Language as a self-regulating system

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Thought-provoking article by Lane Greene, the language columnist and an editor at The Economist:

"Who decides what words mean:  Bound by rules, yet constantly changing, language might be the ultimate self-regulating system, with nobody in charge", Aeon (12/6/18).

Greene starts with a wallop:

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But then he softens the blow by saying, "it doesn't have to be this way".

Greene points out the "semantic creep is how languages work", and provides a couple of examples, "decimate" (killing every tenth soldier > annihilate) and "literally" (factually > figuratively).  The descriptivists go with the flow, the prescriptivists lament the loss of the original meanings.

The way Greene looks at it, "when change happens in a language it can do harm. Not the end of the world, but harm."

He continues:

There is another fact to bear in mind: no language has fallen apart from lack of care. It is just not something that happens – literally. Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

How can this be? Why does change of the decimate variety not add up to chaos? If one such ‘error’ is bad, and these kinds of things are happening all the time, how do things manage to hold together?

The answer is that language is a system. Sounds, words and grammar do not exist in isolation: each of these three levels of language constitutes a system in itself. And, extraordinarily, these systems change as systems. If one change threatens disruption, another change compensates, so that the new system, though different from the old, is still an efficient, expressive and useful whole.

Greene then walks us through these three main components of language — sounds, words, and grammar — showing how each of them changes with the passage of time.  The examples he gives are informative, colorful, and entertaining:  the Great Vowel Shift instead of the Great Vowel Pile-Up so that "spontaneous order" could be maintained, the clever creation of words like "hangry" and moving on from everything being "awesome" to everything being "epic", the disappearance of case endings in English — imagining Alfred the Great (849-899) asking how speakers of modern English know what is the subject of a sentence and what are the objects without them, and answering that the "solidification of word order" compensated for their demise.

An important concept for Greene in explaining how all of this works is "spontaneous order", borrowed from economics and the social sciences.  When I started to familiarize myself with this notion, I was stunned to find that my favorite ancient Chinese thinker, Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu (book), had already figured it out more than two millennia ago:

According to Murray Rothbard, Zhuangzi (369–286 BCE) was the first to work out the idea of spontaneous order. The philosopher rejected the authoritarianism of Confucianism, writing that there "has been such a thing as letting mankind alone; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind [with success]." He articulated an early form of spontaneous order, asserting that "good order results spontaneously when things are let alone", a concept later "developed particularly by Proudhon in the nineteenth [century]".

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment were the first to seriously develop and inquire into the idea of the market as a spontaneous order. In 1767, the sociologist and historian Adam Ferguson described the phenomenon of spontaneous order in society as the "result of human action, but not the execution of any human design".

The Austrian School of Economics, led by Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, would later refine the concept and make it a centerpiece in its social and economic thought.


Although I was stunned to find that my dear Zhuang Zi / Chuang Tzu had anticipated the idea of spontaneous order long, long ago, I was just dumbfounded that a modern anarcho-capitalist like Murray Rothbard knew about this eccentric early Chinese thinker.  Never underestimate the moderns!

I suppose that what the Austrian School of Economics call "spontaneous order" and cyberneticians and the hard sciences refer to as "self-organization" is a sophisticated elaboration of the economic system of laissez faire, which dates back to around 1681 during a meeting between French Controller-General of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert and a group of French businessmen headed by M. Le Gendre.

Recent manifestations of this attitude in pop culture are "Let It Be" (album) by The Beatles and "Let It Go" by Idina Menzel / Queen Elsa ("Frozen").  I know at least one mother who resolutely refuses to allow / let her daughter be infected by this laissez-aller type of attitude, demanding a higher degree of control and discipline.  Some politicians and economists — and linguists! — have the same attitude.


Victor H. Mair, tr. and intro.  Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, New York: Bantam Books, 1994.  Republished Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

__________, ed.  Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu (Asian Studies at Hawaii).  Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1983.  Republished in 2010 by Three Pines Press (St. Petersburg, Florida) as Experimental Essays on Zhuangzi.  Includes a chapter by the editor on humans as Homo ludens.

