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15 September 2011

Linguistic Darwinism

To me, one of the most fascinating speakers at the IPEd Conference was Kate Burridge. Kate is Professor of Linguistics at Monash University. She gave us a quick history of the English language in several passages - from Old English, Middle English, and Early New English.

The English of 1200 years ago is impossible for an untutored ear to understand. Those who wrote Beowulf down around the turn of the first millenium would have been unable to read Chaucer, just 300 years later. But with the coming of printing, and widespread prose literacy, change slowed. And in the seventeenth century, English solidified.

For 500 years, as Kate put it, the written tail has wagged the spoken dog.

Kate suggests that change is speeding up again, fueled by the number of speakers for whom English is not a mother tongue, and by social media. Once again, people are using language to create community and express identity.

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