Life or Death: What a Language Needs to Survive

By Ryan Goodrich
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Humans are the only species that have evolved an advanced system of communication which we use between individuals. Other animals, on the other hand, communicate through ritualized or repetitive songs, calls or gestures. We have created a linguistic system which integrates verbal and bodily signals to convey a virtually infinite number of thoughts, and have invented such tools as vocabulary software and training to further our ability to communicate.

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The Ability to Adapt

Language is an adaptation, a product of thousands of years of evolution. And it's an adaptation that allows even further adaptation. For example, improved communication between individuals can be needed for different scenarios in life. Our ancestral hunters needed to be able to convey local hunting conditions, potential food supplies or even the weather. This way, only one member needed to encounter a problem and convey that information to others to prevent them from having to rediscover the fact themselves.

Darwinian

Language is much like animal evolution or Darwinian’s idea of “survival of the fittest.” Only the fittest language, the most capable of evolving to meet the changing needs of its audience, will ultimately survive. The English language is one such example, containing the traits needed to continuously evolve and adapt to the world’s needs. Through history, England has been both conquered and influenced by surrounding cultures, and likewise it has spread its own sphere of influence throughout the world. In the process, the English language has adapted itself to a wildly diverse audience. Additionally, modern English boasts countless structures, grammatical elements and odd pronunciations, enough to baffle most anyone, many of which have been adopted from German, French, Spanish and countless other languages.

Some languages are not flexible enough to survive against the influence of others. Also, It is possible through isolation to create unique branches of language. But the survival of those languages is quite difficult because isolation is no longer truly possible in today’s world. The internet connects almost every nation to information that transcends every language. As isolation is no longer a way to keep a unique language alive, language survival now comes down to how many people speak the language and continue to speak it, even as it evolves.

Permanent Elements

While a language needs to maintain some flexibility to allow a Darwinian form of evolution, a language still cannot change too drastically or too quickly. Even language has taken thousands of years to reach the final dialects we now hear in today’s world. Here are three characteristics of language that allow it to be preserved, even through changes:

  • Wholeness. The language must function as a whole rather than a collection of independent parts. Each element of a language must be able to work in tandem with others to form a cohesive and coherent dialect.
  • Transformation. This means the language is not static, but capable of change. For example, new grammatical elements can enter the language system, but they’ll still be governed by the old rules.
  • Self-Regulation. This is somewhat related to the idea of transformation, in that you can add elements to the language, but you can’t change the basic structure of it no matter what is added. This ensures that the language at least remains consistent at a foundational level.
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