The Evolution of Language

As this article on Forbes.com demonstrated, language is never static. It is constantly changing and evolving. But why? Why the English we speak is today different in so many ways from the English our grandparents spoke? Or the English Shakespeare spoke and wrote in?

Language evolves for a number of different reasons. One common reason is to accommodate new concepts or technology. For example, the word “Internet” didn’t exist a hundred years ago because there was no need for it. The word “touchscreen” didn’t exist until we figured out how to make computer and cell phone screens that could sense and respond to human touch.

Language also changes when the commonly understood meanings of words change over time. Sometimes, these changes happen when a new language “need” is created, but sometimes, people just abuse and twist the meaning of words until the “incorrect” word or meaning becomes the “correct” one.

The article referenced above gives several interesting examples. For example, take the word “empower.” Empower used to be strictly legal term, meaning “to give legal authority or power to.” However, over time, talk shows and self-help gurus have twisted the word so that it is commonly understood as “to make someone feel powerful.”

Another interesting example of this phenomenon is the word “literally.” Once upon a time, if you were to say something like “These guys are literally killing me,” you would mean that people were really, seriously trying to kill you-perhaps with a knife. Now, you might just mean that they are seriously giving you a hard time. When used this way, “literally” takes over the meaning of its antonym, “figuratively.” Confusing, isn’t it?

That’s why when you have material translated into another language, it is important to choose knowledgeable translators who are aware of both the “textbook meanings” of different words and the way those words are understood in common use.