The Grammarphobia Blog

Is language organic?

Q: My friends and I have an ongoing debate about the nature of language. I describe language as organic in the sense that it is constantly growing and changing, and my friends disagree with that statement on several levels. First, they say I shouldn’t use the word “organic” that way. Second, they say language is structured with rules and isn’t free flowing. Do you have any ideas on the subject?

A: This is a big question.

You could say that language is organic, if by “organic” you mean having characteristics in common with living organisms. After all, language doesn’t exist independently of the living beings who use it. Many linguists believe that language or the ability to construct language is wired into our DNA, and I think they’re right.

Similarly, we tend to adapt language to fit our needs. We may feel at times that we are training ourselves to conform to some ideal of language perfection, but that “ideal” is itself a human invention. Generation after generation, we discard outdated vocabulary, pronunciations, even what have been considered “rules,” because they no longer serve as aids to communication—we no longer recognize those signals because they aren’t useful anymore.

For example, it was believed for a (very brief) time a couple of hundred years ago that an English sentence shouldn’t end with a preposition. Why? Because English had emerged gradually and informally and naturally, and concern about rules came later. When questions of grammar arose in the 18th century, Latin scholars sought to impose the rules of Latin on English. But before long people realized that English wasn’t a Romance (Latin-derived) language. It’s a Germanic language, and Germanic languages commonly end in prepositions. So that brief “rule” was debunked, although many people still erroneously cling to it. A lot of former “rules” of grammar are old myths invented by Latinists in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Of course there is an underlying structure to language that doesn’t change. Subjects should have a particular relationship to verbs. We have to be able to keep time elements straight, and so tenses in a series have to make sense. We must be able to differentiate singulars from plurals, and in some cases masculine from feminine (as with pronouns). So yes, English is free-flowing, but within a structure that imposes an overall logic.