In “The Tower of Babel,” Steven Pinker introduces the concept of a Universal Grammar and how that is the foundation of what he deems the “human language instinct” and also the premise for the evolution of languages. Universal Grammar is not the standard by which one debates over word order, articulation, proper singular and plural word versions, or any other topic that may be found in modern grammatical exercises. Dwelling over its cultural or biological origin (heredity, variation or isolation) is to lose sight of the big picture by focusing on details and individual intricacies (Pinker 239). Instead, Universal Grammar is the language that all humans everywhere speak, in a way.

    Pinker references Noam Chomsky and his proposal that an extraterrestrial scientist would look at all of the current and expired languages of Earth and see that they are, in fact, just one tongue. Pinker compared the spoken language to other systems that are also considered “languages” such as some computer programming languages, arithmetic and musical notation; he pointed out that virtually any random language will have subjects, objects and verbs, but to find such occurrences in the other stated languages would just be absurd because the structures and functions are not even related (239). Pinker wrote that Universal Grammar is to language as an “archetypal body plan” is to an animal phylum. In addition to subjects, objects and verbs, there is a recurring theme of “syntactic, morphological, and phonological rules and principles” that further support the presence of universals in language (241). Like MM24 and Pitt88 stated, languages are not only interconnected by Universal Grammar, but by that fact that every single one borrows from another which fits into the concept of Universal Grammar seamlessly to me.

    I am actually not sure that I ever looked at language as Chomsky said a Martian would, and I find that insight quite interesting. To see our language as merely a lone component in a great linguistic entity that is Universal Grammar is rather humbling. I believe this same concept applied to language can certainly apply to many facets of life in the sense that there is a greater unifying force than the individual.

  4. shmannybumbah says:

    I never realized how much other languages influenced English. Like, Pitt88, I was completely surprised when I saw how much French influence was on its development. The early Anglo-Saxons (during the prehistory of English) had a dialect of low German with much influence by a relationship with the Romans. (331) They took over and began “pirate raids,” which spread the English language as they conquered. The history of English [actually recorded] begins in 600. This is the Old English Era where they began to solidify English as a language. Many words were interchanged with other colonies and languages, such as the Norsemen who invaded. “Examples of Norse words in the English language are sky, give, law, egg, outlaw, leg, ugly,…”(333) This blew my mind! If the Norsemen had never come to England in 866, what would we say instead of ‘ugly?’ Would we only have adjectives such as ‘unattractive,’ etc. This is amazing to me. I never even knew who the Norsemen were, yet I use their words on a daily basis. I was also surprised when I read the example of Old English script on page 333. I am in Linguistics class right now and we are learning about the IPA transcription system. So many symbols from the IPA are in the scripture they provide; such as the ‘th’ sound, the vowel sound for a, and many other similarities. Old English was completely different than our modern English, because it precedes the Latin and French attributions. Middle English was a transitional stage it seems, to what we now consider ‘Modern’ English. In 1400-1600, attributes such as “elimination of vowel sound in certain unstressed positions at the end of words.” (336) became prevalent and that is how we recognize those words today. “Name” would have been pronounced as two syllables, but with this vowel change we consider the e to be silent and pronounce the word as one syllable. The Great Vowel Shift was a “systematic shifting of half a dozen vowels and diphthongs in stressed syllables.” (337) This changed words like ‘mouse,’ which was once prounounced as we now say ‘moose’ to be spoken as we do today. The invention of print and dictionaries also vastly changed the English language. It was more widely spoken and allowed many more people to learn to read and write. Through all of these transitions, I have learned that the English language parallels the culture around us. Words, as well as people and their customs, are constantly evolving. I know now that the words I use may not have always been considered “English” as it is a vastly changing language. I wish I could look to the future and see which words remain and which are morphed into a completely new script. I enjoyed this reading, which I honestly thought would not be interesting at all (when I read that the title was ‘A Brief History of English’) I am proud to have learned some of the roots to my native language. Also, I am excited to learn more about the background of this beautiful, complex language.

  5. lmwb53013 says:

    One concept that I did not know about before reading “The Tower of Babel” by Steven Pinker was the reanalysis of language. Reanalysis occurs when a person hears differences or complexities in speech and reanalyzes them as rules that are different than the rules that the speaker actually used (Pinker 245). This reanalysis often occurs when people become sloppy or lazy in their speech or when they use ambiguous words or sentences (Pinker 245). I found Pinker’s example of “norange” morphing into “orange” particularly interesting. I studied Spanish for four years in high school and I always wondered why “orange” is “naranjo” in Spanish. Now, I know that “norange” was the original borrowing from the Spanish “naranjo,” which some unknown speaker then reanalyzed “a norange” as “an orange” (Pinker 245). I also found it interesting that languages never degenerate, no matter how many times they change, because “reanalysis is an inexhaustible source of new complexity” (Pinker 245). Many of the words we have today were reanalyzed by speakers and listeners of previous versions of English, such as “ofer” changing to “over” (Pinker 246). I did not realize that any and all parts of a language are subject to change—phonological rules, morphological rules, two variants of one word, syntactic constructions, and many others. It is amazing to think that many of the words, rules, and forms that we use in our language today are just reanalyzations of former words, rules, and forms. Many years from now, people may be speaking and writing in a different way just because of the way that something we say today is reanalyzed. For me, this really drove home the fact that individual speakers and writers have a profound effect on language today and that language is constantly changing. Like Pitt88 and MM24 said, teaching students about some of the history of language and the origins of some words could be beneficial. It could help students appreciate the complexity of the English language.

