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Conservapedia:Devolution of language

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Oh, Andy, Andy, Andy. How can you allow this?

Let's start with this point: "devolution" is, by and large, a meaningless concept. Evolution, whether in linguistics or biology, is an inherently nondirected progress — a language or genome changes according to rather haphazard, and those changes survive because it makes the object fitter for use, or sometimes (in the case of languages or, say, peacock tails) just plain cooler. It's very seldom that a language is significantly reduced in expressive power; even in situations where a word such as, say, "like" or "dude" or "fuck" becomes heavily overloaded, context and intonation replace and/or augment a word with what might be called out-of-band data — if I, like, write a sentence, and it's all filled with the same word, like, over and over again, and I stress each clause with an upturned inflection at the end? like this? the meaning is still exquisitely clear, even if it sounds incredibly grating when you sound it out in your head.

There's an important distinction to be mentioned here — prescriptivism, which treats certain registers of language as "proper" and describes them in terms of how a language should be used, and descriptivism, which acknowledges the differences between different registers of speech but reports them as they exist rather than how they should be used. The difference can be seen in the "official" forms of the English and French languages; the two most important dictionaries in English, the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's Third International, are strongly descriptivist in their current incarnations (the OED in particular radically so), while the Académie Française has traditionally positioned itself more as a prescriptivist referee of the language, since the 20th century in particular trying to reduce the incursion of foreign (especially English) words into the language.

While it's fair to point out that certain usages should be avoided because they demonstrably reduce the ability to comprehend communications (the frequent confusion of "flaunt" and "flout" being a particularly egregious one), politicizing differences between speech registers, especially as class markers, is as old as civilization — the Bible's "shibboleth" story is one of the oldest that most Westerners will be familiar with, in which a difference in accent between two Israelite tribes could mean death, and Charlemagne was only one of many who tried to stop the dissolution of Classical Latin into the langue d'oïl (i.e. Old French) [1] In medieval England, the common people spoke English while the upper classes largely spoke Norman French. German-speaking Jews treated Yiddish-speakers as illiterates. Even now, "unofficial" languages and dialects — African-American English, Belarussian, virtually any language in France that isn't standard French — are treated as the languages of savages and illiterates. This is the mentality we're dealing with here, combined with a somewhat inappropriate (but seldom challenged) attitude that the Classical world is superior to the modern world. [2]

Needless to say, as arch-conservatives, Andy Schlafly and his crew tend to have a somewhat snobby attitude towards language. The concept of linguistic devolution only makes sense if you are a language snob, and in fact is pretty easily subverted just by looking at the history of, say, French. But that doesn't stop the Conservapedians from wading into the swamp of conservative folk linguistics, and it's amazing when they actually get anything right.

The fisking[edit]

Conservapedia's Devolution of Language article RationalWiki's response
The devolution of language is the often-corrosive affect that culture, primarily entertainment, computers, public schools, sports, games, literature, and politics, have on the meaning of words. Words can enter popular usage either as a term once snobbishly seen as over-demotic gains acceptance, or as a jargon or specialized term becomes popularized. Let's start here. "Corrosive" implies that there's a platonic ideal of language that there should be no deviation from, and that deviating from it may have a negative effect on society as a whole. As far as it's possible to tell, Conservapedia buys heavily into some form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which in practice has, while not a completely nonexistent effect, a rather more minimal one than it was originally thought (in other words, even if the would-be revolutionaries in 1984 learned only Newspeak as their native language, they'd still find a way to talk subversively no matter how restrictive the official vocabulary was). See also Conservapedia:Linguistic determinism.

There are several modes of semantic change:
  • words acquire a more literal meaning and lose their more abstract connotations (narrowing)
  • words acquire a more abstract meaning and lose their literal one (broadening) — so (to take an apposite example for this website) "conservative" used to mean "opposed to any change", and now describes a system of political philosophy.
The editors responsible seem to have missed a third — the process by which, for example, the Hebrew "shibboleth", which in its native language means "ear of wheat", became a term meaning "a distinguishing characteristic of a social group". However, "metonymy", mentioned below, is one of the forms of this process. Sloppy."

These changes can take place via metaphor, metonymy, and similar processes.

Some examples include:


  • "clue" now means a signifier or a piece of evidence, rather than a ball of thread or yarn.
Sort of. The original word is "clew"; though the spelling wavered back and forth for some time, the original sense and spelling are completely obsolete. There's no explanation as to why this change constitutes devolution anyway.

