The Evolution of Languages

If you’re familiar with any Romance language, then you’re familiar with the concept of gendered nouns. Each noun is assigned a gender; which can be masculine, feminine, or neuter (although some languages have dropped the neuter gender); which changes how its accompanying adjectives are declined and what pronouns are used to refer to it. Things can get interesting when a noun that refers to a person doesn’t reflect the gender of the person.

For example, the Latin word for farmer is agricola. Agricola, despite being in the first declension group of nouns (which are mostly feminine), is a masculine noun. Because of its grammatical gender it would be grammatically correct to use masculine adjectives and pronouns to refer to any farmer even if they’re female. Some Latin nouns could be either masculine or feminine depending on the gender of the person they described, which is a concept many of its successors have expanded on. French, for example, has masculine and feminine versions of many nouns that describe people. However, what does one do when they are referring to somebody whose gender isn’t known? This question has been a hot topic in French circles in recent years:

Paris (AFP) – Moves to make French more female-friendly have sparked impassioned debate in France, with an appalled Academie Francaise warning of a “mortal danger” to the language of Moliere.

At the centre of the debate is the growing use of formulations such as “lecteur.rice.s” for the word “readers” to embrace both genders.


But the school textbook referring to farmers as “agriculteur.rice.s” and shop owners as “commercant.e.s” — complete with a new punctuation mark called the “middle dot” at the level of a hyphen — sparked particular rage among French language purists.

I find it amusing that people who speak a bastardized version of Latin are worried about purity but I digress.

Language is one of my favorite topics to study. Since languages evolve spontaneously they becoming friction points. Different groups of individuals have different views on how languages should evolve. French is subject to these arguments more frequently than most other languages because there is an organization, the Academie Francaise, that attempts to control the evolution of the language. Whenever popular culture decides French should evolve in some manner the members of the Academie Francaise are there to bitch about how that evolution is unacceptable.

One side effect of the spontaneous nature of language evolution is that one can often get a feel for the concerns of many of a language’s speakers by looking at the most recent evolutions. Gender, for example, has become a larger concern in the United States and Europe. This has reflected in the predominant languages of those regions by the introduction of new words and, in the case of languages with gendered nouns, new grammatical rules.

Ultimately these changes will contribute to the languages changing so much that today’s speakers won’t be capable of comprehending speakers of the future. What is even more fascinating in my opinion though is that these changes will contribute to today’s languages splitting off into multiple other languages. In a way our concerns and disagreements can become so polarizing that we literally cease to speak the same language.