  6. blogposter2012 says:

    We may recognize Darwin as someone who theorized about the development of different species and their link to common ancestors. But did you know that he also applied this knowledge to language? Steven Pinker, in “The Tower of Babel” incorporates Charles Darwin’s idea on the spread of languages. Charles Darwin proposed that the reason that there are many languages in the world was because species and languages “have been developed through a gradual process” (Pinker 243). As more species formed “isolated” communities, languages evolved as a byproduct within those communities. I found this use of Darwin’s theory to be a great explanation for the evolvement of languages. It’s interesting because it allowed me to think about languages more in depth and gain a better understanding. As a college student, I share classes with students from a variety of communities and it is easy to tell that they each speak differently, but some also speak the same. It made me aware that language can help understand the history of different cultures and populations.

    Have you ever studied a second language and came across commonalities between that language and your native language? Darwin explained that the reason that we see similarities between languages is similar to his theory of decent with modification. It was the idea that the languages come from a common ancestor, but they have experienced their own change probably based off of their geographic location (Pinker 243). When I studied French I saw many similarities between Spanish. I think that if I continued to study French that I would gain an insight into the history of Spanish and vice versa for studying Spanish.

    The explanation of modified similar languages from an evolutionary prospective is a unique way for teachers to be able to explain language in depth and make connections to concepts that they may previously be familiar with.

  7. mmmk says:

    While I find “The Tower of Babble” to be more interesting the challenge of this post is to define something we did not know before. Having already taken and intro to linguistics class and have already looked at the idea of a universal language, and the spread and change of language over time. What is new to me is the History of the English language presented by Roberts in “A Brief History of English.” The evolution of the English language has occurred over time. We can all see the obvious distinctions between Old English the English we speak today, it is barely recognizable as the same language. I learned the effects of the Norman conquest on the English language and the vast effect French had on the English Language giving us so many of the words we use today Everything from religious words to food words to play and leisure words all words that are used every day in out speech. The most interesting thing Learned from Roberts is the change in the early modern period, and how it can explain some of the seemingly nonsensical rules kids learn when learning to spell. Dance, wine, and stone are all English words that use this vowel consonant e. This Rule was never explained as a kid it is just the way it is because it’s a rule of English when in fact this is a development in Early modern English that made the word one syllabus and make the e silent. Now as a teacher I feel I can give a reason rather than just saying the rules are the rules.
    With this post I find appropriate to post a video from online I saw this past week about the silly rules of spelling in the English language:
    http://twentytwowords.com/2012/01/17/102-year-old-man-creatively-critiques-english-spelling/

  8. jen-nay. says:

    I always knew that a majority of our English words are borrowed from other languages, primarily Latin, but I never realized how much of it was borrowed and that a lot of words actually came from French influence. Most Old English words were native English, meaning that they had not been borrowed from other languages, but have been around since they were apart of Indo-European (Roberts 334). However, only 14 percent of today’s modern English words are native (334). I find this really surprising because English is the third most used language in the world and more than half of our words are borrowed from these other languages not used as much.
    Also, like Pitt88 said, I found it surprising that a lot of our English words derived from the French language. The French speaking Normans were led by Duke William in their conquest of England and established the French language as the language of the court, nobility, and literature, but English was still the language of the people (Roberts 335). French words started to mix with the English language and many words eventually were adopted into the English language, such as many words dealing with the government, the church, food, literary words, etc.
    As future educators, I think that it is important to know about the origin of our language so that we have a better understanding of where we came from and for our students to hopefully become more interested in studying our English language. Our language is continuously changing and by looking at our language’s history, we might get a better sense of how it might change in the future.

  9. KT@Pitt says:

    I agree with MM24 about how understanding language as a process of evolution is very helpful in understanding how our language came to be. In my opinion, one of the most interesting things about Pinker’s language evolution concept was that language is not actually “handed down” in the way many believe it is. Pinker explains that language actually changes in different times, in different ways, in different communities (248). The English language has evolved because of historical events and has become almost a combination of many other languages with its own unique aspects mixed in. I never thought about this in the way it relates to egocentrism. Because people appreciate their customs and practices, they tend to hold on to what they know, and fear it may get lost in the future. I think Pinker highlight a very interesting point because this idea serves as one explanation for why so many older English speakers struggle to let go of the way they grew up speaking. In America, there are many subcultures, which means there are many dialects. From reading other students’ posts, it is clear that people are always interesting in learning about the history of certain components of their life, such as language, and they take great pride in that knowledge. Pinker’s point immediately made me think of my relatives who have great Pittsburgh pride. They recently moved to Georgia, and are holding on to their “Pittsburgese” as much as they can. They are constantly protesting the use of southern words like, “y’all”. When their young children call my cousin “mama” she immediately corrects them out of fear that they will not speak like her and her husband. This reiterates Pinker’s point that people believe they pass down language, when realistically it forms on its own as a result of many factors.

