Hwaet, the first word of the Old English poem, Beowulf
Deniers of global warming, the big bang, and evolution have a new target: language change. Arguing that language change is just a theory, not a fact, they’re launching efforts to remove it from the school curriculum. To support their efforts, they’re citing a new report, “The Great Language Change Hoax,” presented last month at the annual conference of the Society for Pure English in Toronto.
The authors of the study, Jon Lamarck and Tori Lysenko, are cognitive biophysicists at Hudson University who feel that explaining language is best done by scientists who know nothing about language. Linguists, the researchers usually associated with language study, are too close to their subject matter, thus too subjective. “We don’t even like language,” Lamarck told attendees at the SPE conference. “That’s why we can be objective about it.”
Lamarck and Lysenko do admit that language, like climate, can vary. “No one’s going to doubt that Chicago is slightly warmer by the lake and cooler in the suburbs, just as no one doubts that I say tomayto and you say tomahto,” said Lysenko.
Variation, according to Lamarck and Lysenko, isn’t change. "You may say tomahto, but actually, you're wrong, it's tomayto. Hence, no change," he said. More important, the researchers conclude that although language may vary, it doesn’t actually change over time. That’s the myth—the great language change hoax—that these scientists are so eager to expose. "Just as there’s no proof that dinosaurs lived before humans, there's no reason to believe that language existed before there was writing, so it couldn't have evolved,” Lysenko said, a statement sure to make him popular with the young earth crowd. "And it’s important to remember that people don’t cause language change,” Lamarck added, echoing the anti-climate-change rhetoric.
Lysenko added by way of explanation, “Maybe you took History of the English Language in college, where you had to memorize the IPA and Grimm’s Law and the Great Vowel Shift? But our research shows that language change is just a theory, and that it’s just as likely that Old English and Modern English were coæval, which is a big word that cognitive biophysicists use that means existing at the same time.”
Lamarck gave this example: “You can go to the British Library and read the manuscript of Beowulf, which is an epic poem in Old English, and then you can go to the British Library gift shop and use Modern English to buy a postcard with a reproduction of a bit of that Anglo-Saxon manuscript on it. Both forms of the language exist at the same time! QED.”
Above: The opening lines of Beowulf, in Old English, from the British Library’s manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A xv. Below: A postcard of Beowulf from the British Library gift shop. For Lamarck and Lysenko, this proves that language doesn’t change, because both Old English and Modern English exist at the same time.
For Lamarck and Lysenko, this means that Jacob Grimm’s so-called law, which purports to explain the sound changes that took place as Indo-European evolved into Germanic languages like English, is as much a fairy tale as everything else that he and his brother Wilhelm cooked up. No wonder it put generations of college students to sleep.
Above: Grimm’s Law, like the other Grimms’ Fairy Tales, put generations of college students to sleep. Below: Don’t try this at home: This slide shows students in the History of the English Language how to apply Grimm’s Law to show how Latin cannibis is the exact same word as English hemp. But Lamarck and Lysenko suggest that the Brothers Grimm just may have been blowing smoke.
Already Lamarck and Lysenko’s research is making waves. In Congress, Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa), author of legislation to make English the official language of the United States, now wants to ban the National Science Foundation from supporting research into language change. “It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars,” King said. “Plus, once we make English official, we know it will never change,” he added.
Following suit, the powerful Texas state school board, whose decisions affect school textbooks nationwide, may soon order the removal of any references to language change from the state’s schoolbooks. The head of the School Board said at a recent hearing on the subject, “After decades of educational theories insisting that language takes different forms according to speaker and context, and that it changes over time, all of which diminish respect for standard English and lead to errors in grammar, there’s still no evidence that English has changed. Language doesn’t change. Anyone who says it does is either lying, deluded, or a godless liberal.”
According to Lamarck and Lysenko, however, the Texas School Board doesn’t need to carry the fight against language change into the classroom, because most school teachers don’t believe in language change anyway. “Almost all the states have already adopted a common core of educational standards which require student mastery of a standard English presumed to be eternal and unchanging,” Lamarck said. He concluded his remarks at the SPE conference by saying, “So even though biologists insist on teaching evolution in states where the school board forbids it, and physicists dare to teach the billions-of-years-ago big bang, no self-respecting English teacher is willing to risk their job by embracing controversial theories about language variation and change. Instead they teach their students the equivalent of flat-earth grammar, because, to be fair, that’s what’s going to be on the test.” And so if teaching about language doesn’t really change, Lysenko concludes, “that’s just more proof that language itself doesn’t change either.”
The Common Core Standards proposed by a consortium of state governors stresses student mastery of Standard English, a model based on the notion that language doesn’t change and shouldn’t change.