Hi Finn, thanks for the interesting article. As a lifelong student of language (both in the abstract and practical senses) I’m always intrigued by the constant tension between the need of sub-groups to distinguish themselves by means of highly group-specific argot versus the generalized need to enable communication. When a sub-group’s argot becomes too impenetrable it essentially cuts itself off from the life of the larger society within which it exists, and this always has terribly detrimental effects. Longer-lasting groups usually find a balance, which is what we see in the craft guild argots of lawyers and doctors, for example.

In the end, language is perpetually in flux. Although I greatly appreciate the rich expressivity of what can be termed Oxford English, I also appreciate the stripped-down functionality of US English. The former evolved over a thousand years, incorporating a wide variety of inputs, and takes considerable effort to master (so much so that the typical Brit speaks merely a constrained sub-version). US English, conversely, evolved over a couple of hundred years and was shaped by the needs of those coming from many different language groups. Simple communication sufficient to meet the needs of the day drove US English to become the RISC (reduced instruction set chip) version of the language. Today the typical Brit uses 3,700 words daily and has access to at least 6 of the 12 tenses plus subjunctive. In contrast the typical US citizen uses a mere 500 words daily and has access only to simple past, simple present, and simple future (hence US speakers saying things like “I didn’t do it yet”). This means a new arrival from Ukraine or Laos can quickly assimilate enough language to manage the business of daily survival, whereas it would take them far longer to become vaguely proficient in the more complex Oxford English.

Neither, therefore, is “better” or “worse” than the other; they evolved differently and serve slightly different purposes. US English will of course continue to evolve, driven by (among other things) the current problems engendered by an overly-limited lexicon. US English employs phrasal verbs to compensate for diminished vocabulary, but the results are unsatisfactory. For example the phrasal verb “make out” has far too many separate meanings (“discern,” “assert,” “engage in physical intimacy with,” etc.) and we can predict that over time the average US citizen’s vocabulary will expand in order to lessen reliance on failure-prone phrasal verbs.

The pleasure is in seeing how adaptive language is, especially when we discover something of our linguistic heritage. Who knows, for example, that we use the word “candidate” today because Latin “candidus” means “white?” Candidates for office were careful to wear the white toga, signifying their supposed purity. The same root gives us the word “candle” today. While our politicians now make no gesture whatsoever towards purity, we still call them by the age-old name and even if we buy items made from colored wax we still refer to them, unknowingly, as white.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.