Endowed by their Creator with certain WHAT?

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Reader SG wrote in to express a concern about how we should fill in the blank:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain _________ Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

SG feels that "The USA was launched with a declaration of unalienable rights", but "In the past few decades, at least, the reference is more commonly to 'inalienable rights'."

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson's choice was certainly "… certain unalienable rights". [Update: except that this was apparently a copyist's choice, or maybe John Adams' choice — see here and here…] But SG's impression that things have changed recently seems to be an instance of the recency illusion.

The OED's entry for unalienable treats it as a variant form of inalienable, and its earliest citation is a dictionary entry that reinforces this equivalence:

1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues,   Inalienable, vnalienable; which cannot be sold, or passed away.

The Google Books corpus suggests that in general use, inalienable overtook unalienable around 1830, despite a big post-1776 meme-spike for the latter:

And if we look for a longer pattern such as "certain __alienable rights", which is likely to be an explicit reference to Jefferson's original, the cross-over is not shifted much:

Here can see a peak in both versions around 1833-35, associated (I guess) with the growth of abolitionist sentiment and the British Slavery Abolition Act; and a much larger peak, mainly in "certain inalienable rights", associated with the U.S. Civil War.

During the 19th century, the word-change from unalienable to inalienable was common even in direct quotations in well-edited sources. Thus "The Nebraska Bill: Speech of Senator Sumner of Massachusetts",  NYT 2/21/1854:

If anything, the tendency to modernize this quotation seems to have somewhat declined in recent years. At least, searching the NYT index for 1851 to 1980 turns up 215 instances of "certain inalienable rights" vs. 89 of "certain unalienable rights". From 1981 to the present, we find 48 vs. 50.

SG points to a recent White House statement in which Jefferson's words are echoed (though not quoted) with inalienable rather than unalienable:

Today, for the first time in history, the United Nations adopted a resolution dedicated to advancing the basic human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. This marks a significant milestone in the long struggle for equality, and the beginning of a universal recognition that LGBT persons are endowed with the same inalienable rights — and entitled to the same protections — as all human beings.

SG notes that this is "one of [his] pet concerns about US history and linguistics", and asks "Does anybody have an idea–or care about–what caused this shift, and when it occurred?"

Thanks to the Google Ngram search tool, we can date the change fairly confidently to the first half of the 19th century, with a cross-over point around 1830. The cause of the change, I suppose, is basically just that inalienable won out over unalienable in the meme pool. Whether this was an isolated and random instance of memetic fixation, or whether it was driven by some selective pressures (euphony? analogy?), is a question for another time.

Should we care? Well, perhaps we should indeed mourn words as we mourn human lives, and recognize that

No Man is an Iland, intire of it ſelfe; euery man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee waſhed away by the Sea, Europe is the leſſe, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends, or of thine owne were; Any Mans death diminiſhes me, becauſe I am inuolued in Mankinde; And therefore neuer ſend to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

But we don't usually quote John Donne's meditation on the passing-bell as "No Man is an Iland, intire of it ſelfe; …"  Instead, most modern sources modernize the letter-forms, spelling, spacing, capitalization, and font choice, to give us "No man is an island, entire of itself; …"

Some might choose to retain some aspects of the original — perhaps the quirky capitalization and italics; perhaps the splitting of "it self"; perhaps the spelling of "intire". But generally we feel that a modernized presentation is not a mistaken presentation.

The choice between unalienable and inalienable strikes me as  similar sort of thing. The two word-forms have been in variation in English since they first appeared in the early 17th century; the variation never seems to have engendered any difference in meaning; and the form inalienable won out in general usage about 180 years ago.

So those of us with an antiquarian bent, who tend to quote Shakespeare in the original spelling, can go on quoting Jefferson's unalienable, and even using it in allusive references. But when others choose to modernize the choice, I think we can afford to be indulgent. There are more serious things to be concerned about in recent U.S. history, and even in linguistics.


  1. language hat said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 9:19 am

    I disagree; there seems to me to be a clear difference between alternate spellings of the same word and the use of a different word. There's a reason why even modernized versions of the Donne quote don't have "…a part of the mainland."

