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Language And The Human Essay

1118 words - 5 pages

If we were time travelers, would we be able to understand our ancestors? Would we even be speaking the same language? Important questions about the definition of a language arise when temporal shifts come into play. Where is the line between a new language, and simply a dialect? Were Shakespeare and Chaucer writing in different languages? Does Barack Obama use a different dialect than George Washington did? The deciding factor of whether a language has evolved past the point of dialectical variation is mutual intelligibility, which can apply to linguistic changes based on geography, ethnicity, and, although it is less concrete, time. But this begs an important question: how can we test ...view middle of the document...

Eventually, the speakers in one place could not understand those in another. At that point, their system was no longer a dialect of Proto-Indo-European, but rather a language in itself. If two dialects of a language change enough–because of the combination of geographic distance and time–so that the dialect from one region is not understandable by the people using the other dialect, then the two are no longer dialects of one language. Instead, they have become two entirely different languages. Although it is, for the most part, impossible to isolate geography from time, it is possible to isolate time from geography. The rule of mutual intelligibility still applies: when a language changes to the point where its modern users cannot understand its traditional texts, then the traditional language and the modern one can be considered two separate languages.
Mutual unintelligibility is not the case with the English used today as compared to the English used in the late 1770s. For example, Barack Obama and George Washington, although there may have been small discrepancies, undoubtedly would have been able to understand each other’s writing and speech. We, as students at the University of Chicago, frequently read texts written in the 1770s and before, and are able to comprehend them even if they are unabridged. English has not changed enough in the last two hundred years to constitute two separate languages.
However, when it comes to Shakespeare and Chaucer, it is difficult to say whether they would have been able to understand each other. Although the time gap between them was roughly the same as the one between Obama and Washington, there was one vital difference: the Great Vowel Shift. This vowel shift would have made it much more difficult for Shakespeare to comprehend texts written in Chaucer’s Middle English, because the words would look completely different (Goldsmith, 2014)! Modern English speakers have notable trouble reading and comprehending Chaucer’s original texts, and it is doubtful that Chaucer would have been able to understand modern English. This mutual unintelligibility is what defines Chaucer’s Middle English as a different language from modern English.
However, this brings up an important flaw in the determination. With geographic differences, it is possible to have two different dialects simultaneously, and test whether each speaker understands the other. Temporal differentiation, however, is more difficult to...

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