English language Etymology Linguistics Usage

A transformative vision?

Q: This book title makes me uncomfortable: Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity. I associate “transformative” with mutation, not necessarily in a good way, and “transformational” with improvements. I wonder what the experts say.

A: The words “transformative” and “transformational” have slightly different meanings, according to some of the dictionaries we consulted, though not in the way you think.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognize a difference, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) regards the two words as synonyms.

With lexicographers divided, it’s not surprising that many people use these words interchangeably. So it’s probably not worth lying awake nights trying to remember which is which.

The OED and Merriam-Webster’s say something that has the power to transform is “transformative” while something that’s simply concerned with or characterized by transformation is “transformational.” A couple of examples might help:

● “Sheila’s trip to Rome was transformative, since she left home a shrinking violet and came back a confident woman.”

● “The garden is in a transformational stage, halfway between wilderness and civilized landscape.”

More to the point, though, neither word should be interpreted as exclusively positive or negative.

These adjectives—like “transform,” the word they come from—merely have to do with change, and change can be for better or for worse. A magic spell, for instance, might transform a subject into a frog or a prince.

Ian Refkowitz used “transformative” in a positive sense when he subtitled his book A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity.

To quote from the book, Refkowitz discusses whether President Obama can succeed in “transforming our national identity,” so that America’s “many ethnic groups can truly become one people.”

The verb that’s at the bottom of all this change, “transform,” comes from the Latin transformare, which is composed of the prefix trans– (through) and formare (to form). In Latin, the noun forma means “form.”

The verb was first recorded in English in about 1340, according to the OED. It means to change, whether in form, character, condition, function, or nature.

The noun “transformation” came along in the 1400s and generally means “the action of transforming or fact of being transformed,” the OED says.

As for the adjectives, “transformative” means “having the faculty of transforming; fitted or tending to transform.” But the lesser-used “transformational” merely means “of or pertaining to transformation.”

Of the two, “transformative” is the older, and was first recorded in the late 17th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from John Flavell’s religious tract The Fountain of Life Opened (1673): The light of Christ is powerfully transformative of its subjects.”

“Transformational,” which came along in the late 19th century, is often used in a technical sense.

It was first recorded, the OED says, in an 1894 article in a London literary magazine, the Athenæum: “The distinction between ‘combinational’ and ‘transformational’ theories of experience.”

However, no more citations for “transformational” appear in the OED until the mid-1950s, when the term became identified with Noam Chomsky and his work in theoretical linguistics.

In 1955, the OED says, Chomsky used the term “Transformational Analysis” in the title of his Ph.D dissertation.

The adjective has since become well-known among linguists and others interested in what’s become known as “transformational” grammar, a theory about how the brain processes language.

Among the OED’s citations for “transformational” is this one from the New York Times in 1965: “Transformational grammar grew in part from M.I.T. computer experiments to produce mechanical translations of foreign languages.”

A related adverb, “transformationally,” is also used in linguistics, as in this OED citation from the journal Dædalus:

“If the interrogative sentence ‘Are the men here?’ is derived transformationally from the phrase structure underlying the declarative sentence ‘The men are here,’ it would seem to imply that a speaker first thinks of the declarative sentence and then transforms it into the interrogative form.”

Of course, “transformational” is also used by non-linguists. And a cursory survey of the usage in Google shows that many people who do use “transformational” generally use it in the “transformative” sense—that is, not merely having to do with transformation, but able to bring it about.

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