    [(myl) But negative in- vs. un-, in the context of the English vocabulary as a whole, is not very far beyond a matter of spelling, hardly more a matter of "different words" than the choice between -ant and -ent in words derived from Latin present participles. As the OED explains:

    In English in- (il-, im-, ir-) is a living negative suffix for words of Latin or Romanic origin, freely used, even when no corresponding formation appears in Latin; in this use it interchanges to some extent with the Old English negative un-, which is used in native or thoroughly naturalized words, e.g. incautious, uncautious, in-, un-ceremonious, in-, un-certain, in-, un-communicative, in-, un-devout, in-, un-distinguishable. In such cases the practice in the 16th and 17th c. was to prefer the form with in-, e.g. inaidable, inarguable, inavailable, but the modern tendency is to restrict in- to words obviously answering to Latin types, and to prefer un- in other cases, as in unavailing, uncertain, undevout.

    The spelling choice intire vs. entire is a somewhat similar thing, in fact, since the original source is Latin integrum via French entier. ]

  2. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    Even the Jefferson Memorial changes it from unalienable to inalienable — see Nicholas Kristof's blog post here. But some of the commenters say Jefferson wanted it to be inalienable anyway, based on handwritten evidence. (Another commenter mentions the musical "1776," where the Adams and Jefferson characters argue about which word to use.)

    [(myl) Indeed — Jefferson's draft clearly has "inalienable":

    while the final fair copy, prepared by someone with different handwriting, has "unalienable".

    This strongly suggests that the two forms were in free variation at the time, rather in the way that many spelling conventions were.]

  3. Matt McIrvin said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    That's unpossible!

  4. Q. Pheevr said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

    Not unpossible, just rather inlikely.

  5. Mark Mandel said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 1:33 pm

    "(myl) But negative in- vs. un-, in the context of the English vocabulary as a whole, is not very far beyond a matter of spelling, hardly more a matter of "different words" than the choice between -ant and -ent in words derived from Latin present participles."

    It's far enough for me:
    1. The pronunciations are different.
    2. The difference is prominent, as it is in the initial phoneme (as well as the initial letter).
    Neither of those is the case in -ant vs. -ent, final syllable /ənt/.

    [(myl) You mean like [i]-conomics vs. [ɛ]-conomics?

  6. Mark Mandel said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 1:34 pm

    Ach, meant to begin with "I agree with Language Hat."

  7. Boris said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

    For some reason inalienable sounds wrong to me. Yet, I was sure that the text of the declaration had just that spelling. It seems to actually be the other way around. Are there any other words with in- preceding a word beginning with "a"? I think most have un- in such cases.

  8. Faldone said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    Inability, inaccessible, inaccuracy, inactivated. You could find as many as you want by entering ina* in the Search box at onelook.com.

  9. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    This source suggests that it may have been John Adams who was responsible for changing Jefferson's "inalienable" to "unalienable".

  10. Ø said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

    My own pet concern in this area has to do with the meaning of "the Pursuit of Happiness". Fun? Good Fortune?

  11. Bob Wilson said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Ben Zimmer has it right, although it's possible Congress made the change as it made other changes and then the engrosser Timothy Matlack was faithful to that change.

    Hence, I think it was either a change by Congress and Matlack stayed faithful to that change, or Matlack made the change while engrossing the Declaration.

    Copyists make errors despite being paid to be faithful. (That's why I found hilarious the story from some of my friends in boyhood who insisted that all Torah manuscripts for temple use are copied perfectly in the world.) Nevertheless, my money would be that Congress made the change

    Reader SG is incorrect since as Zimmer shows, Jefferson wrote inalienable.

  12. Allan L. said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    an unconvenient truth.

  13. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 6:34 pm

    Psalm 99, in the English Prayer Book version, begins 'The Lord is King; be the people never so impatient'. Except that sometimes, it doesn't; some editions have 'unpatient'. The University presses disagree about this, and have done so for a long time.

    I'm wondering about the 1611 citation; given that this is from a French-English dictionary, is it clear that this is a use of the English word 'inalienable', or is it saying that the French word 'inalienable' means 'unalienable; which cannot be sold, or passed away'?

