Progenies of the Great Unknown

A couple of weeks ago I received a lovely email from Erika in Switzerland; she read my post on the origins of language and asked whether I knew anything about the evolution of Swiss German, and why a land that was originally inhabited by Celtic tribes today speaks primarily a Germanic language (as well as French and Italian). Indeed, one could ask the exact same question about Britain. Once  upon a time, both Britain and Switzerland flourished with Celtic languages that are today either dead or struggling for survival. How did this happen? Why do languages change? And why do some languages thrive while others become ensconced in myth and legend?

Fascinating questions. Instead of responding directly to Erika, I have decided to blog about language change. This post is dedicated with love to all those who have peered into the magic well of Mímir and questioned their own linguistic heritance.

Somewhere, at this very moment, the last native speakers of a language are exchanging the last precious words of their ancestors

On every continent, in every town and every village, upon every hill and hamlet, language is evolving. By the time you have finished reading this post new words will have been invented while others will be forgotten. Somewhere, at this very moment, the last native speakers of a language are exchanging the last precious words of their ancestors, unaware that their language will die with them. At the same time a Creole is born, a cultural and linguistic matrimony that could result in the next great civilisation. There have been many prominent examples of language change throughout history; a significant example is the Great Vowel Shift in the English language, referring to a major change in the pronunciation of English in the south of England between 1450 and 1750. Another example is the development of the Romance languages, comprising all the languages that descend from Latin, the language of ancient Rome.

The Germanic languages, too, evolved from a common ancestor, called Proto-Germanic. But how do we know this? By using the Comparative Reconstruction method. This linguistic model is concerned with the analysis of comparable languages that resemble one another, such as German and Dutch, and running a set of syntactic and phonetic comparisons to assess whether they are in fact related and evolved from a common ancestral protolanguage. The lexical similarity of languages such as English, German and Swedish is far too pervasive for chance or borrowing; we therefore conclude that these languages have a common parent, Proto-Germanic. However, both the Romance and Germanic languages are progenies of an even greater linguistic family, the Proto-Indo-European language, which encompasses several hundred languages, including the major languages of Europe and Southern Asia. But why have these languages changed over time? Surely if a language is passed by means of an oral tradition (and certainly written, where one can refer back to an earlier script) from one generation to the next, what are the reasons for the often momentous changes observed? For instance, French is a Romance language yet it has evolved so much from its ancestor, Latin, that the similarities between Latin and French are sporadic at best (unlike Italian, which in spite of undergoing much change over the centuries has retained many of the same root words and meanings).

The most significant reason for language change has been the invasion of one warring tribe into another tribe’s habitat. The native tribe, who were sometimes destroyed or displaced, were more often than not required to adapt to the invading tribe’s cultural traditions and language would be at the forefront of this assimilation. The same pattern would be repeated again, often many times, when the next people invaded. And now, to Erika’s questions. A good example of this were the Helvetii, an alliance of Celtic tribes originating in what is now Switzerland. The Helvetii were invaded many times; notably by the Romans in the 1st century BC and then during Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul during 58 BC, and again with the fall of the Western Roman Empire when Germanic tribes moved in and assimilated the Gallo-Roman population. Thus, we note that in little over 400 years the Helvetii underwent a couple of significant linguistic changes; from the original Gaulish (a Celtic language) to Latin following the Roman invasion and finally to a Germanic tongue.

It is interesting to note, that, in present day Switzerland, there are three official languages: German, French and Italian. Both the Germanic and Romance languages have prevailed in the region, with the Germanic language having a greater majority, mirroring perhaps the last greatest invasion of the region by Germanic tribes.

Crucial grammatical and semantic shifts have been observed in response to social, economic and political upheavals. Throughout history there have been many significant examples of language change tempered by invasion, colonisation and immigration; most notably the English language with its plethora of quirks and truly fascinating history of change and variation. The English language has been written for about a millennium, thus we have a great choice of sources that enable us to observe and analyse its various incarnations; from Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) spoken between the 5th and early 12th centuries, to Middle English between the 12th century until about 1470, to Early Modern English (also known as ‘Shakespearean English’), through to the Great Vowel Shift, heralding the dawn of Modern English. Interestingly, while all four developmental stages of the English language are called English, there is very little doubt that a modern speaker of English would not be able to talk with a speaker of Old English if he or she were transported back in time and given the opportunity to do so (what I wouldn’t give to be able to do that!).