[h.t. Chiu-kuei Wang]


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 11:34 am

    I am forced to agree with Lane Greene that "no language has fallen apart from lack of care. It is just not something that happens — literally. Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar". I agree that languages do not become unusable; I would, however, argue that they become lessexpressive as traditional nuances of meaning are lost. I have never heard of the ?word? "hangry", I am infuriated by the abuse of "decimate" and "awesome", but the abuse of"epic" has yet to impinge on my stream of consciousness (I would typically use it of a film such as Spartacus). I lament the fact that the majority of my peers would not know a "nice distinction" if they encountered one, and am totally unable to comprehend the attraction of the "I was like … and he was like …" style of discourse. Yes, I am a prescriptivist and proud of it. I would, if the truth be known, actually prefer to be a proscriptivist but sadly these are now even less common that hen's teeth.

  2. Bill Ricker said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 11:37 am

    Conceding that Creep causes some Harm, the next question would be,
    Does growth by zoning board process (a L´Académie française ) cause more or less harm than the hivemind creep it prevents?

  3. Nathan said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 11:59 am

    It's not just that the "zoning boards" are wrong to think that they are needed; they are wrong to think they can even carry out their mission. Language won't be steered that way.

  4. Paul M said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    I recently met someone from Papua New Guinea. There are ofer 800 languages in PNG, and most speak a common pidgin (or creole). China used to be linguistically diverse. They said dialects varied every few miles. They say that the United States is not like this, but in the 80s, I had been to a town in South Carolina that had its own unique pronounciarion. Steven Pinker mentioned in one of his books that language is an instinct, and that when children from different linguistic backgrounds are raised together it takes them but one generation to form a pidgin—how interesting. People are naturally inclined towards linguistic innovation. I would hard call this self-regulating, however. The only means of self-regulation that we know in this area is literacy. Prior to radio and television, putting pen to paper was what really helped unify linguistic meaning and pronounciation. And we note that alphabetic languages were better at it than other written forms….

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 1:13 pm

    I am often reminded of the quip by Max Weinreich, one of the founders of modern historical studies of Yiddish, that "an official language is simply a dialect with an army and a navy."

  6. mike said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

    Per @Philip Taylor:

    "I lament the fact that the majority of my peers would not know a 'nice distinction' if they encountered one"

    I would posit that the majority of his peers know plenty of nice distinctions, but a) not necessarily the same ones that Taylor knows and b) some that he doesn't. If "traditional" nuances are lost, new ones are gained. The argument that language becomes "less expressive," if it's true at all, is relative to an individual speaker.

  7. Terry Hunt said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

    Mike – my understanding of Philip Taylor's remark was not that the majority of his peers would not recognise an actual nice distinction, but that they would not understand what the term "a nice distinction" means – a small, precise but meaningful difference (rather than a pleasing one). Doubtless he will elucidate.

  8. Timothy Rowe said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 4:03 pm

    As Steven Pinker points out in "a sense of style", the division between prescriptivist and descriptivist positions is incorrect. He is (and I am) both. The descriptivist describes how language is, the prescriptivist describes how it should be. As an example, as a descriptivist I might look at the differences between American and British English; as a prescriptivist, I might say, "this is what you have to do to write standard British English". No conflict. (Pinker doesn't mention it, but the conflict is closer to what Bakhtin called "centripetal" and "centrifugal" tendencies.)

  9. Michael Watts said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 4:14 pm

    I would have said that every language has become unusable as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Classical Chinese, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, Sumerian, and every other old language — go to their home, or a diaspora community, and try to use them to speak with someone. It's a wasted effort; nobody will understand you. They left a continuum of descendants, and those daughter languages are perfectly usable, but the ancestor languages aren't.

    the Great Vowel Shift instead of the Great Vowel Pile-Up so that "spontaneous order" could be maintained

    This reminded me that there was a Great Vowel Pile-Up in the shift from ancient to modern Greek, where the many vowels of ancient Greek tended to become the single vowel [i] in modern Greek. It doesn't defeat the point — this did not have negative effects on the Greeks' ability to speak with each other; complexity down in one area just means complexity up somewhere else — but I found it funny. Where did the assumption come from that a Great Vowel Pile-Up would be damaging?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

    Mike / Terry Hunt — Terry has it right; the meaning of "nice" has been so altered that to most people the real meaning of "a nice distinction" is now lost.

