Evolving Human Languages and the Process of Grammaticalization

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language doesn’t just wear away into a pile of dust. Part of the reason is that sounds, not only wear away, but they also change. Why is it that things don’t just wear away but some of it changes, and after a while, what’s being changed wears away, too?

A painting known as the Tower of Babel depicting the origins of language.
From the ancient times, there are many stories which give an account of how languages have always evolved with new words and meanings. (Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder/Public domain)

‘Grammaticalization’

Languages always build themselves back by creating new words. It’s a process, called grammaticalization which has been discussed in linguistics extensively for the past 25 years. How language changes is that it is always developing new material at the same time that it’s losing.

There are two primary classes of words, concrete words and grammatical words. Concrete words refer to objects, actions, concepts, or traits that any of those have. They are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, for example: man, happiness, run, overrate, red, distraught, quickly. The grammatical words relate the concrete words to each other. For example, they situate a statement into time or space, or convey an attitude. “The man didn’t even come to the building,” even is an attitude. Grammatical words are: prepositions, articles, conjunctions, interjections, auxiliaries.

Lean more about the building of new words and constructions.

Words from Concrete to Grammatical

A fundamental process in how a language changes, is words that start as concrete ones and become grammatical ones. It’s one thing to say, “Adam and/or Eve said, that thing is called a zebra.” But how would that process apply to coming up with something like but, as in “No ifs, ands, or buts”? There’s nothing to point to call it and is hard to talk about it if there’s not a word for it. Those words come from concrete words changing into grammatical ones over time.

Picture of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure was one of the linguists who worked on study of languages. (“F. Jullien Genève”, maybe Frank-Henri Jullien (1882–1938)/Public domain)

A classic example of this is the French negative marker pas. In French, “Il ne marche pas,” ne and pas are both negative. “He doesn’t walk,” “He not walk not.” “Il ne marche pas.” Where did that come from? It used to be, pas meaning step, and it still does in expressions like pas de deux. But, there’s another meaning of pas. French was more normal in terms of negation, putting a negative word before the verb. In Spanish, “Yo no hablo,” “I don’t speak.” No is just there, there’s no pas. In earlier French, it was just, “He doesn’t walk,” “Il ne marche,” and pas had nothing to do with it. Pas came in for a very specific reason to add a little paprika to the statement. “He doesn’t eat,” “Il ne mange,” as simple as that. “He doesn’t eat a crumb,” “Il ne mange mie.” “He doesn’t drink,” “Il ne boit.” “He doesn’t drink a drop,” “Il ne boit goutte.” Doing just that was a way of exaggerating or making a negative expression colorful.

Colorful Expression

Something started to happen. Generally, there was a colorful expression in a language and over time its punch started to disintegrate. For example, when people started saying awesome, it generally referred to something truly amazing. It referred to, say, Star Wars, because the special effects at the time were fantastic. Nowadays, people use awesome to refer to scrambled eggs. That’s because that word has diluted in meaning which is normal. Peachy keen, people used to say with a straight face to mean something that was really special. Then, it became something that was nice, gradually stopping to not being said at all. To say that something was lame in the 1960s and 1970s, was awful. Now, kids use lame just to mean the chair has a spot on it. That is what happens to expressions.

Learn more about how the meaning of a word changes over time.

Negative Expressions

Picture displaying a stack of foreign language books, including a French book.
There is a difference in writing and speaking French. (Oleksiy Mark/Shutterstock)

French negative expressions lost their mojo as time went by. Expressions like, “He’s not going to eat a crumb,” “He’s not going to drink a drop,” tended to drop away. But, with pas, it started weakening. So to say, “Il ne marche pas,” used to mean, “He’s not going to walk a step.” It weakened to the point that saying “Il ne marche pas” was just saying, “He’s not going to walk,” and the whole notion of emphasis started to go away.

Gradually it reached the point that the pas didn’t feel like it meant step anymore. Soon there was a generation who felt that “Il ne marche pas” meant the same thing as “Il ne marche.” That’s a grammaticalization where step is concrete and pas is a grammatical word.

This is a transcript from the video series Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Difference in Written and Spoken French

In modern French, there’s a difference between written French and the way it is spoken. In a French-speaking situation, one can’t walk around always using the ne. One of the fastest things to learn is, it’s not, “Il ne boit pas,” “He doesn’t drink,” it’s “Il boit pas.” That means if French was transcribed the way it’s actually spoken, people would think pas was the only negative marker: “Il boit pas,” “The way to make a negative is to put pas at the end.” That is the process of grammaticalization.

Learn more about how language change takes place in many directions.

Origin of Words

It’s something that doesn’t only happen in Europe, or with written languages, or to languages spoken by certain people but it happens all over the place. For example, the Mandinka language, spoken in a large region of west Africa, is a language where there is an equivalent to our will, for example, “I will go,” and it’s sina where the word si means sun and the word na means come. Sina originally comes from sun come. The way it happened was that there was sun and come, becoming their word for tomorrow, because tomorrow was presumably when the sun would come. The will has came from something that began with the concrete.

Common Questions about Human Languages

Q: What are concrete words?

Concrete words refer to objects, actions, concepts, or traits. They are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, for example: man, happiness, run, overrate, red, distraught, quickly.

Q: What are grammatical words?

The grammatical words relate the concrete words to each other, situating a statement in time or space, or convey an attitude.

Q: What is a grammatical sentence?

Grammatical words situate a statement in time or space, or convey an attitude. For example in the sentence, “The man didn’t even come to the building,” even is an attitude. Grammatical words are: prepositions, articles, conjunctions, interjections, auxiliaries.

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