The Evolution of Language

I’m having a sort of meta research experience today as I near the end of working on Season One.  And in order to tell you more about this, I have to reveal the identity of a couple of episodes.  Ready?!  (Drum roll please)… They are: “The Theory of Evolution,” and “The English Language!”

Yep, that’s right!  These two episodes will air toward the end of How It Began’s first season.  And the reason for my sense of a strange confluence between the ideas I’m working through for each of these shows is that, for some time, I’ve been acutely aware of how English evolves much like a living organism, and I’m finding myself to be an agent of that evolution.

As an English major back in college, I studied Shakespeare for a solid year.  Loved the guy’s writing.  One thing I admired about him was that he seemed like a linguistic entrepreneur; he’d make up new words, phrases, and phonetic forms all the time to better convey his meaning.  Modern English owes a lot to William Shakespeare.  And so do I.

Years later while writing my dissertation at Stanford, I experimented with my own linguistic creations.  For example, as I tried to describe the overwhelmingly bloody setting of 19th century Chicago meatpacking plants, I was drawn to the word “abattoir,” a noun that means “slaughterhouse.”  I needed an adjective, but there was no recognized adjective form of abattoir.  I refused to abandon the word, though, because it was just THE perfect word.  I dare you to say “abattoir” out loud and not relish the way it slides ever so smoothly through its full pronunciation.  So… I just created an adjectival form of my own: “abattoirian.”  In my humble opinion, this is a fantastic word on many levels and perfectly acceptable to an English major’s ears, but no dictionary will recognize it.  And sure enough, my advisor circled it with red ink while reading a draft of that chapter.

Lucky for me, my advisor was a fantastically open minded and creative person, and he ended up loving my little lexical invention.  But several of my other dissertation readers who also flagged the word refused to accept its validity.  “It’s not a real word, so you should probably chose something else to avoid criticism,” they said.  I disagreed. Abattoirian remained.

Like all languages, English is not static.  It evolves and adapts in all kinds of ways.  I respect the conventions and rules that help guide its coherency one generation to the next, and my copy of Struck’s and White’s The Elements of Style is appropriately worn.  But thoughtful contributions and innovative alterations to our language should not trigger pedantic alarms.  In my podcasts, I have a unique opportunity to write scripts designed to be heard, not read, and if the occasion calls for it, I will push against formal linguistic boundaries in an ongoing effort to perfect the oratorical component of my craft.  Sometimes I just like the sound of a new word, but sometimes I’m trying to keep my story simple and the tempo nice and rhythmic despite traditional grammar.

A great example is my use of “their” instead of “his,” “her,” or the ultimately cumbersome “his or her,” even when the context calls for a singular pronoun.  Many self-appointed grammar guards love pouncing on people who use “their” as a singular pronoun instead of “his or her,” but I often use the technically plural “their” or “they” instead of the technically singular “his or her” because it usually sounds better, everyone knows what I mean, and maybe I don’t want to take the trouble of distinguishing the gender, okay?  But the thing of it is, historically, English convention actually called for the plural form “their” or “they” to represent the singular!  Merriam-Webster Dictionary online has published an excellent video explaining this exact issue: check it out.

The point is, like a biological organism adapting to its environment, the English language evolves.  It always has and it always will.  If a linguistic rule appears to be broken at the expense of meaning, by all means pounce on the perpetrator.  On the other hand, if a linguistic rule appears to be broken for the sake of meaning, you might have just witnessed an advantageous adaptation.

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