Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2023
When I took linguistics in college, I was particularly fascinated by the chapter on language evolution. It is much like biological evolution, only faster - much faster. Biological evolution can take a million years to produce a new species (in large animals), but new languages can evolve in less than 800 years. Consider Latin, which was spoken in pockets throughout Europe when the Roman empire fell, circa 380 A.D. These pockets were isolated, just as one species might be isolated into separate habitats, among several islands, as Darwin observed. Evolution begins. By 600 these pockets evolved into dialects, which could still be understood if people met on the trade roots, but by 1400, we have the separate and mutually incomprehensible romance languages: French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese. This isn't a change across a million years; it occured within recent history, and we can wrap our minds around it.
When the Spanish came across the Atlantic and conquered Central and South America, that represented a new habitat for their language. It started to change, and today, Mexican Spanish is slightly different from European Spanish. They can understand each other easily, but there are differences, in just 400 years. The same happened to Portuguese, after they came across the Atlantic and settled in Brazil. We can watch languages change in front of our eyes.
Ok, but where did Latin come from? Old Latin, the ancestor of Classical Latin, is an Indo-European language. Indo-European includes the following branches, in no particular order. Other minor branches exist, and still others have gone extinct.
Does this seem familiar? We are building a tree of languages, just as Linnaeus built a tree of animals. Languages branch out and evolve over time, just as vertebrates became fish and birds and mammals, and mammals further subdivided into families and orders, and so on.
There are over seven thousand languages today. Due to assimilation, many are going extinct, with just a few dozen speakers remaining. Linguists are in a race against time, trying to document and classify these languages.
Some languages are difficult to categorize. Basque, for instance, seems unrelated to any other language in the world. We believe there is a common ancestor with the surrounding Indo-European languages, (the Basque people live on the border of France and spain), but we have no idea what that ancestral tonge might be. When languages die prior to written texts, they don't leave fossils, the way animals do.
When literacy spreads throughout a population, it locks the language down. Then mass media solidifies the morphology and phonetics, further slowing the process of change. Random drift still happens, but in very small steps. I will present one modest example below.
I have noticed a change in English, within the past ten years. Not just adding words induced by technology and culture, that doesn't interest me, but an actual change in morphology. Consider these two sentences from commercials. (Change happens in informal commercials first, then becomes established in the minds of Americans, then creeps into broadcast news and standard media outlets, then is solidified in print.)
“so you can feel better right away.” (Selling pills)
“to help you get your career started.” (selling online education)
That's how it would have sounded ten years ago, but not today. Consider the short words so and to. We replace the vowels oh and oo with the neutral schwa, then shorten the schwa until it is less than a tenth of a second long, almost imperceptible. That leaves only the consonant, which blends into the next word. Now it sounds like this.
“s'you can feel better right away.”
“t'help you get your career started.”
Listen to the commercials on radio or tv, you'll hear it, just a quick s or t, barely a schwa lasting milliseconds, and then into the next word. Eventually it will be codified in orthography, as shown above. Then you might see these sentences in respected news and science publications.
The traditional meaning, centuries old, is a verb, as in ‘I kissed a girl, and I liked it.’ Later it became a noun, as in my likes and dislikes. The facebook like button is derived from this, ‘How many likes did you get?’ So far so good, but then the millennials have to complicate things.
‘That was like the best restaurant I've ever been to.’ The addition of the word like means it may not have been the absolute best literally, it is approximately the best, one of the best, in the top 10. Replace like with approximately, ‘That was approximately the best restaurant I've ever been to.’ and the part of speech is obvious. It's an adverb, modifying the adjective best.
That's pretty clear, but how about this one? ‘I'm like, what the hell are you doing!’
Perhaps "I'm like" could be replaced with I said approximately - not a direct quote, but words that are similar to these and convey similar emotions…
To get started, undo the contraction, "I'm like" = "I am like". Now I corresponds to I, the subject of the sentence, that's easy. somehow "am like" corresponds to "said approximately". Now if you think "am" and "said" correspond, then like = approximately and we're back to an adverb, but I'm not really comfortable equating "to say" and "to be". No, "am like" seems to be a verb phrase, like "had given" or "was going", but this time its "said approximately". If anything, am is the helping verb, which, by the way, was common in old English, and is still prevalent in German today. Recall the words of Handle's Messiah, ‘The kingdom of this world is become, the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.’ Today we would say ‘has become", but German still retains ‘is become", using to be for its intransitive verbs. (They use have for their transitive verbs.) And here's a Bible verse you probably know, KJV, circa 1600. ‘Old things are passed away: behold, all things are become new.’ Modern translations render the verse ‘have become new’. With all that in mind, it's reasonable to view am as the helping verb, whence like carries the essence of said. In other words, like becomes a past tense form of say. "am like" = "had said approximately".