Modern people say: “Everything is changing all the time.” They apparently believe it.
A guest of The Orthosphere made this error recently in one of the threads on atheism by claiming that language “is changing all the time.”
Languages indeed change, but it appears that they change abruptly rather than gradually and that the hiatuses between such changes tend to be long. On good evidence, for example, Anglo-Saxon was a stable language for at least five hundred years and maybe as much as a thousand years. The events of 1066 AD destabilized Anglo-Saxon, which, in the course of the next hundred years, fused with Norman French to create the Anglo-Norman tongue, which reached its perfection in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Modern English speakers can understand very little of Anglo-Saxon, but they can grasp eighty-five or ninety per cent of Chaucer’s verse. Chaucer wrote in the Fourteenth Century, which means that English has been quite stable for some seven or eight centuries.
Similarly, Thirteenth-Century French is comprehensible, with some effort, to Modern French speakers, who, however, might well be baffled by the Latin precursor-language.
It is possible for the philologist to know and measure the changes in English since 1066 AD because the earlier phases of the language have preserved themselves, not only in graphic vestiges, but in registers of vocabulary that are analogous to the strata of geology. As one of the characters says in the opening chapter of Scott’s Ivanhoe, the Saxon peasantry raises kine and swine but the Norman aristocracy eats beef and pork. Modern English retains both kine and swine and beef and pork.
People not privy to such knowledge will, of course, have no sense either of the degree to which English has changed since 1066 nor of the degree to which many of its basic features and all of its homely vocabulary have stayed the same. Casual speakers of any language at any moment are swept up in the self-perpetuating now, from the perspective of which it is impossible to measure change. And that last statement brings the argument to its first important point of articulation: Linguistic change is only cognizable by reference to linguistic permanency. If there were no stabilities (permanencies) in language, the concept of linguistic change would be unthinkable.
The argument concerning the relation of change and permanency in language has an implication of a more general, metaphysical character: Change is generically unthinkable except in relation to permanency. The Greek thinker Heraclitus of Ephesus recognized this principle already in the Sixth Century BC although insofar as modern people recall Heraclitus they tend to recall only half of his argument – the half that seems consonant with their error concerning change. Heraclitus indeed wrote that, “All things flow”; and that, “A man can never wash his feet in the same river twice.” (The latter is variously translated.) Those are the items of his surviving fragments that modern people like to quote. But Heraclitus also invoked the Logos, the most important element of his metaphysical system.
A river is a phenomenon – and it is subject to a degree of change. The Logos, however, is eternal; it is not subject to change, but rather it endows on phenomenal changes the unchanging patterns of change that make change understandable and predictable. A river is perceptible (a quality that belongs to its phenomenality), but the Logos is intelligible. Neither visible, nor audible, nor touchable – the Logos can only be grasped through the active exercise of intelligence. In reaching beyond the mere phenomenality of the river, intelligence grasps that the river, despite its inexorable movement, is a recognizable thing; that the idea of it has parameters, and that the idea of a river, bounded by those parameters, precisely, does not change. Thus, should the river dry up, it will cease to be called a river and will take the name of a gulch or a wash. As long as the river keeps flowing in the unchanging pattern of all rivers, it remains a river. Even if it should meander, it will still remain that river and not some other. The recognizable fluvial pattern of the river – the Logos of the river – is the part of the river that is permanent and changeless.
Modern people cannot recognize permanency, they cannot recognize the Logos, because they refuse to acknowledge the intelligible aspect of the cosmos. They are immersed in the phenomenon and carried along by its river.
I will address further the relation of change and permanency in culture in a subsequent post.