  • "word" was once a more figurative term, as in "speech", but now has a more literal connotation partly due to its common usage in the familiar "word processor" product
The term has had both meanings at least as far as Late Germanic, and cognates exist in all Germanic languages. The editors are likely confusing the English word with the etymologically unrelated logos in classical Greek, which does have a somewhat more squishy meaning that was inherited by English, not the other way around.

  • "message" now means something very brief, and usually non-substantive, due to the influence of instant messaging
This is the first thing that could qualify as "devolution" on the list. Unfortunately, it presumes that a word has one meaning, and also presumes that the term exists because of instant messaging. Evidently the "quick and dirty" concept does not apply to a "While You Were Out" note.

  • "link" now means a clickable reference to another website, as well as a substantive connection, or as originally, one of the metal elements that makes up a chain.
Your point? Well, I guess Conservapedians should never talk about how abortion and ALL THAT IS EVUL are linked anymore, and such, as that is obviously destroying the English language.

  • "liberal" once met generous or enlightened, or committed to constitutional government and individual liberty, but, in the United States, now means demanding funding for abortion and censoring prayer in school
To the extent that this definition is correct in a specific context (which it really isn't), it's missing the forest for a single tree, made of straw. It can also mean lenient or tolerant, which is how the word seems to acquire completely opposite meanings in politics and economics — the political definition refers to tolerance of individual differences and promoting of civil rights, while the economic definition refers to minimal regulation on business. Same word, different contextual meanings.

  • "media" now means the press, rather than modes of transferring information. The singular "medium" has largely been lost
Except that the original meanings given here are still commonly taught in schools, and most people use the word "media" to refer to modes of transferring information, and that the average course involving media studies includes effects of advertising, which is not the press. Most people don't use the word "medium" as a singular of "media" anymore, though.

    • by the same token, the press now signifies the entire news industry, rather than merely the machine for transferring ink from movable type onto paper.
And how is this a problem? More seriously, the idea is that "media" and "press" have become terms of art, referring to the collective of print, audio and video recordings, radio, television, and electronic information transfer; it isn't exactly a stretch for the term to refer to the content providers as well as the content carriers, or for a meaning to expand to include analogous functions.

  • "civil rights" used to refer to ensuring equality between the races, but now, to organizations like the ACLU, it involves ridiculous causes like promotion of the gay agenda and pro-abortion rights
Perhaps if you consider "civil rights" as a code word for those things; however, properly speaking it refers to everyone's civil rights, i.e. the problem domain covered in the United States Constitution's Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No doubt in 1960 Conservapedians would have preferred "special rights" for race equality...

  • "gay" once meant "noble, good", then "carefree and happy", and has taken on the meanings of dissolute, promiscuous; frivolous, hedonistic (16th century), as "homosexual" as of the 1920s, and "Foolish, stupid, socially inappropriate or disapproved of" as of the 1970s.
This is a commonplace claim of "language devolution", but in fact "gay" was being used as a code word for prostitution by the late 19th century and the meaning of "homosexual" appeared not long after, certainly before the 1920s. If anything, the changes in the term "queer" are more interesting, which was a synonym for "gay" as late as the early 1990s but has since shifted to the more general sense of "atypical sexuality" (i.e. not just gay, but bisexual, transgender, and the like) in rather short order.

  • Several terms meaning "weak", "weak-willed", or "effeminate male", including the word "faggot", are now proclaimed "offensive" by practitioners of the homosexual agenda.
Here's a word with questionably homosexual connotations: "butthurt". The implication is that no one was offended by such terminology until someone started speaking up. Needless to say, it ignores the fact that many of the people these terms applied to lived in the societies they came from and likely had to go along with it in order to keep their closet door shut, and therefore knew exactly what the terms were supposed to mean in context. Complaining about something like that being considered offensive is like proclaiming your innocence of a crime because the police stopped you before you could get away with it.

  • "nice" once meant "foolish, silly, simple", and then later "exact, pedantic" rather than its current meaning of "pleasant"
Yes, it is a term with a checkered history. How this qualifies as devolution is a mystery.

  • "condescend" originally meant to forgo the privileges of rank and meet one's lessers on their level. It has been corrupted to mean "act arrogantly."

See "Common People" by Pulp to get a sense of how arrogance figures into it. Everybody does hate a tourist.


