Can We Just Make Up New Words?
News Flash: This Just In: READ ALL ABOUT IT!: All Language is Made Up!
I mean obviously. We humans created language to be able to better communicate with each other and because of this, our language is constantly e v o l v i n g just as we are.
Get use to it.
The funniest thing is when people get upset over the use of the singular “they”. Except that such usage has been in practice since at least the 14th Century.
In fact, the singular “they” was used in the Bible! Wycliffs’ 1382 translation of Ecclesiasticus 38:35 reads, “Eche on in þer craft ys wijs” which translates to “Each one in their craft is wise.” But wait a minute. If Wycliffs’ Bible was written in English – a language that apparently never changes – and I’m speaking in English right now, then why am I having to translate it to modern English? Oh right, because the English language has changed a lot over the years since it’s old Germanic roots.
King James also employed the singular “they” various times in his 1611 biblical transitions, including this example from Numbers 15:12, “According to the number that ye shall prepare, so shall ye do to every one according to their number.”
And what is up with King James’ use of “ye”? No one talks like that anymore. Same with “thee”, “thy”, “thou”, and “thine”, which were also used frequently. This is because “thee”, “thy”, “thou”, and “thine” were all singular conjugations of the plural “ye”, “you”, “your”, and “yours”.
That’s right – “you” is grammatically plural. That’s why we still conjugate the verbs following it as “you are” instead of “you is.” I could say “he is” or “she is“, but never “you is“. Why is this? Because “you” is plural. Just because we dropped the singular “thou” from usage doesn’t make it any less grammatically plural. So if you really want to be a hardcore language prescriptionist, then I suggest thou start using thy language correctly lest thou look like a hypocrite.
Geoffrey Chaucer utilized the singular “they” in his 1400 epic poem The Canterbury Tales: “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up…”
And in 1623, Shakespeare made use of the singular usage in his play A Comedy of Errors: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend”.
Well there you have it. The singular “they” is equally as correct as the singular “you”. The things you learn in Esctranbia County schools!
Linguistic Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism
Should language be dictated by a set of precise rules that tell us how we should and shouldn’t communicate? – If that’s how you want to live your life, then you would fall under the Linguistic Prescriptivist camp.
Or should language be described in relation to how it’s used by the people who speak it? – If that’s how how understand the world, then you would fall under the Linguistic Descriptivist camp.
After all – and this seems like such an obvious point but here we are – language was invented first, then the rules of language. That is to say that cavepeople did not have grammar rules to govern what their grunts meant. They just grunted and it was either understood or it wasn’t. I realize this may seem like a chicken or the egg argument, but I’d like to posit the question of: with what words were people using to describe and enforce their grammatical rules prior to the invention of language?
Prescriptivists tell us that these rules are very important and if you break them then clearly you must be uncivilized and uneducated.
The problem (and, perhaps the entire propose) with this line of thinking is that it has historically excluded disenfranchised communities who didn’t have the same access to schools from academic discourse.
We still do this now by coloring our language with fancy garbage and ridiculing those who speak different dialects (African American Vernacular English, Latinx dialects, etc), the speakers of which just happen to come primarily from minority communities.
Now, I’m not saying that if you’re a Linguistic Prescriptivist then you’re a racist and a classist. History is. I don’t prescribe the rules, I just describe them.
Linguistic Determinism is a form of Linguistic Relativism that asserts that our language determines our thought.
The indigenous Australian language Guugu Yimithirr describes all directional language is geo-centric rather than ego-centric. So that, rather than saying “look to your left”, they would say “look to the west”. Because of this, Guugi Yimithirr speakers have a better sense of direction and are able to accurately recall events with the positions of objects and people even years after the events took place.
In a study by Stanford University, participants of different native languages were asked to describe a bridge. German speakers used the words “beautiful, elegant, and slender”, while Spanish speakers described it as “strong, sturdy, and towering”. This is because the German word for “bridge” is “die brucke”, which is grammatically feminine, while the word for “bridge” in Spanish is “el puente”, which is grammatically masculine. So the gendered structure of the participants’ native languages influenced how they perceived a bridge.
Language fundamentally influences the way we see the world. And oppressors know this. The Latin “Paganus” originally just meant backwoods or essentially hillbilly. It wasn’t long before the Church began using the word to refer to non-Christians, which had some pretty heavy implications. Compare this to how the Europeans viewed indigenous Americans as “savages”. Calling other cultures savages and barbarians gives you a greenlight to treat them as such.
The Latin for “left” is “sinistram”, which yes, is the precursor for the word “sinister”. This association came into place because the majority of the population used their right hands for everything, so the left side – and especially left-handed people – became conflated with evil. This is why left-handed children use to be punished severely and forced to use their right hands (and the fact that “right” also means “proper” and “good” further drives those associations). You know, because left-handed people were of the devil.
The word “bad” actually derives from the Old English “baddel”, meaning hermaphrodite, which almost certainly referred also to transgender people, but obviously before there was a word for it (this gives a whole new meaning to when I get called a bad girl).
Jokes aside though, this shows how we were viewed historically. While the word “bad” originally derogatorily referred to trans people, it eventually came to refer to debauchery in general. Which shows what people thought of us.
The word villain comes from the Latin “villanus”, meaning “one who works on a villa”. In other words, a farmhand. The word became conflated for criminals about the time the aristocracy started blaming everything on the farmhands (fun story, I’m a trans lady who use to work on a farm so I’m therefore a bad villain).
So if you were different from the majority, then you were labeled some pretty derogatory things (or at least things that would soon become derogatory due to their common usage). So it’s not just grammatical structure, but also terms, that can impact our worldview.
This has serious implications, especially when we consider experiences for which there are no words. Because after all, if there are no words to describe something, then can we even imagine it? And that’s where we come to when we talk about gender identities for which there are no words, or for which the words for them are constantly attacked. And it makes a lot of sense. I mean, if you want to keep people from identifying differently from the majority, all you have to do is ridicule their outside language use.
This is why it’s so important to be open and willing to adapt our language. Whether it’s accepting neopronouns like ze/zir/zirs, xe/xyr/xyrs, or any other combinations.
This is also why it’s important to be willing to adapt to new words for gender identities and sexualities. Because if we aren’t allowed to have words for these experiences, then we don’t get to fully experience them. This also makes it pretty difficult to find others who feel the same way. Because if there’s no word for a thing, then how do you reach out for support and community?
Language is a living, breathing thing. Use it however you see fit.