Alphabet evolution

I’ve been thinking about progress in the realm of language. Specifically, why is it that we still use the same English alphabet that was used in Shakespearean times? Is it a good thing that a kid from 500 years ago would recognize the alphabet of the 21st century classroom? Many other features of Elizabethan life have changed dramatically. We have cars instead of buggies, for example, and yet the core of written communication – the alphabet – remains unchanged. You can extend this further and argue that the arrangements of letters – words – and the arrangements of words – grammar – are also very similar. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and perhaps this is because our written language is inefficient and imprecise.

For example, think of sending an email today to a friend that says: “Spent ten hours at work today. It was great.” Your friend is trying to decipher your meaning: Are you being sarcastic when you suggest working ten hours was fun? With the limits of today’s written language, those words do not convey sarcasm. Your friend would have to either infer your meaning (perhaps you have a reputation for hating your job), or you would have to provide more information (say by ending the sentence with ‘not!’ in brackets). Regardless, writing “Spent ten hours at work today. It was great.” is less descriptive than saying that to your friend in person. When you talk to someone in person, they can detect the nuance in what you are saying: Your timing, tone, demeanor, etc.

What if there were a marked evolution in the written language? One day, we may achieve an alphabet, grammar and words sophisticated enough to encode emotions, intonations and sensory experiences in an efficient form. There may be accents that denote sarcasm and spacing between words that convey timing. We may rework the entire English dictionary to eliminate redundencies in words so that learning how to spell is more intuitive (for example, why do we need two of the letters ‘e’ in the word ‘believe’? Why not just ‘believ’?). The end result may be a more efficient, precise written language that is both easier to learn and more powerful to use.

Esperanto por la venko?

Esperanto por la venko?

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but perhaps that won’t be the case in the future. Maybe sometime soon, a word will be worth a thousand pictures?

3 thoughts on “Alphabet evolution

  1. Enter emoticons! 🙂

    Check out this paper:

    It says that words in a language evolve at a rate inversely proportional to how frequently they are used. i.e. Frequently used words evolve slowly, and infrequently used words evolve faster.

    What this means is that infrequent words such as curmudgeon will evolve quicker to become a word such as curmuddle, which may mean unpleasant… Who knows!

    The language is evolving, but only the part of it that you don’t know too much of.. I can’t imagine the ‘e’ will be dropped from words anytime soon… Unless it becomes widely accepted that the ‘e’ should be dropped, and there are no “spelling nazis” there to fight against this move.

    Anyways, nice post!

  2. Thanks for the link! That is a very interesting hypothesis. Could you use it to test the prevalence of certain animals, diseases, ideas, etc. in the past? For example, I want to know how common armadillos were in the last 1000 years. I find out that what we now call ‘armadillo’ was called ‘armorat’ 500 years ago, and ‘armormammal’ 900 years ago. Since the word changed so much, does that tell me armadillos were probably not very common (or very commonly talked about) in the past? A more interesting experiment would be to test the evolution of words like ‘depression’, for example. Maybe we want to know whether what we now call depression was something people communicated about often in the past. So we might trace the history of the word as an indirect way to learn how often people discussed it.

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