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what determines how language in a particular country evolves? Why is French, for example. So different from German?There's no simple measure of how different languages are from one another. In fact, if you look at the languages structurally, the way a linguist would look at them, French is different from the other Romance languages, in a variety of ways, which make it more similar to German and other Germanic languages. There are a number of features of French which are sort of Germanic in character. And incidentally old French, middle French, say, a French in the Medieval period was not, it was like the other Romance languages. So something happened to it that made it less like the Romance languages and more like the Germanic languages.How does language change over time? How did 18th century French change, compared to 12th century French?Well you know when we talk about language change, that's very misleading. I mean, up until the turn of the century you could find people in nearby villages in France, that virtually could not understand one another. The idea of a national language is a pretty modern phenomenon. It has to do with the rise of nationalism and communication and so on. And when we talk about language changing, what's actually happening is that it's kind of like species changing. There's a mixture of all sorts of dialects. And the mixture of these things changes over time, and you take a look at it a few centuries apart, it looks like there's a different language. I mean within a couple of generations, the language can change structurally in quite dramatic ways. And of course, it's a lexicon. The words of the language well that's a different matter altogether. So when technology develops, you get a whole new vocabulary.But if you were in France in the 12th century and you understood all the nuances of language, could you have predicted how these various languages would've evolved over time? Is it partially random?It's not actually random. For all we know it might be completely deterministic, there's just too many factors involved. Speakers of English can be misled by this. English is relatively homogeneous. I mean, I just came from Boston, and I understand everybody in Portland. But that's not true of most of the world. Most of the world you can get very different languages pretty close by, and much of the world is what we would call multilingual. With the rise of national states, and especially national communications, and national education systems, all of these things, which is a pretty modern phenomenon. Then you get what we call national languages. Now as I say, English is unusual. You had a pre-colonial times there were just hundreds of thousands probably of different languages spoken and what's now called United States. Well through the destruction of the indigenous population. And the conquest by speakers of basically one group, you ended up having a large homogeneous language.Some French theorists, for example, who argued that they must work very hard to keep the French language pure. What does that mean?They don't mean anything. Virtually every national language, every national culture, or at least the European ones and maybe others, has a mythology that that's the only real pure language, and all the others are corrupt.But what does it mean for the language to be pure?First of all, there is no such thing as a language, there are just lots of different ways of speaking that different people have which are more or less similar to one another.Why is pronunciation and intonation so important to language? Why aren't words themselves sufficient to convey meaning?Well you have to understand somebody else's words. Part of your knowledge of language is a way of decoding noises that you hear and converting them into a system that matches your own representations. Now in order for that decoding system to work, the systems have to be close enough. You and I can do it. But again, that's a little artificial. That's because of the artificial unity of the English language spoken in the United States. I happened to be in England last week, and I can find myself in places in England where I don't understand what they're saying. If I listen to them for a while, we can establish communication, but you have to kind of retune your system in some manner that's not understood so that you can begin to decode what you're hearing

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