  10. lauren16 says:

    In his article, The Tower of Babel, Steven Pinker describes something he calls “Universal Grammar” (Pinker 239). This term refers to the commonalities that all languages share. It may seem unbelievable that two completely different languages could share any similar aspects, but Pinker effectively points out similarities. One example is that, no matter what order they are arranged, every language contains subjects, objects, and verbs. These similarities form common bases on which all languages are built upon. This simply means that the basic designs of language are the same. The only thing that makes languages so diverse is that people use different sounds to make words and then arrange those words in different ways.
    This concept is interesting to me because I have never thought of languages as being similar. In high school, I studied Spanish and never really drew the correlations that Pinker describes. This theory not only could help me better understand the Spanish I learned, but also help me in teaching children about aspects of language and culture. Knowing that languages have the same basic principals will allow me to teach students about these principals and help them to understand other people’s languages. They will be able to see that the way others communicate is not all that different from the way that they do. Hopefully through that they will be able to better relate to kids of different cultures and respect the differences between them.

  11. DrSeuss says:

    Like MM24 and blogposter2012, I too found Pinker’s comparison of language to Darwin’s theory of evolution to be extremely interesting. When he broke it down in terms of species, it helped me understand how things can be related, yet completely different. He stated that “…English is similar though not identical to German for the same reason that foxes are similar though not identical to wolves” (Pinker 243). Like many animals, languages share a common ancestor. And I thought it was even more interesting to learn that Charles Darwin actually used this idea about linguistics to help develop his theory of biological evolution. One of his most powerful quotes that I think would be worth sharing with a language class is, “Dominant languages and dialects spread widely, and lead to the gradual extinction of other tongues. A language, like a species, when extinct, never…reappears” (Pinker 243).

    I think that this concept gives me a different perspective on language. Unless you are a linguist, people just take language for granted putting little to no thought into its evolution or development. However, by presenting the English language, or any language for that matter, in a way that shows its mortality, it would give students a new way to think about it. I also think that by showing the relationship between languages it would make learning a second language easier. Although no language is exactly like the English language, Spanish shares similarities with it and it might be interesting for both the students and teacher to explore those similarities and learn about its shared history.

  12. gingersparkle says:

    Staring in the early years of elementary school, every child in America is taught about their country’s history, and its development from the weak thirteen colonies to the fifty-state superpower that it is today. Children are taught that in relation to many other countries, America is very young, which is the reason I thought that we were educated about the entire two hundred years of its existence. Other countries, I assumed, dated too far back to ever learn about their beginnings; I thought that other nations had simply always been thriving, and with their eternal existence, I assumed their languages, too, had always been spoken. Therefore, the history of the English language had never crossed my mind, I knew nothing more than the fact that it was rooted to Latin. I was so surprised and intrigued to learn about the true roots of our language, and all of the various languages that have influenced it. From the Romans, to the Celts, to the Noresmen, the English language has greatly been effected through travel. Whether the English speakers themselves were traveling, or invaders were trying to take over, or even if speakers of different languages were simply trading goods, all interactions caused some sort of change in the English language itself.
    This traveling is something that is still relevant in the world today. From business, to media, to immigration, there are countless people who speak various languages interacting with speakers of other languages. One language that is perhaps most interacted with is English, due to the fact that it is used in so many countries today. So, perhaps this travel will continue the spread of English until the entire world speaks it as one universal language. On the other hand, though, perhaps the countries which adopt English will mesh their native language with it until there are countless dialects of English throughout the world.
    In the latter idea, it is evident that the English language is still growing, developing, and being influenced just as it has been since pre-history. If the language does, in fact, never stop changing and adapting to the lives of its speakers then perhaps the history of the language should be taught in schools, as well as the history of the country. Many students are aware of the influences outside countries have had on America due to war, trade, and travel, so if they were educated about these same effects on language, a better understanding of the American culture would be grasped. The education of the history of the English language could truly enhance the overall understanding of the nation.

  13. TwentyThree says:

    In “The Tower of Babel,” Steven Pinker discusses many concepts regarding the English language. The concept I found most interesting was Chomsky’s idea that if a Martian came to earth and observed the human race, they may interpret all earth languages as being one in the same. (Pinker 240) All human languages hold similarities. A Martian would not be able to understand any of the languages that he or she observed. The Martian would take note of the process of communication. Words or sounds come out of one person’s mouth and seem to be picked up (heard) by another person’s ear. Someone comments with sounds, another seems to respond. Hand gestures are often used, the tone to the voice or sounds seems to change. If the Martian is sensitive, the changes in emotion as indicated by facial expression and tone of voice may also be noted.
    I think this has an important application to communication in everyday life. Meaning is expressed not only in words, but also through non-language or non-verbal behavior. Being more attentive to someone’s non-verbal gestures might convey more meaning than simply listening to words alone. While some of the notice of non-verbal nuances is intuitive, sharpening my focus has the potential to enhance my understanding when engaged in listening to others. As a teacher it will be important for me to apply this concept to young children in my classroom. I may have students that are new to the country or speak a language other than English. This concept will help me explain to my class why other languages are equally as important as English and the similarities between them.