Several factors contributed to the gradual change from Old English to Middle English, and they are again concerned with a turbulent political climate. The invasion of Germanic tribes (the Angles, Saxons and Jutes) into post-Roman Britain over the 5th and 6th centuries marked the first significant phase of English. It is important to remember that language change is a gradual process that transpires over a length of time. Our linguistic ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, did not call their language Old English nor were they aware that their invasion would set the wheels in motion for a tongue that would become the leading language of international discourse, spoken by around 309-400 million native speakers.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 inaugurated a monumental shift in the English language, and not only from a purely linguistic perspective; it wrought considerable forces of change in both the societal and ecclesiastical sphere. For instance, the mainly Saxon speaking political and religious hierarchies were replaced by French and used Latin for administrative purposes. French became the language of polite society and this fundamentally altered the role of Old English in education and administration. One of the most famous examples of Middle English, illustrating the shift from Old English, is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century. The English used is associated with the London dialect of the time and the emergent written form of English used by official administrators, called the Chancery Standard, which played a pivotal role in standardising the English language (both in its spoken and written form).

Much like the Indo-European family of languages, other linguistic branches have developed in similar ways and in some instances the changes have been even more striking, as per the following illustration. The first writing system known to man is Sumerian, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (present day Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey), since the 5th millennium BC. The writing has survived in stone tablets (cuneiform) and linguists are able to decipher the language using the Comparative Reconstruction method, described above, as Sumerian became widespread and used alongside Akkadian, a language spoken by an adjacent people with whom the Sumerians had strong cultural ties. The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian is apparent in all areas, from lexical borrowing to syntactic, morphological and phonological convergence. It is important to note that Akkadian is the first attested Semitic language, belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family, and while it is now extinct, Akkadian is the linguistic ancestor of both Hebrew and Arabic, thus we are able to draw direct links between Akkadian to early examples of Hebrew and Arabic.

The Afro-Asiatic linguistic family is thought to have originated in northern Africa and began to diverge around the 8th millennium BC (although there is debate about the exact date and place). One branch of this family, Semitic, eventually reached the Middle East and differentiated into a variety of related languages. Hebrew is one of the oldest of these languages. Classical Hebrew stayed pretty much the same for a period of well over 2500 years when it was used for religious practices only. In fact, it was considered sacrilege to speak Hebrew in day to day life. The resurrection of Modern Hebrew is based on Classical Hebrew; new words were chosen by applying unexploited word-patterns to existing roots. When this did not suffice, new words were invented by searching biblical indexes and other Semitic dictionaries, notably Aramaic. Modern Hebrew is, in effect, a revived classical language that performs all the functions of a colloquial speech.

Every word that we utter carries the ghost of our history. Languages may change and even die, but there is something greater that transcends this evanescence. It lives in the natural cyclic rhythm of all evolving things, and there is great power and possibility in that that.



  1. My father used to quote long passages from Chaucer and when I was very young I found it very dulcet and soothing – like a lullaby – and I had no idea what he was saying. For some reason (if seven year old children possess reason) I thought he was speaking Swedish.

  2. Erika P. Herzog

    Thank U so much!!! I learned about die Helvetier in school but only briefly and did not discuss the invasion(s) that as you say had big repercussion on the linguistic and cultural. I wonder what would happened if the Keltischer tribes were not invaded by Germanics and if we would have spoken another language even Gallische?? It is interesting. I am grateful for this. Greetings from Schwyz! xx

    • My pleasure, Erika, and thank *you* for inspiring this tangent! 🙂 Historical linguistics is my thing, it combines two of my greatest passions: words and history. It is indeed fascinating to dwell on the ‘what ifs’. I often wonder what weird and wonderful tongue we’d be speaking in Britain if the Anglo-Saxons and French didn’t invade. Can you imagine, some strange Celtic-Latin hybrid! I’m delighted you enjoyed the post and do stay in touch x

  3. Helios

    Atreyu once again you’ve managed to educate me on a subject I had no idea I was so taken with! Your blogs are like a series of ‘stuff you always wanted to know but didn’t know who the hell to ask’ type articles, hehe. Great stuff, will be back for more soon!

    • D'arcy

      That made me laugh, Helios, thank you and I’m delighted you enjoyed it. Hm, perhaps I should write about why itching feels so good, always wondered about that but have no idea who to ask! 😀

  4. LHW

    “Funny peculiar and strange indeedy” I had been discussing the disappearance of cultures, languages and peoples, the changing of lands and continents, and the three languages spoken in Switzerland – just a couple o’ days ago… ( :

    • D'arcy

      Indeed, history is shaped with the bloodied chronicles of great civilisations. More’s the pity for them, but all the more fascinating for us to be able to delve deeply into our cultural history and learn. For me it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Studying the evolution of ancient languages is the closest I will ever get to a time machine.

  5. Vip

    Kudos for a fascinating article! Loved the way you laid out the information and analysis; I felt like I was reading a scroll in the ancient library of Alexandria (a magical scroll which tells of future languages like Old English…).

    Well done and greatly written!

    • D'arcy

      Aw thanks darling and what a lovely analogy, the ancient library of Alexandria! I’m delighted that you enjoyed it; there’s always a risk with a subject like linguistics to be overly dry and technical with the material so if I brought it to life for you I feel immensely gratified.

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