  14. Michael C. Dunn said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

    As an editor, I always assumed the edit was by Franklin or Adams. Most of their improvements of Jefferson's draft were for the best, though I've always regretted that somebody editing the list of complaints against Britain struck out Jefferson's draft "We might have been a great people together."

  15. Mark Mandel said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 9:34 pm

    (myl replied to my comment: You mean like [i]-conomics vs. [ɛ]-conomics?)

    Not a bit like. *"e-" [i] and *"e-" [ɛ] are not morphemes, any more than the *"ea-" [i] of "eagle" and the *"o-" [oʊ] of "ogle" are, while "in-" and "un-" are morphemes, distinct in pronunciation and spelling even if they are synonymous.

    Perhaps it comes down to this: To me, "inalienable" and "unalienable", though similar and synonymous, are different words. That is a world away from letter-forms, spelling, spacing, capitalization, and font choice, which are aspects of the written language alone. Changing the words of a text, especially a historic one, is an unacceptable trespass — or, if you prefer, an inacceptable* one.

    * OED: Not acceptable, unacceptable. Citations 1878 – 1970.

  16. John Cowan said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

    Empty: Garry Wills argued, I think successfully, that Jefferson referred to the pursuit of public happiness, that is, the greatest good of the greatest number, as provided by themselves (collectively) to themselves (collectively).

  17. Tom LoSavio said,

    June 20, 2011 @ 10:52 pm

    Based on Jon Weinberg's source, it appears Jefferson was going for symmetry with "inherent and inalienable".

  18. C Thornett said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 6:08 am

    Could those who feel that inalienable and unalienable are different words with different meanings please explain what the difference is, beyond a different choice of negative prefix?

  19. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:00 am

    Personally, seems to me that for some people, in some types of speech, inalienable and unalienable will be pronounced the same. Two different spellings for what in speech is one word. Though not true for all words starting with in- or un-, that word strikes me as one that can be said with a fully reduced vowel such that there's little if any difference between the two.

    If I were reading the Declaration of Independence outloud, certainly the two would come out different and you'd be able to tell how it was spelled in the text I was reading from. (Well, if I'm choosing the form based on the text rather than memory.)

    But if were to use it in free speech, I don't think you'd be able to tell which way I thought of it in my head.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:03 am

    Oops… if I were (lost an I)

  21. [links] Link salad rings solstice bells | jlake.com said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 7:10 am

    […] Endowed by their Creator with certain WHAT? — Some fun linguistic neepery regarding the United States' Declaration of Independence […]

  22. language hat said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    Could those who feel that inalienable and unalienable are different words with different meanings please explain what the difference is, beyond a different choice of negative prefix?

    Irrelevant, unless you want to claim furze and gorse are the same word. I agree with Mark Mandel, who agrees with me.

    [(myl) But the OED doesn't treat furze and gorse as alternative forms of the same word, as it does with inalienable and unalienable.]

  23. language hat said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    Oops, missed your "with different meanings." Which is pure straw man, since nobody has claimed that.

  24. drjon said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    'But we don't usually quote John Donne's meditation on the passing-bell as "No Man is an Iland, intire of it ſelfe; …" Instead, most modern sources modernize the letter-forms, spelling, spacing, capitalization, and font choice, to give us "No man is an island, entire of itself; …" '

    Well, apart from one: http://gaijin-haijin.livejournal.com/36668.html

  25. RP said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    It may be an exaggeration to say SG is experiencing the recency illusion – SG did say "the past few decades, at least". If SG had not included the words "at least", then I agree that this would have been example of the recency illusion.

    [(myl) SG, though no teenager, wasn't around to experience the pre-1830 linguistic environment, nor probably even the time before the construction of the Jefferson Memorial in 1939-1943. I think we can safely say that his impression of a change in progress is an example of the "recency illusion".]

  26. C Thornett said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 8:42 am

    I thought the contention was that the difference between unalienable and inalienable was more than just that of alternate negative prefixes. Perhaps I misunderstood.

  27. army1987 said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 10:00 am

    @myl's comment to Mark Mandel's post:
    FWIW, in- and un- have different etymologies, too (unless you trace them all the way back to PIE, I guess).

