Category Archives: language change


Recently I had the pleasure of discussing life, the universe, and everything with the Greek thinker Heraclitus. Through a process known only to a few lucky scholars with doctorates in Classics, I had managed to reanimate him in a non-zombified state, which was necessary because Heraclitus died roughly 2500 years ago in the Greek city of Ephesus (now the city of Efes in Turkey).

We quickly got to the topic of evolution. Heraclitus wasn’t too pleased that evolution has its opponents.

Heraclitus: They’re idiots.

the doctor: That’s pretty harsh. It’s what they believe.

Heraclitus: Back in my day, people believed the goddess Athena popped out of Zeus’ head. Just because you have faith in something doesn’t mean you’re not an idiot for ignoring fact.

the doctor: They reject the idea that evolution is fact.

Heraclitus: Then they’re not paying attention. I mean, I can sort of understand if they were still getting used to the idea if that Darwin guy you told me about was the first person in the history of the world to talk about evolution. But he’s not. This conversation has been going on since before my time! Anaximander said it all started with mud, and then humans developed from fish. Empedocles said the first organisms were just organs that had to coalesce to form living creatures. Darwin picked up where they left off, though I admit it sounds like he fleshed things out a bit.

Thing is, all those guys were talking about the specifics of the evolution of life. Where did the universe come from? What is the origin of life? How did humans arise? I was the one who came up with the first general theory of evolution that applies to everything. As I put it more than once: “Everything changes and nothing stays the same.”

the doctor: “πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.” [Pánta khoreî kaì oudèn ménei.]

Heraclitus: Your pronunciation sucks.

the doctor: Sorry, I’m a Latinist.

Heraclitus: Figures. Anyway … everything changes.

At this point, Heraclitus got tired of explaining the obvious to me, so I put 300 in the Blueray player. Heraclitus liked it a lot, though he did point out that everybody was pronouncing Leonidas wrong.

My discussion with the Old Greek got me thinking about the evolution of language. English and every other language ever spoken on the planet have changed over time. They have evolved, whether we like it or not. I’m starting to accept that people say like when they’re, like, not comparing anything. I’m not happy that people say “He fired his gun at Bonnie and I” when they should say “He fired his gun at Bonnie and me.” It’s like hot pokers in my eyeballs when people double up the verb to be in sentences like “The problem is is that we’re just plain stupid” when one is would be fine. If Hemmingway were alive today, he’d no doubt have to call his book Who the Bell Tolls For.

But language evolves. Even English. Of course you recognize all of these English words:







Unless you know some Old English, these English words might look more like German than English. But we use them all the time.

Hlæfweard and hlæfdige are compound words beginning with the Old English words for bread: hlæf. A weard was a protector. A dige was a woman who kneaded bread. So hlæfweard was the bread protector and his wife the hlæfdige was the bread kneader. Mr. Bread-protector shows up in Middle English in various shapes: hloverd, lowerd, and eventually lord, meaning the man of the household. Lord has stayed the same ever since. Mrs. Bread-kneader shows up as læfdie, lahdi, and  ladi. By Modern English she was a lady, the woman of the house.

Cyning and cwēne are similar stories about a man and a woman. Cyning was the Old English king. He becomes Middle English cining, cing, and king. Cwēne originally meant “woman, wife,” but eventually came to mean “wife of the king.” She is Middle English quēne and Modern English queen.

Ēage and hēafod both appear on your body. Ēage becomes Middle English eie and finally Modern English eye. Hēafod has various forms in Middle English like hevod, heved, and hēd. It’s now your head.

So Heraclitus was right. Everything evolves, language included. From hlæfweard and hlæfdige to lord and lady, from cyning and cwēne to king and queen, and from ēage and hēafod to eye and head … nothing stays the same.

Latin was no exception. It went through the same process of change. Like vīdī “I saw” (famous in Julius Caesar’s vēnī, vīdī, vīcī “I came, I saw, I conquered,” which much earlier was woydh­2e. But this will be a story for another post.


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