The development of natural languages follows clearly discernible processes which, contrary to the claim by Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel, in no way resemble the concept of biological evolution. The changes that have occurred in the Indo-European language family, for example, demonstrate that languages follow a 'downhill' simplification in inflections, etc. by natural processes. The huge 'uphill' growth of languages in their vocabulary and expressiveness only comes about through human intelligent input. Thus, the changes observed in language development are quite different to the processes proposed for biological evolution, so any analogy is completely unfounded.
Modern popular presenters of biological evolution do not often make a comparison between it and the development of natural languages, although such prominent figures as Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin did so.1 A recent book by Robert T. Pennock2 presents such a comparison anew with the claim that this is quite significant-the book has been highly praised for this by some evolutionists.
The basic idea, as presented by Pennock, is that all languages have descended from 'a single original language (or perhaps a few)'3 and languages have developed through gradual uniform changes:
'Even though the record of transitional sequences is quite incomplete, the evidence taken together clearly supports the thesis that the different linguistic kinds we now observe arose through gradual transformation from earlier, ancestral forms'. 4
Also, the processes involved are supposed to be naturalistic and undesigned:
'[Natural] languages … developed into and from one another over time, through piecemeal construction and unplanned transformations. … Though not perfectly Darwinian, this ongoing transformation is clearly an evolutionary process and a close analogy to biological evolution in its most significant aspects'. 5
Pennock makes several references to the Indo-European language family (defined below) to support his claims.
This paper presents an overview of the most important kinds of change which have happened within the Indo-European language family, and shows that the comparison of language development with biological evolution is completely invalid. No previous knowledge concerning the development of languages is presumed, and it is hoped that the paper will remove some popular misconceptions about the history of some of the major European languages.6
Emphasis is placed on the Indo-European language family for three reasons:
Several of the languages of this family will be familiar to many readers;
This family is a good representative for the most important kinds of changes that have happened universally; and
Most popular presentations by evolutionists have been based on examples from this family (including by Darwin).
Note that there is no attempt in this paper to give a detailed examination of the biblical account of the confusion of tongues at Babel or the dispersal of the various peoples thereafter; neither is there a study of the evolutionary theories concerning the origin of language itself.7 Rather, the paper will only concentrate on the important changes which have occurred within languages and the proposed comparison with biological evolution.
It is appropriate to summarize here the main arguments of the paper concerning the kinds of change which have happened:
Natural or undesigned processes of change have only caused simplification or loss of internal structure in languages.
All growth of languages or increase of their complexity is a result of conscious and intelligent input, including design in several cases.
The massive crosscurrents between languages (borrowings of various kinds8) are an enormous factor in their histories, and have no analogy in classical biological evolution.
Great changes in some major languages have mainly happened in several short periods, which is much faster than commonly supposed.
The languages of the world have been classified genetically, and languages appearing to have a common origin have been grouped together into a family. In this paper we shall concentrate on the Indo-European9 (IE) language family which consists of a large number of languages. All are presumed to have descended from a single common ancestor language known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE).
Languages have been included within the IE family not only because of the huge number of similarities between particular words, but also because of the regularity of correspondences in sound and morphology.10 To demonstrate this, Table 1 gives the verbal forms of the verb 'to bear' in several older languages of the IE family (with the archaic English forms used to show further similarity).11 Similarity in inflexions is stronger evidence of common origin than common vocabulary, as words are easily borrowed and assimilated, but it is rare for whole morphological systems to be borrowed from one language into another.
Figure 1 gives a standard diagram of some of the major IE languages in a family-tree style. This model is useful for gaining a basic overview of the IE languages, but it is widely considered to be inadequate and deceptive in a number of ways. It ignores the multitude of dialects12 which have existed, and thus omits very many branches. Most importantly, there have been many occurrences of massive borrowing by one language from another, so in terms of vocabulary there should be, for example, a very thick line from French to English and also one from Latin to English, as we shall see below.