  11. P L Austin said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

    @Philip, Terry, Mike: Nothing in Mike's post suggest he didn't understand Philip's point; indeed, his use of "nuances" suggests the opposite. He asserts that new usages also offer their users the opportunity to make subtle distinctions. Anyone who disagrees with this must be missing them, no?

  12. ardj said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 9:51 pm

    I am unclear to what extent Professor Mair advocates the Austrian school of economics as providing insights into the use of language and how it should be studied or merely uses them as an example of self-organization; but in either case it is highly debatable whether its doctrine really describes what happens, either in its own terms or from a broader viewpoint – and thus how far it may be helpful even as an analogy. I am not sure that the allusion really helps such a discussion of language. The differing possibilities of self-organization to be found in for instance crystal development compared with the development of complex cells suggests to me that the constraints on language development are often obscure, may differ as circumstances change, and are not necessarily always each of the same effect, even taking into account symbiotic processes.
    @Phillip Taylor: While it is often useful to make "nice" distinctions, it is worth recalling the word's origin in nescio.
    @Paul ML you suggest the only self-regulating method we know is literacy and then jump to the effects of radio and television – while overlooking what may have happened in the interesting examples you adduce from Papua New Guinea and
    South Carolina.

  13. ardj said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

    @Paul M: sorry about the intrusive L. Not sure if this is an example of the breakdown of language or just of my own proof-checking inadequacy.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 10:31 pm

    The discussion of "spontaneous order" comes straight from Lane Greene's article.

  15. Ricardo said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 10:34 pm

    The discussion of the word 'nice' above also makes me think of how the word 'gay' has become completely unusable in its original sense.

    The title of this post strikes me as not quite accuarate. It's not really that language regulates itself, but that language-users regulate themselves seemingly instinctively as @Paul M mentions above.

    I agree with @ardj that the above mention of the similarity of language with politics/economics is really only superficial. There's lots of natural and spontaneous order in the world, all of very different kinds.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2018 @ 11:57 pm

    The title of this post comes directly from the title of Lane Greene's article.

  17. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 12:07 am

    Ricardo: I wouldn't count "gay" out just yet. Christmas carolers still don their gay apparel without confusion, and "gaiety" seems alive and well in the 21st century.

  18. Geoff said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 12:40 am

    @Philip Taylor

    If your theory is that semantic drift reduces people’s ability to say or think certain things or express certain shades of meaning, then you need to answer the question: given that semantic drift has been happening for hundreds and probably thousands of years, why hasn’t the expressive power of the language reached rock bottom long ago?

    The answer is that as some words lose meanings other words gain meanings, or new words are invented, to fill the gap, if the meaning concerned is one that people still want to talk about.

    A nice distinction, a fine distinction, a subtle distinction – as long as people want to express an idea, they will find the words to do so. There’s no reason to think that, in order to be able to talk about the Xness of a distinction, you need to know about a particular archaic meaning of the word ‘nice’.

  19. Kristian said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 2:52 am

    I'm just an amateur in these matters, but I don't see how language can be described as a self-regulating system. What people call a language is a set of symbols that human brains use according to certain rules. The rules are not "imposed" on brains by some mysterious outside force. People adapt them because of social utility/pressure, which means the influence of other people's minds on some individual mind. That's why no language has ever degenerated into something unusable (that would imply the people in a community felt social pressure to use language badly, which hardly makes sense). (Although Michael Watts is right, specific languages have been ruined by change, they've been forgotten or become relatively useless.)

    When one speaks of a market as a self-regulating system, I understand that to mean e.g. that so-called market forces "decide" what the price of a commodity is. This is mysterious because it can seem there is a "mind" (or an invisible hand) at work, even though there isn't. The point is that market forces are forces.

    I can't think of any sense in which a language "decides" something like this or "orders" itself. One can say that language doesn't require conscious regulation by the users (even though this seems only partly true, since parents do consciously teach their children things about language), but that doesn't mean it "regulates" itself.

  20. Xiao Yao said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 6:38 am

    Book 2 of the Zhuangzi also includes this passage, which seems to complement Greene's stance:

    "Now speaking is not [mere] blowing breath. Speakers do speak; it's just that what they speak hasn't been fixed. [So] in the end is there speaking Or has there never been speaking?"

