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Ortholinguistry: Filling the Gaps in Language

A language is like a mouthful of teeth, right?

The individual teeth are the words. And those who would improve the language are like dentists. Extraction here, filling there, braces to align the words nicely.

Chew on that for a while. Because my concern here is whether modern ortholinguistry, for better or worse, is actually capable of changing a language.

In particular, there is the question of gaps. It’s easy for even unlicensed amateurs to notice that any language, including ours, has gaps aching to be filled. And there is no lack of would-be language menders—call them ortholinguists—ready to provide the filling.

Take the most notorious gap in English, the lack of a gender-neutral singular pronoun. That has been a concern for centuries, but especially since we have become aware of the sexist bias of using he for both genders. As long as there has been a concern, so there have been fillings prepared for that gap: thon, zhe, hu, ey, co, among others. Not to mention they, but filling a singular gap with a plural doesn’t satisfy every ortholinguist. No success so far.

It’s not the only gaping gap. From the time the millennium approached, there has been a painful need for a word that would label the first and second decades of the 21st century. Suggestions for the first decade included aughts, noughts, 2000s, 00s, zeroes, and oh-ohs, but none of them fit. As for the second decade, nobody even seems to be trying.

What gives? Why can’t we fill these and other gaps, like the gap for a gender-inclusive word for “brothers and sisters”? We even have such a word, siblings, but we reject it as too technical for everyday use.

The reason we can’t is—spoiler here—a language is not like a
mouthful of teeth. Languages seem indifferent to gaps. They are quite content to bridge perceived gaps with combinations of words when a single word won’t name a concept. We go ahead and say “he or she” or “first decade of the 21st century” or “brothers and sisters” comfortably enough.

Also, languages resist innovation. For a new word to gain a permanent place in the vocabulary, it generally needs to be a stealth word, to sneak in, to look as if it has been around all the while. That’s why we will talk about the twenties, following the familiar pattern of twenties through nineties, but won’t speak of the aughts.

Most deliberately invented words are just too conspicuous. I wrote a book about it once (Predicting New Words). But that’s a topic for another blog.

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