Language is a strange thing. I often hear people complaining about how English is such a complicated language, riddled with exceptions and rules that only apply to a handful of cases, sometimes even direct contradictions. They’re not entirely wrong – we have a rhyme expressing this rather concisely. “‘i’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c’, or when sounded as ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’, except in words that are weird, like ‘weird’.” It’s just that all human languages have these kinds of exceptions, complex rules, and apparently disorganized structure. Considering the nature of language, it might be better to say that there are conventions, rather than rules.
As much as I love language, it is, ultimately, a limited and inefficient form of communication, especially for complex ideas – just look at how John Rawls spent the entire first part of his Justice as Fairness book (which we just recently reviewed) defining apparently simple terms for his readers. Human beings are not precise creatures, by nature. We do things by feel as often as not, taking whatever the path of least resistance happens to be, to varying effect. That means that our use of language is similarly imprecise. Even the meaning of a word can vary from person to person. In literature, this even has a name: connotation, the subjective meanings of a word, separate from its dictionary definition. For instance, “aroma” is completely synonymous with “smell,” or “odor,” but in general connotes a more positive sense than “odor,” which tends to connote more negatively. None of this is in the definitions.
Some people might decry this as unnecessary complexity, and in some cases the variability and mutability of language can be a disadvantage. Certainly in science and engineering, it is necessary to be very, very careful and precise with language in order to communicate your meaning, and there are some meanings that cannot be adequately communicated with our language at all, as we don’t have the words; it’s one of the hazards of trying to talk about the nature of reality using a communication technique developed to tell people where the best fruit is.
Yet this very mutability is also a strength of language. In many ways, it is responsible for books and poems existing at all. If language were absolutely precise, with words carrying only the meaning and significance explicitly assigned to them by their dictionary definitions, then stories, poems, and conversations would all sound like lines of computer code (programming languages are, in fact, perfect examples of these ultra-precise, connotation-less forms of communication, so next time that you’re complaining that English is too complicated and has too many weird rules and exceptions, try speaking in C for awhile). Our languages’ ability to evolve, adapt, and change over time, to be mutable with regards to the context in which they find themselves, is in most circumstances an advantage, not a weakness.
Take English, for example (as it is the language with which I am most familiar). It is built primarily on a dual foundation of Latin and the Teutonic languages (Germanic), but it has proven remarkably adaptable throughout the past couple of centuries. Geopolitical reasons certainly played the major role in making English the dominant language of the sciences, but English’s (and English speaker’s) ability to rapidly create and add new words to the lexicon, to adapt meanings as necessary, thanks in part to the phonetic alphabet, was also a factor. Meanings, too, have changed over time; in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, language was significantly more florid than it is now. Some historians have taken those tendencies out of context, mistaking the use of, for instance, “love” in a signature line of old to be the term of romantic affection it is today, while in those times it was more apt to be used to describe any kind of close bond: romantic, friendly, familial. It is always important, when reading historical documents, to keep in mind the ways in which language was used at the time, and how it may have changed.
Which brings us to the topic of word creation. Acknowledging that I have done no detailed, statistical study of this matter, and am operating purely based on my own unscientific inferences and anecdotal evidence accumulated from my reading, it is my observation that the past century has seen an accelerating pace of word creation, driven in large part by technology. Certainly our use of language has evolved, favoring shorter and more direct words and sentence structures. Being always fascinated by the verbose eloquence of days gone by, I’ve often been inclined to employ that more grandiose language. Inevitably, I’m told to “stop using such big words.” To which, of course, I reply “I hadn’t noticed that I was employing verbiage of an unusually polysyllabic nature.”
In the twentieth century, I contend that language’s evolution was driven largely by technology. With new technologies like aircraft, rockets, moon-landers, and computers, our language had to evolve in order to keep up with these new devices. This was a more deliberative process of word creation, driven by the prominent figures in the field at the time: scientists, engineers, and science fiction writers. We could hardly go about landing on the moon if we did not yet have the words to describe how we were going to do it. I don’t posit that this was an exclusive explosion: I imagine that a similar proliferation of new words occurred during any of the industrial revolution, or really during any time or significant cultural or technological change. As people and their environments change, they need new words to describe each other and their surroundings.
Further, I suppose that the pace and nature of the proliferation of new words has increased in recent years, with the onset of first the personal computer, then the internet, and then ubiquitous smartphones, and now social media. Communication needed to become byte-sized (all puns intended), and that required new words. At first, it meant abbreviating existing words. With character limits (which existed long before Twitter), and the need to communicate increasingly complex ideas through these technological mediums to people with limited attention spans, more and more people began simply inventing new words every time they had a new concept to explain, usually by creating an amalgamation of the multiple words they would ordinarily have used. The impetus for this post, in fact, was seeing someone use the invented term “maskne,” and my ensuing cringe.
There are many things, I think, that do not require the creation of a new word, but these unique descriptors are encouraged by the nature of social media. If you use a unique word, it helps drive more people to your social media “brand.” Think of it like how the title of a book creates an exclusive group of people who have heard of that book. If you go up to a group of people and ask them if they know about Blood Magic, the only people who will know about what you’re talking are people who have also been reading the series here on the site.
Part of why amalgamation terms (like the horrid disgrace to the English language “maskne”) bother me so much is my engineer proclivities. I like orderly processes and rigorous systems, which does not fit with anyone and everyone being inclined to mash words together at a whim to invent new terms. More practically, I think it floods the language with superfluous words. These new “words” do not contribute anything new to the language, they just provide a slightly shorter way of expressing the same ideas as the original words. While “aroma” and “odor” technically mean the same thing, the connotations each possess are distinctly different, and so they are used very differently. Each one, in effect, has an identity, a role, of its own. Not so with amalgamations – you could just as easily spell out the component words, and communicate exactly the same thing. It would just be a little less trendy.
Language always has, and hopefully always will, evolve. It’s an essential part of language, and keeps our communication relevant and capable of handling the circumstances we encounter in daily life. Without that, language would become useless. However, that is not justification enough to accept the creation of any word. If we’re going to create new words, we should make sure that they add something unique to our communication abilities, and are not just another shortcut. There are languages that have dozens of words to describe scent, which English distinctly lacks. I would love more, unique words to describe scents. I don’t need new words that don’t describe anything new.