Modern English – A Regression of Evolution?

Today we welcome a guest post authored by Alex Burns. It is a clever diversion from our usual content, but we’ll tie it back to procurement in a postscript at the end.

Human language has evolved over many thousands of years. The evidence lies in the pidgin languages of Hawaii, neurological data on speech impediments following cerebral injury and the written evidence on cave walls around the world. It is a marvel that we communicate so freely with a set of behavioural rules that make us uniquely human. While language is a ubiquitous human trait, the particular form of the language is not. Hence we have different languages, most of which use the same set of phonemes. The evolution of language can be seen clearly in just the few short years that America has existed as a civilization. An entertaining sketch by David Mitchell on the use of the English language by Americans can be found here. It highlights how phrases and words change so easily through divergent evolution, sometimes to the point of becoming a new language.

Language is an innate product of human genetics, and as such we learn from a young age the individual sounds that can compose a theoretically infinite number of words. It is amusing to note that children do not need their grandma leaning over them saying ‘choo-chee-coo’ in order to be able to speak. They learn the sounds from all around them—from their mother while they are in the womb and from listening to the adults that surround them after they are born.

Between birth and adolescence, children learn a new word at the average rate of every two waking hours. This cannot be taught. Parents do not spend enough time interacting with their children to pass on the required information that forms our language [The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language] Should two babies grow up on an isolated island with no other human presence, they would develop their own language, probably using the same phonemes (sounds) we do because that is what the human body is designed to produce. An interesting example is the phenomenon of “twin-speak,” where twins often communicate in their own, idiosyncratic “language.”

You see it in bilingual children who hop so effortlessly from one language to another mid-sentence. Their brains do not yet recognize them as separate languages, and they have not developed the different grammatical laws that bind them.

Writing, though not a necessity of language, has accompanied the evolution of how we speak. Our inner monologue, though normally fragmented and ungrammatical, is evolved from how we write or speak. Deaf people will think in sign language. So when I hear people using written slang like ‘lol’, ‘soz’ [The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language] and other abbreviations, I wonder whether their minds are using them as well. If so, what is the consequence of this?

Is this a regression in the evolution of language? Is “LOL” a noun, verb, adjective? How does it fit into the laws of the English language? The Queen’s English has no place for such words, but should it be made to change? If these words are outside the normal order of language, are they affecting the way we learn the language? Speakers of pidgin languages happily use a differently structured methodology for transferring the same information that the Queen’s English does, yet we see the latter form of English as a higher grammatical state. Has the invention of technology and the wish to shorten words and abbreviate forced us to regress back towards grammatical plasticity?

Postscript (authored by Jason Busch): The points Alex raises have applicability far outside of just procurement and business, but introduce a particular nuance to the workplace, especially environments that are dominated by discussions on metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). To ensure our colleagues understand the gravity of a particular situation, are we better off talking about specific aspects of supplier risk and behaviour or do we zero on a change in a specific KPI, as represented by an acronym? It’s not universal in a company to understand the specific implications of a SER or Altman-Z score increase, but try telling any colleague with a vested interest in a supply-based outcome that a key vendor has a rapidly deteriorating balance sheet and credit indicators that suggest a 50% likelihood of bankruptcy - you’ll get their attention!

If Alex is right (and I think he’s on to something) we’re better off relaying information in English, rather than abbreviations, dashboards, or KPIs alone. This is what is so powerful about tools like Narrative Science that can translate data into prose for BI reporting, detecting changes and trends and using adjectives and adverbs in prose based on data trending. It’s also why simply getting out of an acronym-led procurement culture and talking about measurement in numbers and English is so important if we’re to influence the broader organization to get more involved in our activities and to feel a vested interest in sourcing, supply chain and vendor management activities. 

First Voice

  1. Pete Loughlin:

    A perennial topic and I totes agree with Jason.

    Abbreviating serves to confuse – that is it’s purpose! Only the inner circle understand the acronyms. They serve to exclude those whom we wish to exclude. They don’t make our life easier. Why on earth for example would we say WWW when ‘world wide web’ is quicker and easier to say? Acronyms are designed to make life harder for the outsiders. Teenages invent new words to exclude their parents.

    But actually, there’s another linguistic phenomenon that is used in professional circles in a similar manner and for a similar purpose and that it to lengthen words to make them sound more complex and make the user appear more clever or important. Why call a ‘method’ a ‘methodology’?. Why extend the adjective ‘modal’ into a noun ‘modality’ when the word ‘mode’ is a perfectly good noun. Perhaps that’s just American English (he says ducking for cover…)

    And I’m reminded of the story that Emily (shouldn’t but would) Deane told recent when she offended a Buddhist by saying ‘yolo’

    (Google it – to use another 21st century verb)

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