Language is the most important tool humanity possesses. Through it, we are able to convey ideas and relay information, allowing us to share our thoughts while building upon and refining past ideas. Without language, without this tool to relay and record concepts, we would be unable to construct the plethora of elements which compose our civilization. It is therefore no surprise that language has been developed by the various societies and civilizations across the world. While the study of language itself is a deeply fascinating endeavor, equal consideration should be given to the study of language as it pertains to individual societies and the process of development and evolution that language undertakes. Language is a reflection of a society’s culture and its perception of the world; as it relays information, it demonstrates how a certain society takes in, processes, evaluates, and conveys that information. The development of a specific language over time shows how the society or societies using it develop over time as well, as changes in cultural perspective, social composition, and political circumstances deeply impact the characteristics of a language.
As mentioned, language is a conveyer of ideas and concepts. The character of the language a certain society uses, then, reflects the way they chose to convey those ideas and concepts. One way in which this is evident is the words of which the language is composed. As it is commonly noted, for example, Eskimo languages have a plethora of words for snow and associated snow-related concepts. Because snow is such an important part of the Eskimo way of life and a common element in their environment, they devised a language which incorporated heavily the concept of snow. Other languages, such as the one this post is being written in, does not share that diversity in words about snow. As such, I will be unable to convey an equal amount of information about snow through this language, or at least not be able to do so with the ease the Eskimo language allows. Another example: in the German language, the word schadenfreude conveys the idea of taking pleasure in watching another person fail. While this concept can be equally conveyed in the English language, it cannot be done so in a single word. Through the development of their society, the German people felt such a concept warranted a single word that could convey it. There is a greater ease of conveyance of that concept in German than in English, allowing that language to succeed greater in relaying information that the society utilizing it deemed valuable. Again, this demonstrates the relative importance of a certain idea in one society against its importance in another society, as reflected by the language those societies use.
Another way in which the character of a language reflects on the society using it is through the syntax of that language. Words are not the only way of conveying ideas and concepts; the way those concepts and ideas are arraigned in a thought and relayed is equally important in demonstrating their importance to a specific society. One of the most apparent demonstrations in this can be seen in the way a language arranges its adjectives and nouns. Most Romance languages follow the rule of “noun then adjective,” where the noun being described by the adjective precedes the adjective. A greater weight is given to the concept of the noun than is given to the adjective describing it, and this is reflected in the fact that the noun must be said first. A descriptor cannot be given until the thing it is describing is first made apparent, a reflection on the way societies using Romance languages chose to process and convey information. In the English language, however, the inverse is true: adjectives precede nouns. Information is processed not by first recognizing and acknowledging the noun, but by its descriptive characteristics. This is a different way of processing and conveying information than the Romance language, and again therefore reflects differences between societies using the different languages in processing ideas.
The evolution and development of a language, a study known as etymology, allows a fascinating look into a society’s changing circumstances and evolving perceptions. Language of course evolves: the languages which exist in the contemporary period are markedly different from the languages which existed in the past, yet evolved out of those past languages. Indeed, most languages can be traced back to a single progenitor language; for example, the numerous Romance languages can trace their roots back to Latin, itself a language of Italic roots, while Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, because of their strikingly similar script system and tonal nature, can also be traced back to a common ancestral language. The fact that these languages then all changed shows that the societies which used the progenitor language divided, split, and then divergently evolved in the ways that they process, evaluate, and convey information.
Language is equally a reflection of political circumstances, and the evolution of language demonstrates the changing of those circumstances. English, for example, is an odd amalgam of German and French. It owes this nature to the political events which created it: the British Isles were populated by the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic speaking people, when invaded in 1066 by William the Conqueror of Normandy. William was the vassal of the King of France and therefore spoke French, and upon his conquest of the Anglo-Saxons French became the language of administration on the Isles. Yet, over time, the French language of the nobility blended with the Germanic of the common population, gradually creating the English language which we now use today. To further demonstrate this point, Romance languages are now spoken across Western Europe because they trace their roots to Latin, which was spread across Western Europe by the conquests of the Romans. Earlier languages native to France, Spain, Italy, and Romania died out and replaced by this common tongue, leading to the relative commonality of the Romance languages in the contemporary day. A final example: English is now one of the most commonly spoken languages across the world, and is the language of business, science, and diplomacy. It is more often than not necessary for someone to learn English if they hope to participate meaningfully in international happenings. This can be attributed to the success of the United States as the military, diplomatic, and economic hegemon over the last century, creating the necessity for people to speak its language if they wished to interact with it.
Language can therefore be seen as not only an important tool to convey information, but as a reflection on the societies that use it. The particular choice of words which compose a language and the syntax through which that language is conveyed demonstrates the way a society perceives its environment and relays information about it. By studying a society’s language deeply, then, a greater understanding can be formed of that society itself. Equally true is the fact that the changing nature of language is a reflection of the changing circumstances in which a society finds itself. By tracing the development and changes that occur in a language, another route can be equally traced which reveals the development and changes which occur in the society using it. Language is, again, our most important tool and is one of the most commonly shared elements of civilization across the world. Indeed, it seems almost as if the development and use of language is an innate human characteristic. As such, studying it is one of the most profound and revealing ways that we can understand the people of our world.