To account for the initial divergence of the branches of the family, Johannes Schmidt proposed in 1872 his Wave Theory (Wellentheorie), according to which
'changes begin in a specific geographic area and spread out concentrically from that point like waves created when a pebble is dropped into a pool'.13
'The extent of the spread then depends on the extent of the intercourse between neighbouring areas. This theory is probably a simplification of the facts, but is unquestionably nearer the truth than the “family tree” theory'.14
This wave theory has no parallel in biological evolution, since living creatures do not pass on acquired modifications to other living creatures near them in such waves. So we see immediately a major problem with Pennock's proposed comparison.
Note that even if the family tree diagram happened to represent an accurate picture of the development of the IE languages, it would not necessarily represent the physical descent of the speakers of these languages accurately. Many peoples have adopted another language (e.g. the Normans15). Also, a huge number of people around the world whose native language is English do not have predominantly Anglo-Saxon ancestry.
Whatever the correct details of the origin of all the IE languages may be, the enormous number of related words and morphological similarities still show that all of these languages must have some form of common descent.16
This section examines some of the many known phonetic transformations (sound changes) which have occurred within the IE languages, and the relevant implications. These transformations are amongst the most important changes which have created significant differences between related languages.
The Germanic17 languages are widely presumed to have descended from the so-called Proto-Germanic language. English is a West Germanic language, which means that all its basic vocabulary and grammar have descended from Proto-Germanic. The famous Grimm's Law (or the First Germanic Sound Shift) was first described in 1818 by the Dane Erasmus Rask, and then formalized in 1822 by the German Jacob Grimm (of fairytale fame). This law explains how the consonants of the whole Germanic group consistently shifted from those of PIE. This transformation occurred more than two thousand years ago. Table 2 gives a simplified presentation of some of the consonantal shifts which occurred, using Latin and English words. Latin words approximately represent the original PIE consonants, while English cognates18 approximately represent the consonants of Proto-Germanic.19 It is very important to understand that these English words have not descended from Latin (or vice versa), but that the members of each pair of words share a common source. Indeed, the fact that a shifting has occurred, shows that the English words have not been directly borrowed from Latin.
The dialects of the German language can be divided into two groups according to the geography of Germany: Low, in the low-lying plains of the north, and High in the higher land of the centre and south. The effects of the shift described by Grimm's Law were present in all the German dialects. But within the approximate period AD 500-700,20 most of the consonants of the High German dialects again shifted consistently, the change having arisen 'in the south in the alpine area, presumably as the result of contact with speakers of other languages'.21 This is called the High German Sound Shift (or the Second Germanic Sound Shift). High German later spread its influence to become Modern Standard German (with Luther's Bible translation playing a significant role). The Low German dialects, as well as Dutch and English, did not undergo this shift. Table 3 demonstrates the shift by listing some modern West Germanic words. The consonants of English and Dutch clearly match, while the German consonants have shifted consistently.
During the Great Vowel Shift of English, which occurred between about AD 1400 and 1600, the long vowels of English shifted to their current pronunciation in England. This is why the long vowels in lā, lēn and līn are now pronounced in English approximately as in lay, lean and line, respectively, while in most Continental European languages these are still pronounced approximately as in lah, lane and lean, respectively.
The spoken form of Latin which was widespread in the Roman Empire is known as Vulgar Latin, which differed from the literary Classical Latin in that many slang words were used and the word endings were simplified. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the dialects of Vulgar Latin developed to become the separate Romance languages22 and once again, the phonetic divergence involved consistent patterns of shifting. Table 4 lists some Latin words and their French, Italian and Spanish derivatives, showing just a few of the shifts.
Many other laws for phonetic transformations within the IE languages have been developed, and one book indeed lists 41 phonetic laws for IE languages!23 These transformations have led, in fact, to some of the most distinguishing characteristics of the different branches of the IE family (e.g. the 'soft' palatalized consonants in the Slavic languages).
A different kind of divergence occurs when the accentuation of words changes. The Classical Latin demonstrative pronoun ille, illa, illud ('that') developed to become the definite article ('the') in the Romance forms. The different forms have arisen from the way the Latin words were accented in the different regions. For example, in the case of the Latin ille ('that,' masc.), the French le came from the second syllable while the Italian il and the Spanish el came from the first syllable.
