Language is a constant evolution

Bobby Hogg’s death at 92 was unremarkable but for what he took with him to the grave. The last known speaker of the now lost Scottish dialect of Cromarty, Hogg’s thees and thous have gone silent. Hogg lived in a small fishing village on the tip of Scotland’s Black Isle. He spoke one of the biblically influenced English dialects that are fading away faster than the King James Version.

Language is a living thing, which means it evolves. All evolution involves winners and losers: things that adapt and live in a new form, and things that fail to and die. This happens every day as once popular words fall into disuse and new ones morph into being. When it happens on a grand scale, a dialect or a whole language may disappear.

Change frustrates grammarians who like things to stay the same and delight in longstanding rules. On the other hand, change delights syntactical adventurers from Dr. Seuss to Jay-Z.

Something’s lost and something’s gained, though, with every passing noun and every verbal invention. The past is cut off from the future when a dialect dies. At the same time, new ways of talking come to reign. “The king is dead, long live the king.”

What’s lost, of course, is the bridge across time that has linked men and meaning. Even saying it that way — “men and meaning” — betrays a faint bond with a quaint past. We sacrifice the music of men and meaning now for the sake of clarity and inclusiveness. Something’s lost now when I try to say it properly as people and meaning, or humanity and meaning, or men and women and meaning. Alas.

A one-handed clap then for the victory of the pundit’s precision over the poet’s passion. Words are as much about sound as sign. Words make things happen as much as just point out things that are happening. When someone says your name, you turn your head and tune your ears. When someone says “I love you,” especially when your heart has hoped those words into being, you are born again. When you hear “For God so loved the world” as if you are the world, you are born again by the Word made flesh again in you.

But the Word becomes fresh, too. Dying dialects give way to newborn ones.

Language casts a spell. New words are born into old family lexicons, and each time they are, something is gained. New worlds are made with each new word, and each is a bridge to the future.

What’s waiting to be spelled into life? “In the beginning was the Word,” the gospel writer John says. All things were made by the Word of God. We are wordsmiths ourselves now, too, being made in the image and likeness of God. We have the power to create or destroy with our world making word making.

The Hebrew language uses the same word for bless and curse. Maybe they knew how close to life and death we are by our wordiness. We need to be solemn undertakers and happy midwives at the same time.

So we can bid Bobby Hogg’s Cromarty tongue “Fare thee well,” and before we leave the graveyard, we can listen for a just-spanked baby to talk us into a new day.