  14. KateG says:

    Before reading Roberts’ “A Brief History of English” I had no idea about the Norsemen and their effect on the English language. A lot of the words that were borrowed from Norse are very common words in the English language presently. The Norsemen, who originated from Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula, took over places such as Italy, Greece, France, Russia, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and discovered America (Roberts 332-333). In 866, the Norsemen arrived in England and the battle with Alfred the Great of Wessex ended in 877 with a treaty that stated that the Norse would rule the east (Roberts 333). From this battle, Norse was integrated into English. Words were borrowed from Norse including sky, give, egg, leg, ugly, sly, and take (Roberts 333). Pronouns like they, their, and them were also taken from Norse (Roberts 333). Additionally, sound structure and grammar in English were affected by Norse. This event in history occurred during the Old English era.

    The effect of the Norsemen’s influence in England has affected me presently with respect to the words borrowed from Norse. In my written and oral language, I use words like give, take, sky, lay, they, their, and them on a daily basis. In fact I used the past tense of the word take in this comment! I’m sure if we didn’t borrow these words from Norse we would have synonyms of them in our language today, but it is very interesting, in my opinion, that so many words I use on a daily basis are in fact not derived from English, rather they are borrowed from another language.

  15. Sushi says:

    A concept that I found to be new and interesting is the Great Vowel Shift as described in Roberts’ “A Brief History of English.” The Great Vowel Shift is a change that occurred between 1400 and 1600. It was one of two changes that occurred during this time, the other change being an elimination of “a vowel sound in certain unstressed positions at the end of words” (Roberts 336). The Great Vowel Shift was much more of a drastic change in that it actually altered the way many vowels and diphthongs were pronounced. For example, before the shift, “wine had the vowel of modern mean; he was pronounced something like modern hey” (Roberts 337). The Great Vowel Shift also created a change in English’s symbols for representing vowel sounds, symbols that differ from other languages such as Italian and Spanish. The results of the Great Vowel Shift, together with the results of the other mentioned change, “produced the basic differences between Middle English and Modern English” (Roberts 337).

    I was vaguely aware of the second change that occurred between 1400 and 1600 (the dropping of certain vowel sounds) but I had been unaware of the Great Vowel Shift. I think that what is so interesting about this shift is the element of mystery behind it – why would this sort of change occur, and what was behind it? If it had not occurred, would we English speakers still be saying “name” with the “a” vowel pronounced as that in “father”, like Middle English? And, will such a shift occur again in the future? The shift helped make English into what it is today, the English that I speak, but it is fascinating to think about other shifting possibilities.

  16. Supernova says:

    After reading Steven Pinker’s article, The Tower of Babel, I have learned a lot about languages that I did not know before. For instance, in Lauren16, one subject that really shocked me was that there is a universal grammar that all languages share. As Pinker puts it, “if a linguist examining a language for the first time calls a phrase a ‘subject’ using one criterion based on English subjects, the linguist soon discovers that other criteria, like agreeing with the verb in person and number, and occurring before the object, will be true of that phrase as well,”(Pinker 239). These correlations show a foundation for language which then gives way to various dialects that use a specific arrangement of verbs, subjects, nouns and inflection. Variation is yet another part of language. An example of this is how we are continuously borrowing and reusing words from other languages, and then make them our own, (Pinker 245). Even though Pinker explains that this does not excite him, it makes me feel a bit ‘more cultured’ (even as I say that with a smile)! All too often we try to categorize people into “us and them,” but there is so much more that we all share. I’ve come to understand that the English language was influenced by French, German, Latin and even the Norsemen. Because language is constantly changing, I feel it is important to teach children how we have all helped each other grow into the modern languages in use today. Perhaps if we teach students how languages came to be, there will be more acceptances of people who speak differently than we do – and who knows where that lesson of tolerance and cooperation will lead!

  17. darkknight5 says:

    I’ve always wondered about how the world came to develop many different languages. This may sound like a stupid and random thing to wonder about, but I’ve always been confused as to how and why the world that we live in developed such different and unique languages. This stems from my own personal belief (before reading) that many of these languages have little or no connection to one another. This however, turned out to be wrong, as we find out that many languages, English especially has had influences from many other languages. This is evident through examples such as, “…orange. Originally it was ‘norange,’ borrowed from the Spanish ‘naranjo.'” (Pinker 245). As we talked about in class, many languages, except Hungarian and the Asian languages, have been influential to the English language. This idea of one language influences another also puzzles me. If you are going to steal things from one language in the creation of another, why not just use the same language you are “borrowing” or being influenced by? If everyone in the world spoke the same language, we could all relate to one another easier and the world could be a less prejudice-filled and divided place for people of all cultures and backgrounds. If everyone spoke the same language, the world would be a better place, at least in my opinion. There would be no need for translation and no need for the awkward feeling of trying to fit in when you don’t know a foreign language on a trip. Although everyone would essentially speak the same language, there would still be many different dialects and tones, as there are with English around the world.
    The thing that gets me thinking about all this is… how did the world start speaking different languages, and Pinker was able to clear some of the fog for me. As Pinker says, “Some person, somewhere, must begin to speak differently from the neighbors, and the innovation must spread and catch on like a contagious disease until it becomes epidemic, at which point children perpetuate it” (Pinker 245). By saying this, Pinker is basically saying that different languages were developed by those who went against their native language, taking words from other languages as an influence in creating new words and meanings, which eventually will create a new language. Pinker also brings up the idea that different languages are created by different groups of people who live in different areas. Different groups may start speaking the same, but once separated their influences are different, and thus their languages vary in vastly different directions. But even after all of this, I still don’t see how one language is not universal. And if it were, what would this language be like?

