Richard Lederer marvels at our capacity to invent language
For most of us, language is like the air we breathe. Like air, language is invisible and all around us. We need it to live, yet we take it for granted. If, however, we pause and examine our language thoughtfully, we discover that the ordinary language user is astonishingly creative. Without realizing it, we all spend most of our waking hours inventing language.
“practically every sentence that you speak and write during your lifetime has never been spoken or written before in human history”
Incredible as it may seem at first thought, practically every sentence that you speak and write during your lifetime has never been spoken or written before in human history. Except for stock phrases and conventional remarks, such as “Thanks a lot,” “How’s it going?,” and “Have a nice day,” almost all of your speech and writing consists of sentences that you have made up. You are a language inventor.
Consider, for example, an experiment conducted by Richard Ohmann, a professor at Wesleyan University, who placed before 25 people a simple cartoon and asked them to describe in a sentence the situation the drawing portrayed. Not surprisingly, the 25 descriptions that Professor Ohmann received were all different from each other:
“A bear is occupying a phone booth, while a tourist impatiently waits in line.”
“A man who was driving along the road has stopped and is waiting impatiently for a grizzly bear to finish using the public phone.”
“An antsy traveler waits as a bear chatters gaily in a highway telephone booth.”
Then Professor Ohmann used a computer to determine how many grammatical sentences in English could be generated from the raw materials in just those 25 sentences about the agitated tourist and the bear in the telephone booth.
How many would you guess? Five thousand? Ten thousand? Maybe 25,000?
Professor Ohmann’s computer yielded 19.8 billion!—nearly 20 billion English sentences that depict one limited state of affairs culled from only 25 different statements. That 19.8 billion is a very large number. In fact, it would take about 40 human life spans to speak 19.8 billion sentences, even at high speed.
Other computer studies have shown that it would take ten trillion years—2,000 times the estimated age of the Earth—to utter all the possible English sentences that use exactly 20 words. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any 20-word sentence an individual speaks has ever been spoken previously.
The same conclusion holds true, of course, for sentences of greater length and for most shorter sentences as well. That is why almost every sentence that you are reading in this column, as well as in all the books, newspapers, and magazines that have been written and are yet to be written, is expressed, or will be expressed, in its exact form for the very first time.
There is one more intriguing fact to consider. Not only do you spend your days reading sentences that you have never before encountered, but you understand almost every one of them. Part of your humanness is your ability both to invent new sentences and to comprehend the verbal inventions of other people.
Linguist Noam Chomsky maintains that “when we study human language, we are approaching what some might call ‘the human essence,’ the distinct qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.” If you fill your speech and writing with prefabricated clichés, ramshackle abstractions, and leaden expressions, you are denying the abounding creativity that is inherent in the very nature of human language. Thus it is that the manner in which you utter words, write words, and receive words throughout your life determines how effectively and resourcefully you carry on the business of being a member of the human race.
Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, Ph.D. linguistics, is the author of more than 50 books on language, history, and humor, available at his website, www.verbivore.com. Please send your questions and comments about language to