  • "Pretty" used to mean nothing but "handsome, pleasant, beautiful," but has since taken on the added meaning of "moderately" or "fairly," suggesting a psychological inability to handle precision
Wait, what? How does it suggest that at all? How does the existence of a meaning equivalent to "moderately" or "fairly" suggest a psychological inability to handle precision in any way? This is actually a somewhat common logical fallacy that confuses certainty and decisiveness, in this case assuming vagueness is a result of sloppy observation rather than a definable uncertainty in a result. Maybe the information isn't available; maybe precision doesn't matter in this case. In either case, it ignores the fact that a lot of energy has been burned on fuzzy logic, the somewhat ad hoc branch of mathematics that studies quantities like "sort of" and "just enough" and despite a lack of rigor has been useful for numerous industrial and home appliance applications.

  • "Average" originally referred to a financial loss incurred due to damage to goods while being shipped between ports or cities. The word took on its modern meaning of "typical" in the late 18th century, suggesting a rise in the tolerance of mediocrity.
See the note on "pretty". The etymology of "average" is actually a bit muddier than the editors make it sound; the mathematical sense appears to be a collision between an English law term (evidently from legal French) for the work owed by a day laborer to the local sheriff and an Arabic word meaning "loss at sea". The second term is still used in the insurance industry, but the first seems to be a more logical connection to the mathematical sense. As for "average" as a synonym for "mediocrity", this is actually pretty close to a literal use of the statistical sense of the term; the mystery is why the existence of that meaning somehow implies a tolerance for it.

  • "Pathetic" originally meant "moving, capable of stirring up powerful emotions." The meaning of "so piteous as to be laughable" only appeared in the early 20th century at a time when language was being emasculated by liberals.
This is the same sort of overly priggish Classicism as grammarians insisting that one is to never split an infinitive, despite the fact that the "rule" only exists as a result of a false analogy to Latin, which constructs its infinitives completely differently from English. Besides, it's hardly a fault if a word's definition doesn't precisely conform to its etymology.

  • "Anal" originally was an adjective referring to the rectal area. Since the lunacies of Freudian terminology penetrated American English in the late 1950's, this word has come to mean "overly fussy."
"Lunacy" is a major stretch here. While Freud's work is largely discredited in modern psychology, Freudian language left a reasonably large quantity of words that described things that weren't necessarily well-described before (even if some of them were, at best, faulty pattern-finding). "Anal-retentive" is one of those curious words that doesn't quite have the sexual connotation it would seem to, and in fact refers to one of Freud's stranger hypotheses; however, it still hangs around at least in part because of the amusing image to someone who is such a neat freak that they're afraid to even take a crap.

  • "Pride" originally referred to having a lofty view of one self or one's own, and is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Now, it is used by homosexuals to refer to their love of their own views (gay pride parades).
Strictly speaking, the term is superbia in Latin (or, in Greek, hubris, which may be etymologically related). Remember that it's risky to assume that two words with similar meanings in two different languages are exact equivalents. Furthermore, Greek philosophy recognized two things that would be described in English as pride; hubris is the sort of pride that goeth before a fall, while Aristotle's coinage megalopsyhia referred to justified pride, as in the sort that comes from confidence and a sense of accomplishment. It's pretty typical of arguments that don't take linguistic differences into account to equivocate like this.

Devolution of language also applies to vocabulary in general. Low literacy levels fostered by liberal education systems reduce readers' ability to comprehend words commonly found in literature but not used in unintellectual entertainment and media. One report stated that the average 14-year-old's vocabulary has decreased 60% since 1945, roughly coinciding with the dominance of liberal public schooling. Shocking, isn't it, that this article connects public schooling and shrinking vocabularies? In practice, of course, most of the difficulties with public schooling stem from issues with lack of funding and oversight in low-income school districts, and a system of homeschooling and private schools would make illiteracy rates jump because of the number of families that wouldn't be able to afford a quality education.

References and further reading[edit]

  1. Though in Charlemagne's defense, towards the end of his life he did realize it was a losing battle, and literary French would make its first, tentative appearance (along with a similarly early form of Old High German) in the texts of the Strasbourg oaths, a treaty between the individual kingdoms of two of Charlemagne's grandsons.
  2. The Editors are perhaps not aware of Shakespeare's Holofernes, the "pedant" in Love's Labour Lost, who was a spectacularly obnoxious schoolmaster who frequently taught Classically-influenced folk etymologies as true. He was explicitly portrayed as unsympathetic.

See also[edit]