On Gradients (via On Language)

Language changes. This is a fact, and not a difficult one to verify. Try reading some Shakespeare. (I’m going to elide the difference between spoken and written language here. I am not a professional linguist. If you are, feel free to be properly horrified.)

It changes, often slowly, but sometimes quickly. It changes in its syntax, its grammar, its pronunciation, its spelling. And we can trace at least some of that by examining the writings of whatever period we’re looking at.

All of this to say that language is produced by and embedded in societies. It’s “in here”. It’s “out there”. You can try to pretend there’s some perfect language standard written on tablets in the sky or whatever, and try to command the tide of language change to stop by gesturing in the direction of that perfect standard.

You can try. But it won’t work. And you’ll be super-annoying while you’re at it.

Language is what we say it is. You can still have your pet peeves (goodness knows I’ve got lots), but your peeves aren’t going to make a lick of difference.

I’ve said all this and more before. I won’t belabour the point.

One problem that we have with this, is that language changes slowly. At least relative to human lifespans. So you may notice some change during your lifetime, but probably not a whole lot. You’re not going to have a whole lot of trouble broadly understanding your grandchildren, should you have any.

But if you read Chaucer? That stuff’s basically gibberish to us.

So we break things into categories. Old English, Middle English, Modern English, for example. And don’t forget that categories are made up too!

But when does Middle English start? When does it end?

It’s nearly impossible to say. If you were to time travel to 500 years ago, you’d have a pretty hard time understanding what they were saying. So you’d be pretty confident in saying that 500 years ago folks spoke a very different language. Maybe you call it Middle English.

But start picking other points. It becomes really hard to say. Is this Middle English? Modern English? Middle/Modern English?

This is because slowly changing things change on a gradient. And a gradient is a great metaphor that you can just intuitively understand if you’ve ever seen a sunset. Where does the blue of the sky end and the, say, pink of the sunset begin? Very hard to say. Almost impossible, really. But if you pick any spot on in the sky, you can suddenly very easily identify the colour.

The same with slowly changing things. Overlaying our concepts of categorization on a gradient is artifice. It fits our mental and professional need to put things into boxes, but it doesn’t fully reflect reality.

Categories are models. All models are simplifications. All simplifications are, in some sense, wrong. Not to suggest these models aren’t useful, but they are, again, in some sense, wrong.

You can see this in the idea of speciation. We have this persistent and mistaken cultural belief that “species” is somehow a thing that exists “out there” in some kind of Platonic way. I’m not sure if we’re teaching it wrong, or if this is just one of those things about human brains, but there’s no such thing as a species, apart from the fact that we find it useful to say that in some sense this thing is a different thing than that thing.

A wolf is a different species from a dog. But dogs are just domesticated wolves. So when did the wolf become a dog? Again, a gradient. We can see, now, in retrospect, that a wolf and a dog are different things based on some criteria we’ve decided are useful, but the overall change through the course of history is a gradient. (Look at the Russian fox experiment if you want a more recent example; it’s absolutely fascinating to imagine how long it might take for those semidomesticated fox to be considered a completely different species.)

The fun thing here is once you start seeing gradients of change, you can’t stop seeing them.

Look at yourself adult self now and your adult self, say, 20 years ago. You may be remarkably different.

Yet the question “when did I change?” isn’t really meaningful, in general. The fact is you did, bit by bit. You’re not who you where. You’re who you are.

When did you become who you are? Well… never. And always.

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