The Cycle of Language
Languages are just like humans. As humans are born, unite, and die, languages are born, are sometimes merged, are constantly changing, and die. Again, similar to humans, natural human languages go through a cycle. The cycle of language, or more technically the Cycle of Grammaticalization, describes the stages that a language goes through in its life. To examine what stages a language go through, a little knowledge of linguistics will be helpful.
Natural languages are generally divided into three categories: agglutinative, isolating/analytic, fusional/synthetic. Both agglutinative and fusional/synthetic languages express grammatical features with affixes (words that are attached to another word). An agglutinative language encode only one grammatical meaning per one morpheme (a smallest understandable unit of word). For example, Korean verbs employ infixes to conjugate verbs to reflect tense and honorifics (존댓말 in Korean; used to encode the speaker’s respectful attitude toward the listener), as in 던지-시-었-다 ‘threw.’ 던지- contains the meaning ‘to throw’ and -시- encodes one feature, honorifics. Similarly, -었- encodes the past tense. As one can observe, one morpheme encodes one meaning in agglutinative languages. Fusional languages such as Spanish and French have more than one meaning to one affix. For instance, Spanish comí ‘I ate’ has -í affix, which indicates 1st person singular, past tense, and indicative mood. Isolating/analytic languages are quite different in that they do not use affixes to encode grammatical features such as tense, mood, etc. Instead they simply add another free standing word to express such meanings. For example, take Mandarin Chinese. wǒ chī fàn ‘I eat/ate’ does not inflect to encode past tense, but only by adding a time stamp, the sentence becomes past: wǒ chī fàn zuótiān ‘I ate yesterday.’ To summarize, there are three morphological types: agglutinative (one meaning per affix), fusional/synthetic (multiple meanings per affix), and isolating/analytic (no affix).
The Cycle of Grammaticalization involves all three types of languages, which means that at one point in time most languages will go through each of the three types. To mention just a few languages, English is at around 4 o’clock in the clock representation and is on the verge of becoming an isolating language like Mandarin Chinese. Such change is apparent if one compares Shakespearean English and modern English. Shakespeare would say Thou lovest me but modern English speakers would say You love me. The entire conjugation to mark second person singular is lost. Mandarin Chinese is actually moving toward agglutinative language at around 5 o’clock. Such trend manifests itself in constructions like le, which is attached to a verb and adds a meaning of completion; such attachment is agglutinative and not isolating.
The fact that languages evolve in cyclic fashion is fascinating and is a useful tool in predicting how a language might change in the future.