Monday, October 11, 2010

If you’re reading this, you presumably understand English. So suppose I asked you to characterize the English language, that is, to give me some way of determining if some text is English or not. Okay, that’s hard. So suppose I just asked you how you’d go about characterizing English in principle, without actually investing the huge effort to work out the details.

You might say, well, it’s English if words have particular meanings, if certain rules of syntax are obeyed and so on. But if some bloke in a brilliant jumper asked you for a fag, you might at least want to concede that a characterization of English might involve a family of variations, in each of which words have particular meanings, certain rules of syntax are obeyed and so on.

But even that would not quite be the most fruitful approach. Consider this:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duc that highte Theseus; Of Atthenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour, That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

That used to be called English. And if the English speakers who spoke that way had tried to characterize English then in terms of static meanings and syntax, it’s not very likely that this would have made the cut:

Ayo, my pen and paper cause a chain reaction to get your brain relaxing, a zany acting maniac in action, a brainiac in fact son, you mainly lack attraction.

And in fact, if we were to try to characterize English now in some static way, it’s unlikely that our characterization would cover English a generation from now. The point of all this is that the only plausible way to include Chaucer and Eminem in our characterization of English is to define English as a process rather than as something static. There is some community of people who speak a common language and the two co-evolve. Language slowly changes as the community of speakers collectively makes small changes. The linguistic community changes as people migrate in or out of it. Chaucer and Eminem are both in because a continuous evolutionary process includes them both.

Let’s think about this process a bit. (But before I lose you, let me tell you where I’m headed with this. Halacha is also a process, very much like a natural language such as English.)

Each of us individually hears English spoken or sees it written and infers certain rules about syntax and semantics of English. Sometimes we are even taught explicit rules, though this is relatively rare. Most of the time, we don’t even make the rules explicit in our own minds; we just manage to absorb them well enough to use them. Now, the fact that children can manage to learn to speak grammatical English based only on hearing people speak it is quite astonishing. They are able to do this only because the human brain is hard-wired to prefer certain kinds of grammars, so these are the ones that exist. This is not to say that there is a unique possible grammar, an obviously false proposition given the variety of spoken languages in the world. Rather, the range of possible grammars is highly constrained. We might sum this up by saying that people have a language instinct.

So where’s the process? Well, people are creative with language. We invent neologisms, borrow words from other languages, use old words in new ways, push the boundaries of syntax and generally take whatever linguistic liberties are necessary to express new ideas or capture particular nuances. Most of our inventions die out as easily as they were born. But some spread and become part of the language. Thirty-five years ago nobody heard of the word “meme”; then it became a meme; now it’s just a word.

The crucial point is that a loop is closed. Once some incremental change has been sufficiently absorbed into the language, it becomes part of the base to which speakers relate when they further expand the language. So there is an ongoing process that looks something like this:

  1. each individual English speaker absorbs current English and instinctively pushes the envelope (call this “expansion”)
  2. when enough people push the envelope in the same direction, “current” English is re-defined (call this “aggregation”)
  3. back to 1

Of course, the steps don’t actually take place in neat sequential order. Both expansion and aggregation are happening all the time.

Now, with an eye towards our discussion of halacha, let’s make a few observations about this process.

First, changes to language are slow enough that, if you don’t take the long view, you can think of language as being static without the wrongness of that view confronting you too brutally. But, if Chaucer didn’t convince you, try reading Beowulf.

Second, aggregation works in two ways. One way is for many people to push the linguistic envelope in the same way without this change ever being noted in any formal way. It just happens. The other is for the change to be somehow made official by incorporation in some instrument of record. For example, twenty years ago I might have referred to memes only if I were talking to someone whom I had reason to believe hung out in the relevant neck of the woods. Now, anybody can look up its Wikipedia entry. To the extent that Wikipedia is official, “meme” has graduated to the lexical big leagues.

One of the consequences of all this is that English might evolve in different ways among different communities of English speakers. In the days before the Internet, geographically isolated communities were also linguistically isolated. They were somewhat immune to changes happening in the mainland and instead evolved on their own. They might even have developed “instruments of record” (dictionaries, grammar books, recognized experts, etc.) of their own, so that they began to think of mainland English as wrong, or at least odd. This sort of process can lead to two versions of English that are so different that we wouldn’t think of them as being the same language, just as we don’t think of, say, German and English as being the same language, despite their sharing a common ancestor.

Okay, I’ve spent an awful lot of time laying groundwork. Next time, we’ll talk about halacha. You can probably see the parallels already. The interesting part will be the differences.


Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

I presume it is not coincidental that the archaic passage refers to Theseus. After all, his ship has a lot to do with this discussion.

4:12 PM  
Blogger Jesse A. said...

This is a little out of the blue, but have you thought about using Oakshott's ideas about political traditions to describe halakha? Halakha develops in very much the way that he describes traditions as developing, and it seems like you're sort of headed in that direction... His essay "Political Education" in Rationalism in Politics has most of what I'm referring to.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Good catch. Now you have to darshen Eminem...

I'll be taking positions close to Oakeshott's but I couldn't find that essay. Have you got a link?

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Daas Yochid said...

I seem to remember this idea from the book "Meta Halacha" ;-)

6:32 AM  
Anonymous BenSira said...

Great analogy to the halachic process. If someone went around trying to invent words, say, like Rabba, people would get upset. In needs to evolve naturally...

7:51 AM  
Blogger Jesse A. said...

Unfortunately, I don't think it is available online. It is the second essay in this collection: They don't let you search inside. If you can't get your hands on a copy at a library, I can probably scan and email you a .pdf, if you're interested.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks. I very much want to see it. I'll try in the library first. I'll let you know if I succeed.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Jesse A. said...

Absolutely. Email me at if you want the .pdf. Either way, I'm very interested to see where you take this.

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent post! i do have a feeling of what you will say, but, man, what a cliffhanger!

11:17 PM  
Anonymous yoeli said...

וואס האט איר מיט הלכה. דוד הארטמאן מיינט אז ער פארשטייט הלכה. מיט וואס זענט איר אנדרש ביידע פון ענק לאכען פון פריערדיגע פוסקים. אז איר ווילט וויסען וויאזוי הלכה ארבעט לערנט די גדולי הפוסקים

2:55 AM  

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