Lewis Thomas on Language

“Language is simply alive, like an organism. We all tell each other this, in fact, when we speak of living languages, and I think we mean something more than an abstract metaphor. We mean alive. Words are the cells of language, moving the great body, on legs. Language grows and evolves, leaving fossils behind. The individual words are like different species of animals. Mutations occur. Words fuse, and then mate. Hybrid words and wild varieties or compound words are the progeny. Some mixed words are dominated by one parent while the other is recessive. The way a word is used this year is its phenotype, but it has deeply immutable meanings, often hidden, which is its genotype…. The separate languages of the Indo-European family were at one time, perhaps five thousand years ago, maybe much longer, a single language. The separation of the speakers by migrations had effects on language comparable to the speciation observed by Darwin on various islands of the Galapagos. Languages became different species, retaining enough resemblance to an original ancestor so that the family resemblance can still be seen. ”

— Lewis Thomas in “Living Language,” The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, Viking (1974)

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