By James Harbeck
Languages are ever changing, mixing and mutating, and sometimes they give birth to new ones. Sanskrit gave birth to Hindi and others; Latin is ancestor to a set of languages including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian; more recently, Afrikaans came from Dutch. But how about English? What will it give birth to?
Three important factors linguists have identified in languages giving birth to other languages are time, separation, and contact. All languages change with time, as speakers innovate and economise and each generation reanalyses what it received from its forebears. This does not quickly make a new language, but it can over time; Latin went through this to become Italian, but Shakespearean English and modern English are still seen as two versions of the same language, as are Ancient Greek and modern Greek.
A language is a dialect with an army and a navy – Max Weinreich
Separation – geographical distance, cultural divergence, political independence – helps give a changed version of a language an independent identity. As Max Weinreich famously said (and linguists often repeat), a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. Political separation has allowed Danish and Norse to be distinct.
Contact with other languages is a very important force: mutual influence leads to borrowing of words and even grammatical structures. If a language’s speakers move en masse into an area where another language is spoken, there may be considerable cross-influence, and one or both languages may simplify grammar because their speakers are learning each other’s languages. Influence from Danish, Norse, and French helped Anglo-Saxon become Chaucer’s English, and French is a descendant of Latin with some influence from Celtic and Germanic languages.
Sometimes a simplified version is created for the purposes of trade, often using simplified grammar mainly from one language and adapted words from mainly from the other. This simplified version – a pidgin (the word pidgin comes from a modified version of the word business in one such trade language) – can come to be so commonly used that children grow up speaking it and flesh it out as a full all-purpose language: a creole. All languages have influence from outside their direct ancestor, but a creole is a language that really has more than one ‘parent’ and sometimes more than two. This is why some people say modern English is a creole. It is a descendant of Anglo-Saxon, but it also has substantial influence in core vocabulary and some grammar from older versions of Danish and Norse, and it has received a large part of its current vocabulary from French.
Which languages will be to English as French and Italian are to Latin?
For all that, though, we tend to think of modern English as the culmination of its history, subject at most to small changes in the future. We seldom ask about the descendants of English: which languages will be to English as French and Italian are to Latin? Or as modern English is to Anglo-Saxon?