All these transformations cannot increase the inherent complexity of a language. If distinct sounds are merged or sounds are dropped, then simplification occurs. The reasons why such shifts have occurred are not always clear, but it is certain that they have happened often, in relatively short times (about 200 years each for the Great Vowel and High German shifts), and the number of speakers does not have to be small. This shows that it is quite plausible that earlier divergences from PIE happened easily and rather quickly. Also, one key evolutionary idea is that major change is a result of haphazard naturalistic processes, and Pennock compares natural language to a 'jerry-built jumble'.24 But phonetic shifting is a major process which is unconscious and undesigned, yet is still very regular.
A universally observed phenomenon of all language families is that inflexional morphology10 has simplified over time. The history of the IE family overwhelmingly illustrates this. Theoretical reconstruction suggests that PIE had three genders, eight noun cases and three verbal aspects.25 The evolutionary model is at a complete loss to explain why or how the complicated case system of PIE came into being. In this section, we will examine various simplifications which have occurred, and their causes.
Synthetic languages are those in which several grammatical units tend to be composed into one word, and inflexions (word endings) are used to indicate the grammatical relationships between the words. For example, Classical Greek, Classical Latin and the ancient Indian language Sanskrit are all synthetic. In contrast, analytic languages are those in which each basic grammatical unit is usually expressed by a single word, and word order is very important for the conveying of the meaning.26 Modern English is very analytic, so in the clause 'the boy loves the girl', for example, swapping the two nouns would change the meaning of the sentence completely.
Over time, synthetic languages have become more analytic, with the effect that inflexional morphology has repeatedly been simplified.
'Fixed word-order began to appear within the inflected languages simply as a result of growing orderliness of thought.27 Relating particles were at the same time added to inflected words wherever the inflexional meaning was vague. After word-order had acquired functional value, and the more precise relating-words were current, related endings lost their importance, and would become assimilated, slurred, and dropped, from the natural tendency of speakers to trouble themselves over no more speech-material than is needed to convey their thought'.28
The very free word-order found in Classical Latin and Greek literature (in which related words in a sentence can be separated by a long distance!) is very artificial. It is widely believed that the word-order used in speech, even during the Classical period, was rather close to that of modern analytic languages. 'We do not know the exact nature of the word-order which Cicero used when bawling out to his slave; but there can be little doubt that it was as fixed as that of colloquial Italian'. 29
Another cause of language simplification is the tendency to drop inflexions to facilitate communication when two peoples speaking similar languages mix. Anyone who has tried to speak a foreign language (or hears a foreigner speak their own language) knows that the word endings are the most easily confused or omitted elements of the words. The earliest form of English, known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon (c. AD 450-1150), was highly inflected, with three genders and several cases. Within the approximate period AD 800-1000, there were many Scandinavian invasions into England, and for a while most of NE England was ruled by Danes and this area was known as the 'Danelaw'. The language spoken by the invaders is known as Old Norse (from which modern Danish, Swedish, etc. have descended), and was similar to Old English in many ways, being also a Germanic language. Because of the mixing of these peoples whose languages had similarities, the inflexions of Old English were worn down.30
This shows that language change can happen rather quickly under certain external social conditions, and greater simplification results from greater interaction. In contrast, isolated languages seem to simplify more slowly. For example, the Icelandic language is still very inflected (with four cases) and has changed little since the Old Norse of c. 900 AD, because of the isolation of its speakers.31 This is the opposite of what is proposed for biological evolution: '… from what we know of evolutionary mechanisms, speciation events are likely to occur in isolated populations, and competition will quickly eliminate the less fit of closely similar forms'.32
The many inflexions of PIE have only simplified or disappeared in its descendants. For example, counting numbers of cases, Classical Latin had six, Modern German has four and the Romance languages have none. The only noun inflexion preserved in Modern English is the possessive ending ''s' which is a survival of the common Germanic masculine singular genitive case ending.33 This was the chief way of expressing possession in Old English, so the Old English version of Matthew 12:42 (with modernized words) is 'Southland's queen … came from earth's ends to hear Solomon's wisdom'.34 The alternative analytic possessive construction the queen of the South, etc. is thought to have arisen in English through French influence.35 For the verse just quoted, Wycliffe already uses 'of' forms in his 14>century English translation of the Bible.
The grammatical gender of nouns has been completely eliminated from English. The Romance languages have lost the Classical Latin neuter gender, while Dutch, Danish and Swedish have merged masculine and feminine to form the common gender.