  18. tcs32 says:

    Through this week’s readings, I have discovered that there is much that I do not know about the English language and all languages in general. Originally, I thought of English as a totally separate entity from all other languages, and vice versa. I never realized how similar languages are, and how much of each other’s parts they all take on.
    The thing that I found most interesting from reading Steven Pinker’s The Tower of Babel was the idea of Universal Grammar. What really sparked my attention was when Pinker incorporated Chomsky’s claim that “from a Martian’s-eye-view all humans speak a single language…” (240). This statement really surprised me because, as an English speaker, I find other languages to be incredibly difficult to understand. Pinker went on to explain that all languages have vocabulary in the thousands or tens of thousands, are separated into categories based on parts of speech, include higher level phrase structures, incorporate inflectional and phonological rules, and so on. In addition, I found the fact that English borrows and incorporates SO many words from other languages startling. I knew that some English words were derived from other languages, but certainly not in the amount described in the book.
    I never really took the time to dive into a new language, apart from what I was taught in high school, and learn about how similar all languages really are. I found it very interesting that Pinker allowed me to think about language not as thousands of little single entities put together to make up one giant concept, but rather, as pieces of a whole, all interconnected and sharing ideas.

  19. Tim Tebow says:

    While reading “The Tower of Babel”, one of the most interesting things that struck me was the reasons there are so many languages. The reason I found the most interesting was how humans reanalyze words. “Because speech can be sloppy and words and sentences ambiguous, people are occasionally apt to reanalyze the speech they hear” (Pinker 245). As Pinker says, our brains are equipped with a universal grammar and are always on the lookout for examples in ambient speech of various kinds of rules. After I read the passage about reanalyzing speech, I started to think about ways that I reanalyze speech. Like lmwb53013, one specific example I thought of was how norange became orange. I took Spanish is high school and when I read norange it finally made sense why the Spanish word for orange is naranjo. This is one reason why languages innovate. When I read about the innovation of language, I realized that our generation has a way of innovating language. As we said in class, technology has caused older words to have different meanings and new words to develop.

    Related to reanalyzing language, I was also interested in how any language can change. “Other morphological rules can be formed when the words that commonly accompany some other word get eroded and then glued onto it” (Pinker 246). This explained how the – ed suffix possibly evolved from did. I knew that – ed represented past tense but I had no idea why, I just accepted it like most students. The evolution combination from did to – ed is something that I can now teach my future students, so they don’t just accept it like I did.

  20. Fay Mousse says:

    Understanding the English language as a process of evolution is very helpful in understanding how our language came to be. Before reading Robert’s article “A Brief History of English” I never really considered all of the outside influences of English. Roberts takes us through the transformation of English from Old English, to Middle English, to Early Modern English and finally to today’s language. Specifically I found the history of Early Modern English extremely fascinating. It is during this time (between 1400 and 1600) that English underwent some remarkable sound changes which made the language of Shakespeare quite different from the language of Chaucer. The e’ in Chaucer’s language was pronounced, but in Shakespeare’s language became “silent.” The Great Vowel Shift also occurred during this era. This was a systematic shifting of vowels in stressed syllables. For example, the word “mouse” sounded like “moose” in Middle English (Roberts 337). The shift is significant because it means that we have to use an entirely different set of symbols for representing vowel sounds than writers in other languages have to use. This was also the period of the English Renaissance. Roberts writes that during this time new ideas multiplied, and new ideas meant new language (Roberts 337). Instead of borrowing words from French, English now began to borrow words from Latin and Greek. Thousands and thousands of new words poured into the Early Modern English language at this time.
    So why might you ask is all of this history relevant to learning English today? Like shmannybumbah, I agree that language parallels with the culture around us. It is important to understand how our language has been formed and all of the outside factors and influences that help to create our language. It is crazy to think that 200 years from now future generations could be studying the factors that influenced the language of our time. Language is constantly changing and understanding the history and origin or our language helps us to appreciate the complexity of our native tongue.