    One way of reading this is that it presents a reductio ad absurdum argument against the view that the use of words must be "fixed" in order for us to communicate effectively. What we say isn't fixed, yet it seems absurd to conclude that we never succeed in actually saying things to each other. So it's not necessary for the use of words to be fixed after all. Whatever degree of order is needed for communication emerges spontaneously from our interactions with each other, without a specific effort to regulate the use of words or stop it from changing. (In ancient Chinese thought, such regulation was called "rectifying names.")

  21. David Marjanović said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 8:41 am

    Classical Chinese, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, Sumerian, and every other old language — go to their home, or a diaspora community, and try to use them to speak with someone. It's a wasted effort; nobody will understand you. They left a continuum of descendants, and those daughter languages are perfectly usable, but the ancestor languages aren't.

    Sumerian happens to be a bad example because it never had any descendants. The descendants of the speakers spoke Akkadian when Sumerian died out, then Aramaic when Akkadian died out, and now Arabic since Aramaic died out in that and most other places.

    All your other examples hold, of course.

  22. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 10:16 am

    @Timothy Rowe: What you wrote was actually said by Greene in his article:

    I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist.

  23. Barry Cusack said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

    Some commenters find terms such as “self-regulation” and “the market” inappropriate.
    However, there are clearly some similarities in the operation of a market and the development of language. In both cases, the many make their choices. In a market, we buy one product rather than another. In language, we choose one form rather than another. We say eether or aither; we say None is … or None are … ; we use criteria as singular, or reserve it for the plural. And so on.
    These choices, made numberless times by the many, have their effect on the usage of the many. And the language changes as some choices fall out of use, and others become more popular.
    Some of us have more power than others in this market-like activity. Journalists, broadcasters, popular novelists and the like have greater power, owing to the wider dissemination of their choices. Here, something that looks like market forces decides, if not the price, then the currency of the items in the total stock, that stock being the grammar and vocabulary of a language.
    Some of this is very market-like, at least in some respects. Maybe even self-regulating. No analogy should be taken too far, of course.

  24. Bryan W. Van Norden said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

    Advocates of laissez-faire have had a fascination with Daoism for a long time. As I point out in my recent book, Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto (Columbia University Press, 2017), Francois Quesnay, one of the originators of the concept of laissez-faire, claimed to find inspiration for these ideas in the wuwei demonstrated by sage-king Shun, and Ronald Reagan quoted the Daodejing in defense of deregulation of business in one of his State of the Union Addresses (20-21).

  25. Omer Preminger said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

    Greene’s conclusion might, for all I know, be right. But he badly misanalyzes some of the examples he trots out.

    Example (just so it doesn’t seem like I’m exaggerating): Greene mentions the drift of “nauseous” from meaning just “having the potential to cause nausea” to also being usable as “currently experiencing nausea.” So far so good, but then he attempts an analogy between this and what’s happening with “break” in “I broke the dishwasher” vs. “The dishwasher broke.” This alternation between the two “break”s is a true morphological alternation, and in most languages of the world, would be morphologically marked as such (English just happens to be morphologically poor in this regard). I.e., these two “break”s only look identical through a morphological accident of English. The former case involving “nauseous” is an instance of something else entirely: the less-than-fully predictable semantics of derivational morphology (in this case, -ous). Compare: “pave-ment” is that which has been paved, not that which does the paving. But “govern-ment” is the other way around. In sum, the two phenomena he runs together here have nothing to do with one another.

  26. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 3:51 pm

    @Gregory — and lets not forget the Fintstones just yet. They’re still having “a gay old time” on some channels.

    PS. Still looking for the “subscribe to comments” option!

  27. Michael Watts said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 5:12 pm

    Arguably, "pavement" is that which does the paving, referring to the cement or asphalt which with a path is paved rather than to the path that is paved.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 5:12 pm

    "with which", not "which with".

  29. Omer Preminger said,

    December 16, 2018 @ 6:08 pm

    @Michael Watts: Perhaps. But one can adduce numerous other examples in its place. Take, for instance, “achieve-ment” – I would venture that it refers to that which is achieved, not that which is doing the achieving. And so it can serve as the relevant contrast with “government” if you prefer.