    [(myl) Yes, but as the OED explains, they have been used in a heavily overlapping way during the past four centuries or so, with identical meanings and overlapping distributions. And the people who have been making choices about which form to use — ordinary users of English — have generally not been aware of the etymologies, nor (I think) particularly influenced by them. ]

  28. Mark Mandel said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 10:31 am

    (myl to RP) "But the OED doesn't treat furze and gorse as alternative forms of the same word, as it does with inalienable and unalienable."

    Nor do they treat "inalienable" as a variant spelling of "unalienable", like

    con-: variant spelling of com- assimilated before c, d, f, g, j, n, q, s, t, v

    or like "advisor", which redirects to "adviser"

    Forms: Also advisor [-or suffix]

    Adviser remains the usual spelling, but advisor is freq. used (esp. U.S.) in the titles of persons whose function it is to give advice.

    or "ilang-ilang":

    Forms: Also yhlang-, i(h)lang-.
    [no usage distinction offered — m a m]

    And OED's term "variant form" applies to all the historical spellings, including obsolete ones (Guide to the Third Edition):

    7. Variant forms
    Variant forms are the alternative spellings in which a word has been found over the centuries. Centuries of use are denoted by the first two digits of their years, e.g. 17 denotes the century 1700-1799. Old and Middle English spellings are denoted OE and ME respectively (sometimes with the prefixes 'e' (= 'early') and 'l' (= 'late')).

    (And as long as I'm looking at OED's own terminology, "alternative form" isn't part of it; searching for it in their "Other language resources" yields only two hits, under Are there any words that rhyme with orange?.)

    In fact, OED's definition of "unalienable" is just

    = inalienable adj.

    I suppose the "=" sign means something still different from "variant spelling" or "form", though "=" doesn't appear in the symbol key. (Are you listening, Jesse?)

    In sum:
    1. If we're looking to OED for guidance, it doesn't treat "unalienable" as an {alternate/variant} {form/spelling} of "inalienable", but gives it an entry of its own, including etymology ( un- prefix1 7b, 5b) and quotations (1611-1855).
    2. For at least Language Hat and me, and maybe some of the other natives and more-or-less experts in this thread, Sprachgefühl inclines more or less strongly to a difference that goes beyond variation in a single lexical item, whether the prefix* or the whole word, to a sense that these are indeed different words.

    *@Matt McIrvin, @Q. Pheevr

    PS: I said last night that '*"e-" [i] and *"e-" [ɛ] are not morphemes', but I was off track. I should have said that "eco-" with [i] and with [ɛ] is the same morpheme, while "in-" and "un-" are distinct morphemes in history at least as far back as Germanic vs. Romance and are not freely interchangeable. Matt & Q. again.

  29. Rod Johnson said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    OK, this is the second trackback in the last couple days I've seen, third this month, all from Jay Lake, that refer to discussions here as "neepery." What's up with that? Besides the fact that this is surely a bit of an obscure word to most people (see http://www.doubletongued.org/index.php/citations/neepery_1/ or the Jargon File for the meaning, if it's not obvious), why characterize a pretty technicality-free conversation that way? (I'm sure Jay doesn't intend it condescendingly, but… sheesh.)

  30. mollymooly said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    There can't be many examples of synonymous homophonous morphemes. A near miss is -wise/-ways. Sometimes originally distinct synonyms merge over time as people increasingly conflate them by a species of folk etymology. Maybe in-/un- is heading that way and for many people and words the choice of spelling is as mysterious and arbitrary as -ant/-ent. But I don't think it's quite there yet.

  31. Leslie said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    To me 'unalienable' sounds like someone with a New Zealand accent.

  32. mollymooly said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 11:14 am

    A near miss the other way is dis-/dys-

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 11:56 am

    Isn't there still a striking difference in morphological productivity? You can say "unfun" for example, but not "infun." Pick some adjectives that don't have existing forms with negative prefixes in the dictionary of your choice. Can you coin one with un- and have it sound well-formed? Doesn't work so well with in-, does it (although you'd want to test that against a set of Latinate-feeling adjectives w/o a specified negative form)? Kids w/o copies of the OED or much formal grasp of etymology are coining new negative-prefix adjectives all the time. Are they really using un- and in- interchangably on a 50/50 basis? Heck, pick an adjective that may not be in your dictionary yet. Google reveals instances of the negative adjective "unbootylicious" but the 6 hits for "inbootylicious" do not seem to evidence in- as a negating prefix.