  21. muskoka1 says:

    Like Sushi, I also was interested and unaware about the Great Vowel Shift that occurred between 1400 and 1600. Roberts’ definition of this phenomena, “systematic shifting of half a dozen vowels and diphthongs in stressed syllables,” (337) surprised me as I have never really given it a second thought. One example that Roberts gives in the book deals with the pronunciation of Chaucer’s writings and the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s writings. For instance, the ‘e’ in “name” was pronounced as a second syllable as was the same for words such as “wine, stone, dance, etc… (336)”However, the ‘e’ eventually became silent and now “wine” is pronounced the way we English pronounce it today. When I had to read Shakespeare in high school, it is now fascinating that I never thought to question if I should say the words differently and if so, why were they to be spoken differently. When I examined this passage, it was hard for me to talk out loud and try to pronounce the words the way people did in the past. It was a weird feeling not to be able to wrap my head around the concept that words used to be extremely different. A glance at Old English certainly confirms how different English truly was. Another aspect of the vowel shift that caught me off guard was the fact that we now use different symbols to represent the actual sound. The “æ” sign sounds like the vowels in bat or and (333). As a history minor, I am quite interested in the historical aspect of language. It never ceases to amaze me how little I actually know compared to what I think I know. Roberts’ entire piece held my curiosity because it was mostly about the history of the English language. The Vowel Shift was one of the many sections that caught my attention.

  22. jvdub says:

    In his article, The Tower of Babel, Pinker puts the thought in my mind of there originally being one language for everyone. This idea was intriguing, but then I thought how did all these different languages form from this so-called singular language? Later on he gives three reasons for this change over a long period of time: variation, heredity, and isolation (Pinker 243). The most interesting explanation to me was that it was due to isolation. One example Pinker used was that of the colonists in America being separated from the English and their dialect. He says that by the eighteenth century the Americans had already developed some different accents (Pinker 247). This point of isolation really fascinates me because I think it is interesting that an individual’s language will alter due to location.

    This point also interested me because it is visible to me today. I can see people in different regions of American speaking with different accents, dialects, and terminology. It is cool to think that language could have went from one language, to a type of German, to English, to American, to different types of American dialects that are constantly changing. I’m sure there were more steps in there that I missed, but it just goes to show how it went from so broad to so specific just because of the location people are living in.

  23. sami says:

    One concept discussed in Roberts “A Brief History of English” I found interesting was the Great Vowel Shift. This was a time when the way nearly all vowels were pronounced changed, but the spellings stayed the same. One example of this change given in the book is the pronunciation of Moon before the Great Vowel Shift would have been Moan. What I found particularly interesting about the Great Vowel Shift is that is did not change the pronunciation of vowels for French, Italian, or Spanish. The implications I can see of the Great Vowel Shift for English speakers is that learning these other languages can become slightly harder. Another interesting point to think about concerning the vowel shift is the pronunciation of “borrowed words.” As Jen-nay discussed many words in English are variations on words from French due to the Norman Conquest. This borrowing of French words happened before the shift, therefore the vowels of these words are now pronounced in the “Modern English” way. Learning about the way English has evolved has been moderately interesting to me ever since my high school English class read the Canterbury “in translation” I did not fully understand then that even though it is considered a great work of English writing, I would not be able to understand the original. After reading Roberts explanation of the Great Vowel Shift and its effect on the English language having to translate English makes more sense.

  24. Numeroff says:

    When Pinker is describing what English is and what English is not he mentions several different characteristics and names one that I had never really thought about. The idea that English, unlike many other languages does not use gender when modifying nouns was a somewhat new concept to me (Pinker 236). I took Spanish courses in high school and noticed that the language uses gender as a modifier, but I thought that this was just unique to the Spanish language. However, this is not an idea that is unique to Spanish; in fact it is present in many other languages. The Spanish language has two modifiers, masculine and feminine. For example, when a word modifies a noun, such as mother, the modifier’s gender changes to fit the gender of the word mother (feminine). The English phrase “good mom”, with the word good modifying mom, becomes the Spanish phrase “buena madre”. The “a” ending in Buena makes the word feminine. In my daily life this lack of gender modifiers may not be a huge issue after all it’s the way I and many others were taught. It’s just a natural part of the English language. However, as a teacher, being aware of this important part of the English language may help me connect with my students.
    When I become a teacher, I may come across a scenario in which I have an English as a second language (ESL) learner in my classroom. This student will more than likely will struggle while learning the mechanics of the English language. This lack of a gender modifier may be something I take for granted but it may be unheard of to the ESL student. In order for me to teach the student that this rule does not exist, it is important for me to understand what rule he or she is referring to first. English’s lack of gender modifiers may have been something I simply forgot about had I not read this text.

  25. Ron Swanson says:

    In Pinker’s “The Tower of Babel,” Steven Pinker cites the 1963 study of linguist Joseph Greenberg, which sampled thirty languages and ultimately came up with at least forty-five universal characteristics or rules. Some of the rules are specific, like the fact that “no language forms questions by reversing the order of words within a sentence” (Pinker 237). Pinker offers other examples, the most interesting being that languages possess a range of words for certain preexisting categories – i.e. “if a language has a word for ‘purple,’ it will have a word for ‘red’; if a language has a word for ‘leg,’ it will have a word for ‘arm’” (Pinker 237). Pinker offers several possible explanations, but the example of categorized words highlights an important part of the way language is learned and developed. If the development of a word for “arm” results in a natural filling-in of words for the rest of the body, it is surely important to focus on teaching vocabulary in groups that are natural and make sense to early childhood and ESL learners.
    The examples of the existence of universal rules in language make me far more interested in linguistic discoveries as we transition to a more globalized society. As we begin to have more and more interaction on a daily basis with other languages, it will become increasingly important for those in the education field to develop ways of more efficiently teaching those of different linguistic backgrounds. By utilizing the types of discoveries highlighted in Pinker’s essay, future educators – especially those that intend on teaching ESL students, such as myself — will be provided with a common, pan-lingual base on which they can build and develop.

