Knowledge Continuum

Notes and Thoughts

An experiment to spark conversations


Language and the urge to correct

Languages in general seem to have an emergent structure, that is, they tend to evolve over time. If you take a look at the evolution of the words in the Indo-European languages, most of them seem to have come from this one Proto-Indo-European-Language(See: Kurgan Hypothesis/Steppe Theory) from the Pontic Steppe. Even in the case of modern day English, you'll see that, although it may seem significantly different when compared to other Indo-European Languages that are still in use, the early developments seem to have been influenced heavily by the Indo-European Languages. And this does not just apply to the English language, it applies to pretty much anything that is cultural in nature. Although we will not be talking about the other cultural elements today, it must be noted that nothing that we pride over as cultural/societal heritage is ever a byproduct of just a single society or a culture.

George Orwell, the famous essayist cum journalist claims in his Essay—New Words—that even in the modern-day version of the English language, new words are rarely coined and those that are coined are a mere mix-and-match of the old/borrowed words. I definitely cannot corroborate this claim but I am inclined to believe this, partly because of my experience with reading books and being able to trace the origin back to either archaic English or a different language, and partly because I am extrapolating from n=1 the fact that there has never been an attempt on my part or people I know to take the glossolalic approach seriously towards anything in general. For what it's worth, I understand that this is not evidence enough to come to any sort of conclusion about languages, but to be honest, the intention here was never to conclude, it was rather to portray the importance of epistemic humility i.e., to acknowledge the fact that we can only know so much and what we do know is a result of thousands of years of effort by billions of people, most of whom we will never even know the names of.

So, then why do people make the mistake of becoming fixated on the usage of appropriate words and structures when we have so much observational evidence for the dynamic and ever changing nature of these elements?

The obvious answer would be things like elitism or narcissism, for vanity in assumed superiority has always been a characteristic element of having formed/adopted an identity unique to oneself(or to a small but elite group), but I think this goes beyond just the behavioral traits. There seems to be some kind of category mistake that we tend to make when we are in an axiomatic setupA setup in which you are made to consume axioms(the ideas that cannot be questioned) by appealing to credentials, authority, and accomplishments overthinking and wrestling with the concepts to find it for yourself. Does it ring a bell? Skools, Kollejes, no?, which never occurs when we are in a place that does not disincentivize mistakes, such as real life. This is to say that you can rest assured that mistakes do not necessarily mean the end of the road in real life. In fact, in some situations, it can set you up on an asymmetrically positive path if you are someone who learns from mistakes, but in artificial setups like schools and colleges, it is always harmful because of the incentivization of the rightness, which is usually achieved by employing various punitive techniques like grades, ranks, etc for being wrong. I mean shouldn't a subset of real life that aims to prepare you for the real-life train you on as real a real-life situation as possible? by providing scope for learning from mistakes?

And I don't say this to dunk on the establishments here, but the category mistake that I am talking about is that of the learned one. The learned fails to understand the idea of emergence, which in this case is that no matter the amount of rigor, the standard is never the binding factor. To put it in simple terms, the consensus on the meaning and structure that is arrived upon through a shared definition in a dictionary or an elaborate treatise is not representative of how it will be used 5 years from now or for that matter in a couple of months from now; and if that was the temporal aspect of it, there is also the spatial aspect that talks about how the interpretation differs from one person to the other, for interpretations are nothing but a byproduct of culture, emotional maturity, intelligence, and exposure.

So, how do you justify binding people to a structure, that is inherently dynamic and evolving, and ridiculing them for not abiding by it? isn't it just outright silly? Now if the mistakes stopped here, I would've not bothered taking this issue up at all, but it doesn't.

Apart from being emergent, there is an inherent issue with language, that of inexpressibility. Take the example of a dream. Now tell me how many times you have tried to explain the weirdness using what we call a spoken language and failed to get the real nature out. Orwell equates this process of describing a dream to a translation of a poem into a language of one of Bohn's cribsBohn’s cribs: cheap versions of Greek and Latin authors published by Henry George Bohn – a paraphrase which is meaningless unless one can know the original. Again, this is not restricted to the dream state, think of imagination and you end up with the same issue even in the waking state.

Even if I concede that some of the indescribability is due to a lack of command over the language, it is impossible to deny the fact that there exist some experiences and thoughts that are completely out of language's reach at least in its current form. And it is this acknowledgment that I think should show you how important it is for a person listening to be sensitive to the intention and the content over some made-up structure.

The thing about a thought that is spoken out aloud or written out in a piece of paper in the form of a language is that it has two major parts:

  1. Constructing the linguistic expression.
  2. Externalizing it through the sensory system.

To understand these two processes better, think about this statement:

"The guy who fixed the car carefully packed his tools."

Now tell me, whether the guy in the sentence carefully packed his tools or carefully fixed his car? It can't be both right?

This is called structural dependence. Obviously, I can convey it correctly by putting a comma in the appropriate place when writing, or by adding a pause at the right place when speaking. But the idea here is no matter how intelligent the listener may be, it is almost impossible to correct the structure without knowing my intention. So knowing how I constructed the statement in my mind is as important if not more, and if you focus only on the externalized version, that is probably more indicative of your reluctance to engage honestly(in good faith) than my inability to externalize it well. Tbh, I do not know if it is the right point of view to hold at all, for languages serve purposes other than just the things I've listed here and also there might be some legitimate damage that a conversation may encounter when the structure—grammatical or otherwise—is broken, but what I do know is that we can be more co-operative and considerate when speaking to each other than what we are right now and that it does not need any radical change.

You see this all the time with children who spend their childhood in multiple places and learn to speak and understand an entirely new language, that is structurally completely different from one they already now. And FWIW, you'll never see these kids struggling to understand each other unless you drill in the standardized nonsense in their minds and instill in them the naive sense of elitism. If you look at kids that are very young and are at the two-word stage, it has been seen that for many languages, the utterances of children in this stage include a predominance of nouns and a lack of grammatical markers. This is to say that your organic learning process is way different from the conventional model of structured learning. So my request with this post to everyone who is irked by even the smallest of mistakes is to realize the emergent nature of language and engage in a more involved manner by being honest and putting effort into understanding each other over judging the externalized version for its apparent correctness. Thank you.


[1] Jakub Marian. (2018). Evolution of the Pronoun "I"

[2] George Orwell. (1940). New Words

[3] Noam Chomsky. (2020). In conversation with Brian Keating on Linguistics, SETI, Cognitive Science, AI

[4] Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (2018). Skin in the Game