Linguistic Evolution: Why We Use the Words We Do

“The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for survival is natural selection” – Darwin (Descent of Man).

Have you ever used a word, with multiple meanings, and it’s been taken the wrong way? I thought so. Where do words come from, and how? There is more to our dictionary than a list of words, so welcome to a snapshot of Darwin’s approach to linguistic evolution.

A Darwinian approach to language appeals to biology, rather than appealing to conscious intelligent design. The link between the birth of language and biology lacks clarity, but we can develop ideas on what we know about language evolution. ‘Language’ is claimed to be an ‘organism’, ‘instinct’, ‘genetic mutation’, the list goes on. A Darwinian mechanism sustains the use of words and concepts through survival in societies and cultures. A concept is an ingredient of thought, if you will. They are created to make sense of situations; the concept ‘harassment’ was coined after a group of women discussed workplace sexual harassment. If linguistic definition is linked with reality and experience, we stretch the concept to fit relevant experiences.

Evolutionary linguistics stem from a Darwinian mechanism called ‘semantic shift’. Considering linguistics as a sub-field for sociology, psychology and biology, the notion of ‘usefulness’ is critical. We expand and shrink concepts to fit the sphere of experience in our lifespan. Inadequate or ineffective language is phased out accordingly, as we re-engineer concepts to keep up with the pace of societal change. We are constantly organically re-engineering (perhaps subconsciously), concepts to keep up with the pace of society. Semantic shift regards the evolution of the meaning of words; individual words have a range of senses and connotations, and over time can be added, removed or altered.  For example, ‘awful’ originally meant ‘full of awe’, and ‘egregious’, derived from Latin, previously meant remarkably good. Yet both terms now hold negative connotations. One may question why specific words pick up negative connotations through the continuity of semantic shift, and this could be concerned with reclaiming words. Just as the LGBTQI + community tries to reclaim the word ‘Queer’, belonging to the community gives you a specific right to use particular language.

Just like physical evolution, words survive through cultures and societies, created around notions that hold intrinsic value. The meaning of words, through time can become obscured and opaque. This is due to semantic change, or shift. For example, it is not obvious nor clear that the word ‘bless’ is inherently related to ‘blood’, the former originally a derivative with the meaning ‘to mark with blood’. This shift occurs through time, standing as the evolution of word usage. The words that aren’t readily used are phased out, mirroring natural selection. Some concepts become radically different insofar that the meaning of the original word is completely different. The English word ‘bead’ originally meant ‘prayer’, stemming from the practice of counting the recitation of prayer using beads. The sense or connotation of a word can be added, removed, or altered over time. This change can act as a catalyst for social injustice. As meaning changes in some areas for some people, it can also stay the same for others. This fluctuation in meaning ensures the semantics behind the word change in different instances. Not only in what context or sentence, but with whom we are conversing and in what instance. 

‘Gay’ in the 13th Century had connotations of joy and happiness, used in historic films and literature. In contemporary society, ‘gay’ refers to the spectrum of LGBTQI+ individuals, a matter of identity. I would hold this shift in the early 19th Century, and whether you believe this term has picked up negative connotations depends on your relative use of the term. ‘Gay’ acquired immoral connotations in the 1600s, linked with themes of over-indulgence and sexual depravity. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that the term was associated with homosexuals, namely imprisoned gay men at the time. Many terms seem to have been swept under a carpet of negative connotations, but this could be concerned with reclaiming words. One has the right to use certain language if you are part of that culture or society. The issue with associated connotations and baggage is that language can be conveyed in the opposite manner that was intended. The alternate interpretation of concepts and words guarantees social inadequacies and tension. 

Word formation can consist of derivation and compounding. Morphological derivation is the process of forming a new word based on adding a prefix or suffix (eg. Un- , or -ness). For example, unhappiness and happiness are derived from the root word happy. Compounding is the process of word formation, creating compound lexemes (two or more words joined together). For example, footpath is formed by the conjoined nouns ‘foot’ and ‘path’ to create a longer term. The meaning of the compound can retain the original meanings or create a new one entirely. The root words are used in order to keep the direct meaning, but derivation and compounding help broaden its uses.

Etymology, the study of the history of words, means ‘the origin of a particular word’. Etymologists evaluate the meaning, form and entrance of words into language. The relationship between words is often transparent, yet nevertheless real. Throughout ‘Confessions’, Augustine discusses how he thought we first acquired language. ‘Acts of ostension’ involve conveying meaning by pointing out examples. St. Augustine’s elders pointed at various objects, voicing the word that came to mind first. This is how Augustine figured out what words named what things. For example, if someone was to first look at a dog, they would point it out and say ‘dog’. Ostension is communication via showing or demonstrating directly, as opposed to referral. Ostensive teaching and learning are how we have come to know the words associated with such things and beings. How do children learn the meaning of their first words? This is called the First Word Question. There are many theories concerning the first word question, but Wittgenstein, Augustine and Aristotle all agree on ostension as the answer. 

Not only can we create terms and concepts in our own language, but we also adopt language change and borrow words from other languages. Much of the English language is formed of borrowed Latin and Greek words, but also many other origins. We use the word ‘kayak’ from an Eskimo descent, and ‘algebra’ from Arabic. The reason for borrowing such words concerns equivalence. One language may occupy words for which there is no equivalent in the other language. Or the word has no direct translation so it’s best to keep the original word with direct meaning. We borrow political words such as ‘apartheid’, and cultural words such as ‘opera’ to express and retain the direct meaning.

German linguist August Schleicher argued that different types of languages are like ‘plants, animals and crystals’. He held that language lies outside the grasp of human will; it is not in the sphere of action of the free spirit, but rather in that of nature. Dead language becomes the fossils of new science. Schleicher divides the territory of language into two disciplines. Firstly, language arises in the natural being of man, withdrawn from any influence of will. Secondly, syntax. Syntax is more dependent on individual thought, will and style. Related by common subject matter, the two disciplines cannot dispense with one another due to different theoretical orientations. To illustrate this, I will use the example of universality as a requirement. A vet must have an accurate and specific overview of the entire species and the animal kingdom, despite specialising in one single breed or classification. Similarly, the linguist must have a diverse array of knowledge, even if they only study a single language. A linguist must remain aware of the gamut of global language, in order to understand single languages.

Why is all this important? Language holds the key for communication, and if left unclear, facilitates confusion and social tensions. To know the origin and true meaning of words ensures clarification amongst converse. Not only does it support communication, but feelings, experiences, and thought processes.  If you are interested in further information concerning conceptual evolution, you may want to research Sally Haslanger or Leslie (not me unfortunately) on this topic. Wittgenstein and Chomsky also had valuable ideas to add to this arena of linguistics.

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet, and i'm currently a postgraduate student at Kings College London and a freelance medical writer. I hold a first-class degree in philosophy at undergraduate level, and my MA is in medical ethics and law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics.

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