Books, Education

The Evolution of Language

My sister’s comment about my desk being an island in a sea of books is both not wrong, and got me thinking about why I own so many books. Firstly, as I have discussed elsewhere, they are a bit of a security blanket. The First Reader refers to the home library as my dragon’s hoard. I’ve been forced to dispose of my library too many times in my life, either by external agents, or exigencies of life. My books are my safe space. 

They are also a repository of language. I was kicked back in my office chair, listening to a robotic training voice read me the PowerPoint slides in a training, and staring at the 1949 Encyclopedia Britannica set. I picked that up for my son’s schoolwork. He was excited to discover that Winston Churchill’s entry didn’t have a date of death (the great man was still alive when these books were printed!) and I was pleased to have yet another piece of evidence in the tracing of linguistic drift. It adds to the 19th century schoolbooks which belonged to my Great-grandparents and their siblings, and other antique books on my shelves. Not to mention the vintage (c 1957) unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary with it’s stand in the dining room. 

English is a curious language. It is not the language with the most words (that would be Italian) but it has an affinity for picking up words it likes, akin to a magpie collecting shiny rocks. The language we had four hundred years ago is not the same language we have now. It has evolved, not quite out of all recognition, but certainly there have been changes. Words that once meant one thing have drifted in meaning like boats without anchors. It’s fun to look at my old books and discover from context that this had happened in even recent histories. It’s less fun when you are watching the deliberate attempt at drifting language, where the boat hangs up on reef and starts to sink rapidly, or perhaps worse, is torpedoed invisibly and you’re left standing there pointing saying ‘look what happened!’ and everyone who wasn’t paying attention shrugs and says ‘what word? I don’t know what you mean.’ This is when having my citadel of books comes in handy. When I can show my child the origin of a word like fascism, from the Ancient Romans to present,  suddenly the attempts to twist it to mean the opposite of it’s origin are blatantly obvious. If you rely only on online dictionaries, this can be impossible or at best, confusing. 

The more modern accretions of words, though, aren’t necessarily captured in print. My child attempted to explain to me the origin of a slang term ‘pog’ which I grasped after a few minutes. I had known there was a game back when I was a teen that was played using round cardboard pieces called pogs. My initial puzzlement had been how my now 20 year old was using it as a term of approbation. I was fairly sure none of my children had ever seen or played with the game. But, my son explained, it was used as a retro term in a video game they played in the last few years, and his sister had picked it up from there. I suspect the video game writer is likely of my age and did play the original game! This conversation led to us talking about slang terms that come and go, and as he puts it, become cringe. Some don’t go away, though, like ‘Yeet!’ and thus, the language evolves naturally. English isn’t the only one to do this, either. Working on Spanish with Duolingo for nearly the last year (I’m at 308 days now) has occasionally amused me with modern English terms made to fit the language (correo de electronico, or celulares). Then again, would my writers of the School History of the United States (c 1913, and owned by my great-grandfather Warren Vanderburg as well as his older sisters Lane and Alice) have recognized what email or cellphone meant? 

I know I’ve opened older versions of classics to read, and been surprised and sometimes dismayed to realize my first encounter with that book was an expurgated version. Like the 1920 version of Arabian Nights with it’s delightfully Art Nouveau cover, or the 1913 H Rider Haggard set behind my office chair. The language has changed both voluntarily, and involuntarily. I would argue – and have made the argument before – that to erase history is to risk repeating it in all it’s ugliness, while losing the beauty of actual real progress (I’m not referring here to the retrogression espoused by the so-called self-aggrandized progressive). Stories that are chewed into pap for children lose the value they were once meant to carry. Folktales and fairy were not meant to be soothing bedtime amusements. They carried with them the sense of a dangerous world, and prepared the young for those dangers. Sheltering a child, like the greenhouse-raised plant, leaves them vulnerable. Plunk a hothouse plant out in the noonday sun, and by end of day you’ll have a crisp and dying thing where once there was flourishing green. Words carry with them so much more than one simple denotation. The connotation allows the clever reader to unpack the language like a portmanteau… which is another thing that has been lost. Like an overstuffed carry-on in which you have tried to pack all of the things you need for a three-day trip, from underwear to laptop and did you remember charging cables? See, there in just a sentence I’ve given you a picture which if you tried to describe it in detail would take far more words to lay out the sense of growing anxiety and tension over travel in these modern days. 

Our language evolves, and we with it. Or perhaps the other way ’round. Sometimes it’s a natural process, and other times, very much not. The internet is a great tool, both for good and ill, and there are those who would use it to mutate the very words we use to tell our stories. My books keep that willful evil in check. So I shall live in my citadel of books, and from time to time, they can hold back the flood of attempted memory-holing. The whirlpool can be dammed, with a well-placed book in the right place! 



3 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language

  1. Well said! And a beautiful image!

    We have had to leave books behind in moves, get rid of some for the same reason, Had a flood in storage that ruined a bunch. It’s always so sad. And only 1 of our kids appreciate books (and then only the fiction ones), and his wifey will only let him keep the ones that he promises that he will read over and over.

    I think fondly of the built-in bookcase that my father made in our living room while I was growing up, that held their Sci-fi book collection (Science Fiction Book Club monthlies back when they were still a real book club!) which I browsed beyond my years, and magazines that they kept such as Mother Earth News and Popular Mechanics, which I also browsed beyond my years, because I had run out of horse books to read, or any other book to read! It even had a build in magazine rack at standing level, for displaying the current month’s issues. A wonderful piece of my childhood.

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