  26. YoungJ says:

    While both the Pinker and Roberts readings presented many topics around language that I either didn’t know or haven’t thought about, the most relatable one I found was regarding items in history that have features to them that we have encountered a number of times in our life and have impacted us like the King James Version of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the dictionary (Roberts, 338). While Pinker states on page 236 that there are 4,000 to 6,000 languages on the planet, all with conspicuous ways of being distinguished from one another, I never thought about how as technology makes communication easier, languages are enabled to spread faster. When the invention of printing occurred in the year 1475, Roberts notes that books became cheaper and more common as it was, “The first of many advances in communication which have worked to unify languages and to arrest the development of dialect” (337). This brings up an interesting point regarding universal grammar and the distinctive traits in which all languages share.

    Pinker states regarding universal grammar, “There seems to be a common plan of syntactic, morphological, and a checklist of options. Once set, a parameter can have far-reaching changes on the superficial appearance of the language” (241). I tied this statement in with Roberts comments mentioned from page 337 on how advancements in communication attempted to unify grammar. Its apparent that in todays society, amidst texting, Facebook, and even the 140 word limit in Twitter, rules for universal grammar are essentially altered to fit a type of slang or jargon either common to pop culture, a group of friends, or a certain ethnic culture. I liked shmannybumbah’s comment in relation to this that the English language parallels the world around us with words always changing as people do.

    As a teacher in the classroom, teaching students to understand the distinctive traits common in all languages will help students realize the importance of being an effective writer and speaker. It may even help them understand the way they speak or write outside of the classroom. Lauren16 mentions a similar idea as well, adding that it will help students understand that the way others communicate is not all that different than how they do. In addition, Gingersparkle’s idea that history of language should be taught in schools would also aid in students better understanding the way their language evolves as well as where it originated.

  27. jay_leu says:

    What I found most interesting in this week’s readings was Darwin’s theory regarding the evolution of languages. Within this theory, Darwin made claims that were eerily similar to those he made within his theory regarding biological evolution. He said, “we find in distinct languages striking homologies due to the community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation.” Pinker furthers this idea by explaining that the differences among languages, much like the differences among species, are the direct result of three processes acting over long durations of time. The first process is variation—metamorphosis, in regards to species; linguistic advancements, in regards to languages. The second process is heredity, so that offspring mirrors their ancestors in these disparities—the inheritance of genes in regards to species; the aptitude to learn, in regards to languages. The third and final process is isolation—by habitat, mating season, or reproductive system, in regards to species; by relocation or social barriers, in regards to languages. In both instances, populations that are isolated acquire distinct collections of variation and thus digress as time goes on. Therefore, to comprehend why there is more than a single language, we must recognize the consequences of innovation, learning, and immigration.
    I believe that having a good understanding of this concept would be beneficial to those who wish to learn about other cultures. Many cultures practice languages that appear foreign to the average American. Perhaps understanding the origin and the means for deviation would provide an easier approach to making sense of and building an appreciation for these languages.

  28. mlhuxta says:

    I never gave much thought to how exactly differences in languages emerge. Therefore, the most interesting part for me to read was the effects of the three processes that create these differences- variation, heredity, and isolation. Just as MM24 said, Pinker demonstrates this concept very well and makes it easy for readers to see just how the processes occur. Variation refers to linguistic innovation, meaning languages change over time to reflect the changes and improvements in society. The concept of heredity describes the way in which we inherit the dialects and techniques of speech from our family members and the people around us. Lastly, isolation applies to geographical placement; language reflects location. If a group of people were to migrate to a totally different part of the country, their language would be taken with them but altered in a way to conform with the new area’s dialect. The effects of variation, heredity, and isolation are portrayed in Robert’s explanation about the history of English from Old to Middle to Modern.
    The idea of a process that contributes to differences in languages is essential for someone like me who is interested in teaching one day. I am not expecting all of my future students to be native speakers of the same language or have the same background. Therefore, for me, as their teacher, to have an understanding of the history and differentiates of languages will allow me to better meet my student’s needs. I also feel as though not enough students actually appreciate languages. My hope is that by being well educated in the history and politics of our language, perhaps I can convey the significance and interest of languages to my students. I hope my future students can someday appreciate English like my classmate shmannybumbah. “I am excited to learn more about the background of this beautiful, complex language.”

