Language isn’t ‘alive’ – why this metaphor can be misleading


Living”, “evolving” and “dead”: we often talk about languages as if they were living organisms.

The reason for this use of a metaphor to talk about language lies in the deep complexity of language as a concept. But treating language in this way can have drawbacks: it can lead us to misunderstand the relationship between language and society.

The fundamental mechanism of metaphor is that it treats something as if it were something else. This typically happens with concepts that are complex or abstract, in order to pin them down to something we can understand more easily. We use metaphors to treat these concepts as if they were something more concrete, more tangible and that we are more familiar with.

For example, if we talk about “wasting” or “saving” time, we treat time as if it were a commodity. Or, if we say that we’re “going through” a difficult period, we’re treating time as if it were space through which we move.

Like time, language is one of these really complex concepts, and that’s the reason why we often talk about it as if it were a living organism. In a recent radio interview, I myself said that languages are “alive”. But there lurks a potential problem here.

Metaphors are so much part of our every day discourse that we don’t even notice them. For this reason, metaphors can be incredibly powerful.

They are so entrenched that they actually determine our understanding of the concepts they refer to. The risk then is that metaphors may lead to understanding certain concepts in a fundamentally distorted way.

Testing the metaphor

I’m going to put the “language is alive” metaphor to the test by considering two fundamental elements of life: birth and evolution.

Birth is easily dealt with. Simply, languages don’t have a point of departure, a beginning, that can be compared to the birth of a living being.

Scholars often talk about the “birth”, the “roots”, or the “origins” of a language, but these are not starting points.

Rather they are historical periods during which a particular society acquires an identity for itself, and therefore a name, and that name begins to be used for the language they speak, too.

One of the earliest records of the name English – Englisc – referring to both the people of England and their language dates back to the ninth century, in a text by King Alfred. But obviously this is not the moment when people began to speak this language – nor is there one.

This is what the language that King Alfred called “English” looked like:

Alfred’s letter to Wærferth. Bodleian Library MS. Hatton 20, fol. 1r. © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC BY-NC

Ða ic ða gemunde hu sio lar Lædengeðiodes ær ðissum afeallen wæs giond Angelcynn, & ðeah monige cuðon Englisc gewrit arædan, ða ongan ic ongemang oðrum mislicum & manigfealdum bisgum ðisses kynerices ða boc wendan on Englisc ðe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis, & on Englisc Hierdeboc.

(When I realised how the knowledge of Latin had decayed throughout England, and yet many could read English writing, I began, among other various and manifold troubles of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which is called in Latin Pastoralis, and in English Shepherd’s Book.)

English speakers today find it impossible to understand the meaning of this passage without specific knowledge of the language in which it is written.

So, if this does not represent the “birth” of English, could it be taken as evidence of how the language has “evolved” through the centuries?

We could, but the problem is that it leads us to objectify languages. In other words, it leads us to think of King Alfred’s language as if it was the same object as the language we speak now – just a very archaic form of it.

Ultimately, it considers the English language (or any other language) as an autonomous entity, an independent being that simply exists in its own right.

People, not language

In reality, languages are integral to what we do as social animals. Societies change through migratory flows, invasions, technological advancement.

And, as they do so, they also alter the ways in which they use language. Agency rests in the speakers of a language, not in the language itself.

King Alfred’s English did not become King Charles III’s English as a consequence of language’s own natural propensity to evolve. Language has no such propensity.

Language does nothing. It isn’t born, it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t evolve, it doesn’t adapt to the changing environment. It is people who do all these things.

A silver penny of Alfred the Great. © The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA

While the living organism metaphor can be a convenient cognitive shortcut, the misconception that it may cause is that the roles of people and languages are inverted. And this becomes a problem, for example, when we discuss language in relation to social justice and inequality.

If we say that “English is taking over the planet”, we may be placing emphasis on the wrong aspect of the issue. It is not the language itself that is too powerful. The problem lies in the extreme imbalance of power and wealth in the world, a direct legacy of four centuries of colonialism.

If we describe the history of languages like the growth of plants, we miss the point that the history of languages is inextricable from the history of societies and the often unequal relationships between them.

Author Bio: Mario Saraceni is Associate Professor in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth