Language Evolution and Social Strata

Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1243
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1243b

In the recent Special Section on the Evolution of Language (27 Feb., pp. 1315-1335), one of the topics was the divergence in evolutionary rates among different languages. The references to the work of Partha Niyogi and Robert Berwick (1) in the article “From heofonum to heavens” (News, Y. Bhattacharjee, p. 1326) were of particular interest. Overlooked, however, were the influences of social and economic stratification (including mobility) on such evolutionary rates. Most of what we know of older language forms comes from the educated, ruling, or priestly classes—few sources record the languages spoken by the illiterate within a society. Yet it seems reasonable to assume that much of a society's language change comes from the “lower classes.” The fact that Shakespeare used three times as many words as his contemporaries who produced the King James Bible surely reflects, in part, his remarkable knowledge of the dialects of so-called “low” characters (such as Falstaff and his friends). Much of the formal writing of the most literate English authors was in Latin, not the common tongue. These ideas point to a testable prediction: In societies with high literacy levels and few class differences or very limited social mobility, languages will evolve more slowly; languages will evolve faster in cultures with a highly stratified class structure. Societies with high literacy tightly linked to a single set of unchanging religious texts should show special language stability. In the United States, the popularity of rap and hip-hop music, which often use the alternate dialect of urban, “black” English, will surely accelerate the overall rate at which American English changes.


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