  29. ALS178 says:

    In Pinker’s article “The Tower of Babel”, I was very intrigued to read about why languages are different from one another. I’ve never really thought about comparing other languages to English. I remember in middle school when I was learning different languages every couple of weeks in my language class that I never was shown how similar languages can be to English. I was interested how Pinker explains in his article how English and German are modifications of a common ancestor language once spoken in the past. (Pinker 243). I had not known that before I read the article. Pinker goes on to explain how languages are different from one another because of the effects of three processes over time- linguistic innovation, the ability to learn, and isolation. Humans have an innate ability to learn things but with language it is either hardwired or learned. Language is also learned through sharing grammar among other communities. English has borrowed many words from many different languages such as kimono from Japanese and banana from Spanish. I found this very interesting to learn after taking Spanish for about 5 years I was never informed that the English language had borrowed so many words. I think that word borrowing is something that with help perpetuate languages so that they can always be kept alive in different communities. Althought I do agree with Darknight5 on why not just use the same language you are “borrowing” or being influenced by. The evolution of language changes every year and more and more words are being created.
    After reading Pinker’s article as a teacher I will be able to provide my students with similar information he explained about the evolution of language and how they differ from one another. I think it’s important to know some background history of English and foreign languages that are being taught.

  30. BonitaApplebaum says:

    La televisión es blanca. Although this sentence is in Spanish, most Americans would be able to decode this sentence as “The television is white”. Even if “blanca” was beyond a person’s comprehension, they would understand that the statement involved a television in some way. In fact, the word for television is understandable in 29 out of the 66 languages offered through Google Translate. So I don’t why it was so surprising to me when I read Chomsky’s claim that “a visiting Martian scientist would surely conclude that […] Earthlings speak a single language” (236). This seems like a ridiculous notion considering that I couldn’t speak or understand Swahili if I wanted to. But the idea that we can infer or comprehend some words or phrases from other languages demonstrates that our understanding of them is linked to something other than our ability to learn them.
    Pinker suggests that humans have a “universal grammar” and there are certain commonalities found in all languages. At the most basic level, all “languages use the mouth-to-ear channel” (240). Although this seems like an obvious detail, not all species communicate this way. Anything that can be communicated and understood can be considered a linguistic message. All languages contain subjects, objects, and verbs in some order (240). Humans also have the ability to convey messages that are not specific to that moment. For example, a dog cannot communicate that he wants to eat the same food today that he ate yesterday. He can only convey his hunger at that present moment. Humans have the ability to create messages “that are abstract and remote in time or space from the speaker” (240). These universal similarities are what make it possible for me to learn Hungarian or to understand the above sentence. The connections languages share make them more alike than they are different.

  31. mnathani says:

    After reading Robert’s article, “A Brief History of English,” I was stunned to realize that I, in fact, had absolutely no clue where the English language originated. I knew that it was a derivative of many different European languages, but I had no idea the connection that we share with the Anglo-Saxons or that our language was not recorded until after 600 (332). As an English major, we are required to take courses that include pieces of literature from many different periods within the English language, and I could never before make the distinction between the different periods. The farthest I have delved into the English language before was when I read the Canterbury Tales, but I never realized that they needed to be translated into Modern English. On page 334, Roberts cites that at some point between the two centuries after 1000 Old English developed into a new language because of political rule. That is astonishing that the rule of the country would have so much influence on the actual language of the country. The idea of Modern English needing a distinction surprises me even more. I know that when I read Shakespeare, it is considered Modern English, but it differs so intensely from the English language of today. I find it amusing that there is a distinction between Early and Late Modern English, and I am interested to see if/when we make another category for the language of the future. As a teacher, I would teach my students the history of language and the fluidity of words. I would introduce them to the OED, so they would be able to see the transition of meanings of words over time and that they themselves are contributing to the unending changes to the English language.

  32. csmith292 says:

    While the Shakespearean unit was a prominent one in my junior year of high school, Chaucer (and his famous Canterbury Tales, for instance) was never discussed. Never did I recognize the fact that there was a time in our language’s history where words such as name, stone, wine, and dance were pronounced as two syllables. In his article, “A Brief History of English,” Roberts denotes that the English language underwent major changes in the years between the years of 1400 and 1600; and so, “the language of Shakespeare [became] quite different from that of Chaucer” (Roberts, 336). The e that originally represented a vowel sound in Chaucer’s English became silent in Early Modern English. The word laughed was pronounced as two syllables according to Chaucer’s rules of the language: laugh-ed. So this modification of the language proves significant as the silent e “affected thousands of words and gave a different aspect to the whole language” (Roberts, 337).
    Another change was equally significant⎯the Great Vowel Shift. “This was a systematic shifting of…vowels and diphthongs in stressed syllables” (Roberts, 337). Originally, for instance, the word wine was pronounced like “ween,” and moon like “moan.” It’s seemingly apparent, then, that this shift in our language has further separated us from languages like French, Spanish and English, where the Great Vowel Shift never occurred. If an English speaker, having no knowledge of the Spanish language, came across the word vino, he would no doubt pronounce it as “vinn-ow;” but if a Spanish speaker came across this word (which means wine in English), he would pronounce it as “vean-oh.”
    So not only do these changes separate the English language from other languages, but they also signify basic differences between Middle and Modern English.