  34. Faldone said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    Then you get cases like:

    1a inaccurate
    1b *unaccurate
    1c inaccuracy

    2a unable
    2b *inable
    2c inability
    2d *unability

  35. Xmun said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    Darwin, in The Voyage of the Beagle, ch. 16, writes in the fourth paragraph of his entry for June 26th, 1835, that in the ruins of old Indian houses in northern Chile "bits of wooden articles, instruments of precious metals, and heads of Indian corn, are not unfrequently discovered". I for one am glad that his printer, or proofreader, or whoever, didn't regularize it (or various other slightly unusual spellings).

  36. Mark said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    I'll admit now that I don't have the skills to test this but my pet theory for the entire class of in-/un- lack of distinction is the relative usage rate of the word. The more uncommon the word the greater the chance that the usage is split between in- and un-. Thus I'll bet there are fewer instances of "incommon" in modern literature than there are either "inalienable" or "unalienable". This is based at least partially on the fact that your average dictionary was often silent on which one to use and both are equally productive to the average Joe.

    And I'd go further and bet that the rare words with a strong preference have a distinct idiomatic phrase or popular quote that controls the choice.

  37. Mark Mandel said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

    Mark@ 4:34 pm:

    I wouldn't bet against you there.

  38. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

    It has just occurred to me that my 'impatient/unpatient' example illustrates another point; 'un' is always 'un', whereas 'in' in some contexts changes to 'im' (impossible, immaterial, etc.). I think it's hard to claim that 'impatient' and 'unpatient' are just different spellings of the same word – they are pronounced differently however one sounds one's vowels – so I think this strengthens the case that 'inalienable' and 'unalienable' are likewise different words.

  39. Mark Mandel said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

    I told my wife about this thread. She has a Master's in English Lit and another in Library Science, and she's just been reading Founding Farmers [sic] and has an interest in the creation of our founding documents.

    She pointed out a consideration that has not yet been raised here. Jefferson and his fellows were generally more concerned about the sound of their writing than many modern political writers tend to be. In the sequence "certain _nalienable", with its string of coronals /ˈsɜ˞tən_nˈɛɪljənəbəl/, the low-mid back /ʌ/ of "unalienable" would be more distinct than the lax high front /ɪ/ of "inalienable". /ʌn/ would be less likely than /ɪn/ to be slurred or lost in reading the document aloud, or in hearing it read aloud, which certainly was part of its promulgation (it was posted publicly and then read out to the crowd). And the loss of a negating prefix would be a serious loss to the sense of the sentence.

  40. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 22, 2011 @ 2:19 am

    Ø wrote:

    My own pet concern in this area has to do with the meaning of "the Pursuit of Happiness". Fun? Good Fortune?

    This is entirely a guess, as I know approximately squat on the topic of what those guys were thinking, exactly, but I suspect that given their educations, they had in mind εὐδαιμονία, specifically in the context of Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.

    That's conventionally translated into English, even in translations of Ethics, as happiness; but it's not really a very good translation. Well-being is better; well-being in the most expansive, philosophical sense is better, still. (Though, you know, not really because that would be awkward.)

    Aristotle goes to a lot of trouble to distinguish εὐδαιμονία from hedonism or simplistic self-interest. Specifically, he asks the reader to consider whether, all other things being equal, the reader would prefer his/her descendants to be healthy and happy, or not. He assumes the reader answers "yes" and thus argues that εὐδαιμονία is a far more expansive concept than we might otherwise imagine. That is, our own well-being is not confined to either the present or to some notion of ourselves outside of a context of others or society in general.

    Still, I don't think you need to assume that they specifically meant a "collective well-being" because they are, of course, talking about Americans collectively; Americans pursuing their expansively understood well-being as individuals.

  41. ZEUGS: Mehr S&M bei Kika, Nathan Hales Arsch und der farbige Atombombenbau « USA Erklärt said,

    June 24, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

    […] Unabhängigkeitserklärung: Das Language Log untersucht den Unterschied zwischen unalienable und inalienable. Thanks to the Google Ngram search tool, we can date the […]

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