A bird's feather: the result of exaptation? Image from freeimages.com

Exaptation : Extreme Language Change

In 1990, linguist Roger Lass transplanted an idea from evolutionary biology to historical linguistics: exaptation.

Exaptation is the repurposing of existing elements for brand new functions. In biology, the classic example is birds’ feathers: originally believed to have developed as heat-retaining insulation, they provided a convenient basis for flight. A lucky accident, if you will. And there are plenty of instances that fit that bill in language change.

Lass’ classic example involves the development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. PIE had a system of alternating vowels (called ablaut) to mark aspect in verb stems. For instance, a present stem might show -e-, while -o- signified perfect and -ø- (zero, or no vowel) was the marker for aorist. Ancient Greek actually preserved that pattern quite well, and Lass gives the examples:

  • Present: lpo (I leave)
  • Perfect: léloipa (I have left)
  • Aorist: élipon (I left)

However, Proto-Germanic did something quite odd. Instead of using it to indicate aspect, it repurposes it to show number in the preterite tense. Look at these examples from Gothic:

  • Present: beitan (to bite)
  • Preterite 1ps: bait
  • Preterite 1pp: bitum

Considering that -a- is the Germanic reflex for PIE -o-, here, we have the same alternation – -e-, -o-, -ø- – but representing something else entirely.

An Idea with Wings?

Cross-discipline metaphors rarely fit exactly like a glove, and it’s clear this isn’t quite like feathers being exapted for flight. For a start, feathers still fulfil both functions: a cosy coat as well as flying apparatus. In general, with exaptation, we’re talking about wholesale transformation of something that had ceased (or was about to cease) to be meaningful any more. Lass called this morphological ‘junk’ initially, but this has been a source of disagreement. Just what is ‘junk’ in a language?

Still, it’s a compelling metaphor, chiefly because it gets the imagination churning. How can things change so drastically in such a short time? What does language look like while it’s changing like this? Does it happen a lot? Can we see it happening now? Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that spawn more questions.

Exaptation hasn’t gained universal acceptance as a theory just yet, some three decades on from Lass’ initial paper. Some say it just boils down to reanalysis, like many similar changes. Others maintain that it’s a very particular direction of reanalysis, so it is unique and worth a place of its own in the textbooks.

Whatever its status, it does throw up some absolutely fascinating examples of extreme change.

You can access Lass’ original 1990 article at this link!

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

Language never stands still. As learners, we study a moving target. The only constant is change.

It’s something that hits you when you learn from old textbooks. Many old, forgotten language courses still have mileage in them, especially if you like learning the nuts and bolts of grammar early on.  You do have to keep one eye on the relevancy of the language learnt, though.

For instance, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of months from a Teach Yourself Polish edition that was originally published in 1948. It’s no longer available in print, but it really suits my learning style; I’ve not found a gentler, clearer introduction to Polish grammar in anything newer.

Language reflects social change

Saying that, the world, and the vocabulary that reflects it, have changed a lot since 1948. I won’t find the Polish for computer or mobile phone in there, for example. Neither will I be able to talk about my job (developing language learning software). I can’t even talk about recent political events (what’s the Polish for Brexit or fake news?).

These sweeping and rapid changes tend to affect the content words of a language. Generally speaking, the function words – those nuts and bolts like articles, conjunctions and pronouns – are slower to change. It has taken centuries, for example, for English to whittle down the pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ to a single ‘you’.

Brave new world

However, we live in times that see status quo smashed and long-held tendencies bucked. One explanation for this may be the increasing speed of information flow through society. Social media facilitates this flow,  catalysing societal change; language, mirroring society, reveals these changes in an ever quicker pace of change.

Recent developments in Sweden, and more recently, Norway, illustrate this society-language two-step nicely. With the emergence of new gender categories such as trans and non-binary, language was left wanting. Swedish han (he) and hon (she) no longer reflected the reality many want to talk about. Broad support to plug this gap led to the adoption of a new, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. The Swedish Academy finally recognised the word in its official word list in 2015. Today, Norway’s Labour Party leads calls for the same in Norwegian, continuing a pace of language change that does not even leave function words untouched.

It’s worth noting that there is nothing truly new about gender neutrality in language. Languages like Finnish and Turkish have long lacked a marker for gender in the equivalent of he/she. The difference is that their systems, presumably, evolved over millennia of language change; Swedish and Norwegian hen have emerged in just a few years, testimony to this new world of rapid change.

Stay ahead of change

So how can the language learner cope in this world? Well, sweeping functional changes are still rare in language, despite the hen example. Changes in usage and convention can happen from generation to generation, like shifts in the Swedish use of ‘you’. Still, these changes won’t make you unintelligible (and nothing a few days in the country won’t cure!).

Otherwise, there are a few tactics you can keep in mind to protect your language skills from becoming outdated.

Be on the lookout

It is important to arm yourself with cultural awareness when using slightly older materials. With old texts, bear in mind that the political world may have shifted; my 1948 Polish course, for example, is littered with military terms, doubtlessly useful to friends and relatives of Polish service personnel settled in the UK post-war. Less useful to me, I’m aware of the vocab I can probably ignore for now.

The names of countries may even have changed; pre-1989 German materials are historical documents in themselves, attesting to a still divided country. The terms for languages themselves may be different; texts on Serbo-Croat for learning the language of Yugoslavia have been swept away in favour of separate texts on the Serbian and Croatian of now independent countries.

Actively build vocabulary

Be aware of how the world has changed; actively seek to plug gaps your learning resources. Google Translate is being updated constantly, so great for finding single terms on modern life. Use tech / computer / lifestyle magazines in the target language to mine for new terms (Readly is a useful subscription service featuring many foreign titles).

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

Read current affairs in your target language as widely as possible. Online news is (generally) a cost-free way of doing this. Here is a nice list of foreign language outlets to start with. Expose yourself constantly to the topics of the day, and note any new terms for learning. I use Evernote and Anki for adding terms to my vocab bank.

Intimidated by advanced news texts as a beginner? Some media outlets cater for learners of the language. German learners might like to try this podcast by Deutsche Welle, featuring the news of the day in deliberately slow, uncomplicated German. A similar service for Spanish learners is provided by NewsInSlowSpanish.com.

Embrace it

Finally, don’t see language change as a hindrance. Rather, be intrigued by it, and strive to follow developments in your target language country. Learning how a language has changed / is changing can increase your familiarity with both the language and the society it belongs to.

It illustrates perfectly how language should never be studied in isolation on a textbook page, but ‘in the wild’ as a living, breathing creature.

Thanks again to the brilliant NRK radio programme Språkteigen, who recently ran the story of ‘hen’ in Norway, and provided the inspiration for this post!