I could say ‘languages evolve’ but that suggests the changes are a result of some sort of competitive forces that result in improvements. No, not really.
Sometimes for the better.
I can remember the first time I noticed a gradual, but concrete, change in English that made me think about language change.
It was when the word ‘gender’ was first used to specify a person as male or female. I had learned and always used ‘gender’ as a grammar term for classifying nouns as ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, or ‘neuter’, depending on the language. The classifications have, of course, nothing at all to do with sex or any sexual matters. I resented the new usage because, when I was young, I resented any change. Still, over time I began to see the value of the new use for ‘gender’. The usual alternative was the word ‘sex’, which has two different, but related, meanings. As in “to have sex”, it immediately evokes thoughts of sexual intercourse (of some variation). This resulted in the old joke about the application form with a box labelled ‘Sex’, in which the applicant answered ‘No thanks, I’m British’ (or some variation). So now ‘gender’ has a new, useful purpose (and it obsoleted an old joke). I’m good with that.
It seems to me that English is already a streamlined language compared to some other languages. Almost no nouns have gender. Most nouns have a fairly simple plural form. There is only one form of conjugation for regular verbs. There are lots of irregular verbs, but roughly the same as in other languages. English has replaced complicated tense and mood endings with (in my opinion) the simpler and more consistent use of modifiers. For example, in French and Italian, you change verb endings to indicate a conditional case, but in English, you generally only add a modifier like ‘would’, ‘could’, or ‘should’. I think the modifier provides easier and less ambiguous shadings of meaning.
I am not saying English is easier to speak than other languages or easier to learn as a mother tongue. It is not. Everyone readily learns his or her language as child. I think, though, that English grammar is easier to learn as an adult because it has fewer rules. The equalizer, of course, is spelling, which in English is laughable (or criable – hey, I just invented a new English word!)
So if the rules are easier, why do people change them so they become more complicated? It is very common (annoyingly common, I really mean) to hear someone say:
Joe invited Anne and I to the party.
I have heard this mistake from everyone from a reality show ‘celebrity’ to a high-ranking politician. I can’t understand why. This means that the speaker could also say:
- Joe invited I and Anne to the party.
Who would make that mistake?
Why is this a mistake? Because it complicates the existing grammar rule. The rule broken here is:
- A pronoun as an object of a sentence takes the objective form.
This rule is very simple. ‘I’ is the subjective form and ‘me’ is the objective form.
If you allow the “Anne and I” construction, then the rule becomes:
- A pronoun as an object of a sentence takes the objective form, unless there are two or more pronouns, in which case a first person objective form can be replaced by the first person subjective form when the first person object is not the first in word order.
Why? Oh why?
Why do people do this? Mainly, I am sure, because they have heard it so often that it sounds correct. That is how we generally learn language as children, after all.
But now the question is: Why did people start making this error to begin with?
In a cynical point of view, it is an overcorrection borne of ignorance. However, I think that may just be how the mistake is propagated.
Part of the difficulty is that English has conflated its second person pronouns. We used to have ‘thou/thee’ as subject and object respectively, but they are long gone and we have only ‘you/you’ for both forms. We still have ‘he/him’, ‘she/her’, ‘we/us’, and ‘they/them’ and people never seem to mix them up. People only confuse “I/me”. Why is that?
Another difficulty is that some sentences, because they have equivalent meanings, appear to have the same structure, but are actually quite different. For example:
Sentence X: It’s true that Anne and I were asked to the party by Joe.
Sentence Y: It’s true that Joe asked Anne and me to the party.
In the clause following ‘that’ in sentence X ‘Anne’ and ‘I’ are subjects, but in sentence Y ‘Anne’ and ‘me’ are objects.
I can see some causes for this mistake, but I always twitch when I hear it. Nobody wants English to be more complicated.
An easy way to get the “I/me” choice right, without analyzing the grammer, is to test the sentence with “we/us” instead. If “we” sounds correct, use “I” and if “us” sounds correct, use “me”. Since we don’t mix up the usage of “we/us”, this works every time.