In summary, natural processes have only caused languages to become more analytic over time and caused inflexional morphology to be simplified. English grammar is the greatest example of the effects of these processes. All evidence strongly suggests that there was a complex beginning for the language families of the world (not just for the IE family, in fact). Thus the evolutionary model has an enormous problem in that it postulates a gradual transition from simple to complex, yet the observed processes are always going the wrong way.
The following three sections examine the main ways that languages have grown, and show that these are certainly not the product of naturalistic processes.
Word formation is a very common way of creating new words within a language. The two main kinds of word formation are compounding, which involves joining simple words together (e.g. 'sun-light', 'up-right'), and derivation, which involves adding affixes (prefixes, suffixes or infixes) to existing words (e.g. 'e-volu-t-ion'). Compounds seem to have always been a significant feature of IE languages. Compounds like 'whitehouse' were apparently even a common feature of PIE.36
The multitude of compounds and derivatives in English is amazing. The native Germanic root bear has given over 40 derivatives in English and the Latin root ced/cess- (meaning 'to go') has given over 80 derivatives (mostly borrowed from Latin). 'We share with French our most elaborate derivative in-com-pre-hen-s-ib-il-it-y, with its root 'hen' and its eight affixes and infixes'. 37 The invention of new compounds continues in modern times. Philosophers indulge in such specimens as 'the in-ness of a one-ship which fills the us-dom with anti-ty'.38
As one writer has pointed out,39 English has become very analytic in its grammar but very synthetic in its vocabulary because of the abundance of compounds and derivatives! That is, the internal structure of the words themselves is complex, and is certainly the product of much human intelligence and design, not naturalistic processes.
Another very important way in which a language grows is by semantic modification of existing words. The meanings of most words in many languages have changed greatly during their history.
Narrowing of meaning has often occurred. For example, the English word 'starve' was the usual general word for 'to die' in Old English but was displaced by the Scandinavian word 'die'; thenceforth 'starve' narrowed its meaning. Similarly, the English word 'deer' was originally the general word for 'animal'.40
Abstract words form the bulk of the vocabulary of major modern languages like English. Although languages have several native words which express simple abstract concepts literally (e.g. the native Germanic English words 'love', 'live', 'feel', 'think'), the most common way of forming abstract words is by metaphorical extension of existing words.
The renowned English etymologist Ernest Weekley wrote:
'Every expression which we employ, apart from those that are connected with the most rudimentary objects and actions, is a metaphor, though the original meaning has been dulled by constant use. Thus, in the above sentence, expression means what is “squeezed out”, to employ is to “twine in” like a basket-maker, to connect is to “weave together”, rudimentary means “in the rough state”, and an object is something “thrown in our way”'.41
Note that all of the words just listed were borrowed into English from Latin (some through French) and they already had their metaphorical senses in Latin-no change of meaning occurred in the borrowing.
By the use of such abstract compounds, Greek and Latin were developed to great complexity of expression. There is hardly an abstract concept or thought which cannot be expressed clearly in these classical languages-much philosophical writing was in Greek. A similar phenomenon occurred in Old English, in which very many abstract words were formed by compounds of native Germanic words, instead of by borrowings from Latin.42
Compound abstracts involve two design aspects: the construction of the compound and the semantic extension to a metaphor. The metaphorical senses were obviously originally designed consciously (though naturally), so human intelligence has played a significant part.
Slang mostly consists of colloquial metaphor. A very large number of slang words in Vulgar Latin became the proper word for a common object in the Romance languages. A popular example is the Classical Latin word testa which meant an earthenware pot.43 In Vulgar Latin testa became a slang word for 'head' and finally became the normal word for 'head' in French, now spelt tete.44 Yet again, the development of slang meanings is a result of human intelligence (often subtle or sarcastic). The later transition of a word from a slang meaning to a formal meaning may not be very conscious, but the initial slang senses of words are used quite deliberately.
A final illustration of the huge number of semantic extensions which have occurred in English is the word 'stock'. The Oxford English Dictionary gives 65 different meanings of this word (with very many sub-senses)!
In summary, the great growth by semantic extension of existing words is obviously a product of human intelligence alone.
