22 April 2024

Punctuated equilibrium. Also capitalized.

I love France, and many of the French, though they can be annoying like anyone else.  I find their language confounding, even as I love the way it sounds.  One of my good friends is fluent, as is my niece, and I’ll always marvel at their achievements.  The problem with French, to me, is there are far too many vowels, which to my ear all sound the same.  Though while I understand virtually nothing French people say, I respect their determination to preserve their native tongue, to maintain it exactly as it is for all eternity.

I also think they are completely, foolishly and historically wrong in this, though you have to admire their grit. 

The term Lingua Franca means universal language, which it used to be, but not anymore.  This is because they refused to let the language evolve, and thus the world passed it by, in favor of my language, English, which almost everyone on Earth knows “a leetle.”

I learned this traveling around Europe and other continents, and working with people from all over everywhere.  I’d ask if they spoke English, and they’d all say “a leetle”, and then display a mastery of the form far surpassing most of the knuckleheads I grew up with in Philadelphia, Pa.  USA. 

The secret of this success, aside from being spoken by the predominant global military/economic powers of the last two centuries, is unlike French, we could care less about preserving linguistic purity.  If French has the moral rectitude of Mother Superior, English would embarrass the Marquis de Sade.  Anything but pure. 

So this is a good thing, overall, though the process of change can be irksome, and exhausting.  New English words are created, often pilfered from others, in such profusion you feel like you’re in a swarm of breeding may flies.  Usage is entirely fungible, and no army of authoritarian schoolmarms could ever staunch our various and sundry populations’ creative misuse, mispronunciation, garbled grammar and syntactical sin.

Though change is inevitable, you don’t have to always like it.  A favorite pastime around this household is gritching about popular degradations of proper speech.  That is, proper by our likes, but in the future these preferences will be considered archaic.  Using the noun “impact” as a verb has achieved such widespread acceptance it’s a fait accompli.  That written, to me the only correct use of impacted relates to wisdom teeth, or when Carl Sagan described a giant asteroid slamming into the side of Jupiter.

But I console myself from such fretting by thinking of language as perfectly mirroring natural history.  Both evolve relentlessly, in the same fashion.  Species arise, dominate, splinter into sub-species, some wither away, others become entirely distinct.  It’s fair to bemoan the loss of a particular dialect, or even an entire language, but realize that thousands have arisen and died off over the eons, and any field left fallow will soon be bursting with new life.  Most of New England was once farmland.  Now you can barely see the forests for all the trees.

The natural historian Stephen Jay Gould defined a phenomenon he called “punctuated equilibrium”.  This describes how a portion of a certain population becomes isolated from the main herd (which could have been in a stable state for thousands of years), and then very quickly, evolves into something notably different.  Language does exactly the same thing. 

Everyone thinks American English is a corrupted, devolved version of the genteel speech we hear on Downton Abbey.  In fact, during the Revolutionary War the British sounded pretty much like Americans do today.  We’re the ones who’ve stayed the locutionary course while the Brits have moved on.  No one had a Southern accent as defined today until sometime after the Civil War.  The South was, and still is, bursting with distinctive dialects and styles of expression, but only the flattening of mass media could bestow upon us a fully regional inflection.

There used to be an American accent called Mid-Atlantic, sort of a hybrid British/American contraption.  The most useful exemplars were FDR and William F. Buckley, though it was so common in old movies – think Katherine Hepburn or Errol Flynn (an Australian, for Pete’s sake) – that few realized Cary Grant was actually an Englishman.  Since this manner of speaking signaled a kind of aristocratic superiority, we’re well rid of it.  Meanwhile, millions of Americans were quite eager to put Bernie Sanders in the White House, and while the majority rejected his politics, no one thought his Brooklyn accent was a disqualifier. 

Disparaging how other people speak is snobbish at best, 

and at worst, bigoted, since there is no rational or scientific justification for ascribing character flaws to styles of speech.  As with any social construct, accent discrimination is used by those with the upper hand to bludgeon others they’d prefer remain in their disfavored social class. Luckily, our language itself has a way of slipping out from under these predations, dissolving advantages and disadvantages alike. 

And churning out new words like Twinkies at a Hostess factory.

Merriam-Webster added 690 new words to the dictionary last year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more candidates.  James Joyce made up seventeen words, though only “quark” survives to this day, and only because Murray Gell-Mann used it to name a subatomic particle.  Shakespeare, on the other hand, invented over 1,700 English words, most of which are still in use. 

I’m pretty sure I invented the word “rictify”, which I used to describe what happens to some people whose attitudes and beliefs become rigid and fixed in place as they age, suggesting some sort of combination of “petrify” and “rigor mortis”.  A psychologist friend of mine liked it so much, he started using it in his practice.  Haven’t seen it in the dictionary yet, but keeping an eye out. 

Your turn.   


  1. Love this. I agree. I can limp along in French when I have to, but I can read it pretty fluently. But it definitely has restrictions, sometimes severe ones. You can't say, "Tears rained down her face" in French because.
    And, besides English's complete willingness to adopt every new word it likes, English has the wonderful advantage of having no gendered nouns, thus no gendered verbs or adjectives. Oh, the freedom of it!
    (You really want complicated? Try Greek and German, where there's also a conjugation for neuter, among them a young maiden. That's right folks, before she's married, a young girl is referred to as "it".)
    Anyway, damn straight, English is sloppy, huge, impartial, indiscriminate, and by God you really can say anything you want to. Love it.

    1. I love Spanish because it is also egalitarian, yet constructed logically and easy to pronounce. It's also nice to listen to, though not quite as much as Italian, and infinitely more decipherable than Portuguese.

  2. Great post. I love learning about languages, even when I can't speak them worth a darn. And to that point, one of my hereditary superpowers is passing as a local when in France. Until I have to start talking, anyway.

    1. I lived in England for a while, and could conjure my own form of British accent. Everyone thought I was Australian, which isn't surprising, since the Aussies are heavily influenced by the Yanks up north.

  3. Chris, Lingua Franca thrives in the UN and international courts. When officials ask, “What is really meant here?” They turn to the French version, because it’s more precise than English, which is loose and sloppy by comparison.

    Rictify… Hey, I can buy that!

  4. I'm happy to hear that. Vive le fran├žais.


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