Spontaneous Order

Even the deepest-seeming change – to the grammar – never destroys the language system. Some distinctions can disappear: classical Arabic has singular, dual and plural number; the modern dialects mostly use just singular and plural, like English. Latin was full of cases; its daughter languages – French, Spanish and so on – lack them, but their speakers get on with life just the same. Sometimes languages get more complex: the Romance languages also pressed freestanding Latin words into service until they wore down and became mere endings on verbs. That turned out OK, too.

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

Lane Greene. Aeon. Who Decides What Words Mean.