A major theme of this paper which cannot be overemphasized is that borrowing has played a huge role in the growth of the major IE languages. In this section we will briefly examine some important kinds of borrowings which have taken place in history. Once again, these all involve conscious and intelligent input.
English supplies the greatest example of large-scale borrowing. As a result of the Scandinavian invasions mentioned earlier, English borrowed a large number of Old Norse words.45 But the Scandinavian influence on English is small compared with the French influence. For almost three centuries after the Norman Conquest of England, two languages were spoken in England: French at the court and in the upper classes, and English by the common people. All the kings of England in this period spoke French as their first language! Many people were bilingual, and English consequently borrowed a huge number of French words.
The next stage in English borrowing consists of the very interesting 'learned' borrowings. The Romance languages lost the bulk of the Latin abstract words when society went into the Dark Ages. The mediaeval vernacular languages (such as the various dialects of English, French and German at that time) lacked the necessary vocabulary for discussion of abstract questions (e.g. in theology), so Latin was used predominantly.
However, towards the end of the Middle Ages, writers started to borrow abstract words from Latin into their respective vernacular languages (and later from Greek, particularly for scientific and medical terms). After a while the vernacular languages were enlarged greatly by such 'learned' borrowings on a massive scale, though many writers still used Latin because they had a contempt for the 'Latinization' of the vernacular languages.46
The entry of these Latin words is sometimes called learned transmission. The 'native' words in the Romance languages have descended naturally from Vulgar Latin by popular transmission, which involves the particular phonetic shifts peculiar to each Romance language.47 But 'in contrast to popular transmission, learned transmission is instantaneous, voluntary, and modifies the orthography and pronunciation of the Latin word as minimally as possible'. 48
Doublets are two words from the same source which enter a language in different forms at different times. Each of the Romance languages has a large number of doublets, because the one Latin word has descended naturally by popular transmission, and then entered again later by learned transmission. As English has borrowed many French words and also their Latin originals, English has many of these Romance doublets, some of which are shown in Table 5.
One can view the vocabulary of English as consisting very roughly of several 'strata':
West Germanic native words,
Scandinavian and then
French words from the successive invasions,49
learned Latin and Greek words, and finally
modern borrowings from areas all round the world.
A very significant fact is that the Latin words in the learned stratum are in an older form than their popularly transmitted French derivatives, which are in the stratum below! Similar layering structures occur in other modern IE languages. This emphasizes that the picture of language history is very complex and not like a simple family tree with gradual divergence along separating lines.
A calque50 or loan-translation is a borrowing of a compound word from another language where each component is translated into native words and then joined together. While English and the Romance languages have borrowed most Latin words in their original form more or less, some other languages abound with calques, of which German is a prime example.51 Table 6 lists some German compounds and gives the literal meanings of their components and their English translations, which themselves are borrowings from Latin. For these English words the Latin components match the German components exactly in meaning. Similar calques occur in many other languages, including many in Classical Latin, derived from Classical Greek. All these calques emphasize the large role which intelligent design has played in the history of languages-calques obviously involve even more conscious design than direct borrowings.
Note that significant borrowing from Latin had already occurred long before the period of learned borrowings. For example, early Germanic tribes borrowed Latin words extensively from the Romans because of trade and similar kinds of contact. As a result, the German language has a surprisingly large number of very 'German-looking' words which happen to be Latin words borrowed early and which later underwent the High German Shift52 (and must be distinguished from later learned borrowings and calques). One author lists 89 such German words which were borrowed in this early period from the Romans!53
Since the Middle Ages, there has also been large-scale borrowing into the major IE languages from many languages around the world, not just from other European languages. Borrowing also follows cultural development closely: most musical terms have been borrowed from Italian into all languages, while several shipping words have been borrowed from Dutch into English,54 as the Dutch were masters of sailing.
In summary, extremely few words are coined anew, without being based on something previously existing.55 All the major IE languages in Europe grew enormously in their size and scope by borrowing from Latin and Greek (whether literally or through calques), and this growth was parallel to the great cultural developments during the Renaissance and the Reformation. That is, this massive growth was a product of intelligent input alone, and was certainly not a result of gradual naturalistic development within each language independently.