  30. Ricardo said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 12:35 am

    @Gregory @Michèle

    I think you've sort of proved my point about the word 'gay'. The examples you have provided of the word in its original sense are–if not qute historical–very dated.

  31. BZ said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 10:30 am

    "They left a continuum of descendants, and those daughter languages are perfectly usable, but the ancestor languages aren't."

    So what? The daughter languages are direct descendants of (most of) those languages. Just because we decided at some arbitrary point that it's no longer that language, it doesn't mean that the original language died out.

  32. KeithB said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 11:01 am

    To the point, I was at a Christmas pageant and they sang "God Rest you Merry Gentle man" with this verse:

    Now to the Lord sing praises,
    All you within this place,
    And with true love and brotherhood
    Each other now embrace;
    This holy tide of Christmas
    All other doth deface.

    I cannot figure out what "deface" means here.

  33. Rose Eneri said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    I'm not claiming to be a crack lyricist, but regarding the Christmas carol commented on by KeithB:

    "God rest ye merry gentlemen
    Let nothing you dismay.
    Remember Christ our Savior
    Was born on Christmas Day."

    Were we not, all of us, born on our birthday?!

  34. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 12:53 pm

    "All other doth deface."

    Well, maybe they really did mean "deface", i.e., "mar" everything else in comparison. But I suspect they were thinking of "efface", in the sense of "eclipse" everything else.

  35. KeithB said,

    December 17, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

    From the context, I think it means that at Christmas, there are no differences, we are all brothers.

    Rose: I have heard it said that Jesus was probably born in the spring, so he was not born on Christmas day. 8^)

  36. youngblood said,

    December 19, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    > I would, if the truth be known, actually prefer to be a proscriptivist but sadly these are now even less common that hen's teeth.

    weird flex but ok

  37. ktschwarz said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 11:11 am

    No need to guess, Wikipedia has the answer to the deface question:

    The use of deface in the final verse of the 1833 and 1961 versions has the archaic meaning of "efface; outshine, eclipse"; because of the now more familiar meaning of "spoil, vandalize", the New English Hymnal of 1986 and other more recent versions replace it with efface.

  38. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 24, 2018 @ 1:53 pm

    "Self-regulating" carries, in this case, an unfortunate connotation of 'agent' and 'agency'. The distinction Mr. Cusack makes above between language and markets is an artifact of this: in the latter he believes he can identify agency but in the former he can not. However, this notion of agency in both cases, and perhaps all similar, is illusary.

    Order often arises spontaneously in natural systems; as systems become increasingly complex, qualitatively distinct dynamic features often emerge. It's difficult for us to interpret such behavior as anything but the product of agency — we are social animals and theory of mind is central and essential to our existence. We're carpenters with a hammer and we see everything as a nail. Agents and agency are everywhere, and their behavior is understood teleologically.

    Thus we tend to impute both agency and intent to complex phenomena, which centers our thinking on matters of who is doing this, why they are doing it, and whether we approve of their goal. This perspective haunts much of our discourse about the natural world, it's notably and problematically the case in discussion about biology, as with evolution, but I think it's equally problematic with regard to language qua language. There is no agent and there is no purpose, no goal. To be blunt, normative framing is a category error with regard to language and linguistic change.

    That's not to say that normative framing is never appropriate — it can be with regard to an individual speakee in a particular context. Just as, say, a genetic mutation may be adaptive in one environment, but maladaptive in another. There is no "agent" driving such changes, there are no "goals" — so-called "self-regulation" is agentless. It just is.

    Note that this pervasive teleological error manages to find its way into otherwise sophisticated analysis. People who understand evolutionary biology a little, but not a lot, think in terms of "more" or "less" evolved, as if evolutionary change arrows toward perfection. It does not. Likewise, free market theorists make similar errors.

    Language is vast, complex, and organized and this invites the human mind to imagine architects and purpose and to make comparisons about how well that purpose is served. Even when someone, like Greene, in their analysis is clearly descriptivist, one can find these notions of agency in word choices like "self-regulating", and notions of teleology in thinking about change. Even if, strictly speaking, one knows these things don't exist, they still hiver there, like phantoms, over the discourse.

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