Loss of vocabulary
Loss of vocabulary has often occurred within languages. 'A large proportion of the rich Old English vocabulary is gone [from Modern English]. Estimates vary; most assume that between 65 percent and 85 percent of the Old English lexicon has been lost since Old English times'.56 The massive replacement of Classical Latin words by slang equivalents in Vulgar Latin, which became permanent in the Romance languages, is another example of a great loss.
Loss of vocabulary may seem to be like natural selection, but is only a loss. Also, many of the causes of loss are not due to 'utilitarian fitness' (as postulated by biological evolution). Some of these causes are: abrupt displacement by the language of invaders, one synonym gaining the ascendancy over others and changes in culture or fashion.
Creationists have repeatedly criticized the theory of evolution because of the lack of intermediate fossil forms. Pennock claims that intermediate forms have been extensively inferred within language families so that, by analogy, theoretical inference of intermediate forms is reasonable within biological evolution.57
However, very large numbers of intermediate forms have actually been found for earlier forms of languages such as the Romance and Germanic languages (from German inscriptions and written records), and this has been a huge factor in the construction of the early histories of these languages.58 On the other hand, the etymologies of very many words are still disputed. Unless the history of a word's spellings and uses is well documented, or good regular phonetic laws are shown to apply, etymology is just guesswork.59
Furthermore, there is a much greater objection to this supposed analogy. Even the greatest change of one word to another involves only a small number of letters, so postulated intermediate words hardly differ from the known words. Yet the intermediate forms which have been proposed for biological evolution bridge enormous gaps and involve millions of items of change at the biochemical level, so the comparison is unfair.
The speed of language change
This section briefly examines some of the factors involved in the speed of language change. The use of writing and the consequent literacy of a people greatly retards language change. Political factors have often caused one dialect to dominate an area and then become a more stable standard language. The standardization of spelling and pronunciation, and its enforcement in education, also reduces change. It is hard to appreciate how greatly pronunciation has changed in rather short periods. The Great Vowel Shift of English mentioned above, which took about 200 years, changed English so much that the English spoken before the shift would be incomprehensible to most of us. The High German Shift also took only about 200 years.
One author writes:
We thus see that because of the lack of the various stabilizing influences in the earlier periods, it is very reasonable to suppose that the IE language family has developed since Babel to its present state within the biblical range of about four thousand years.
In fact, there is a very great problem here for evolutionary chronology: it is impossible that the highly inflected PIE could have been spoken for many thousands of years without change, so its origin cannot be more than a small number of thousands of years ago. Thus, how did it suddenly arise with all its complexity? To suggest that it arose by gradual increase in complexity is utterly against the evidence, as noted in the section on simplification of inflexions. In contrast, it is reasonable to suggest that the original morphological complexity of languages like PIE was divinely designed at the Tower of Babel.
Finally, we can easily see the many flaws in the following statement of the Christian astronomer John Herschel in 1837, which Pennock gleefully quotes with approval:
Indeed, we must not, and need not, impugn the Scripture chronology, nor apply some liberal interpretation to it! These specified periods of years have produced vast amounts of changes in these languages! As we have also seen, very many words we use daily are not 'battered relics' but have been carefully constructed or borrowed according to various patterns. In fact, because of spelling reforms, the actual forms of most words we now use are only a few hundred years old! Furthermore, selecting two of these languages belonging to different families, there is no evidence that there ever was a common origin of German and Hebrew!62
We have seen that in languages there has been a great 'downhill' simplification in inflexions, etc. by natural processes, while the huge 'uphill' growth of languages in their vocabulary and expressiveness has only come about through intelligent human input. These kinds of change are quite different to the processes proposed by biological evolution, so any analogy is completely unfounded.
I would like to thank both Dr Noel Weeks and Dr Pieter Honkoop for reading a draft version of this paper and for several helpful suggestions.
Allan K. Steel obtained a B.A. (Hons) degree and University Medal in Pure Mathematics from the University of Sydney. He has been a researcher in pure mathematics and computer science for over eight years, in the areas of computer algebra and cryptography. He has a good knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German and French, plus a basic knowledge of five other European languages. He has privately studied the history and etymology of several Indo-European languages, especially English. Return to top.
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