Monday, May 24, 2004

Linguistic Change and Linguistic Conservatism

May a linguistic conservative such as your humble correspondent coin new expressions? Of course. A conservative is not one opposed to change as such, or linguistic change as such. A conservative is one who is opposed to unnecessary, or idiotic, or deleterious changes – the kind our dear liberal friends love to introduce. An example of a change that was unnecessary was the renaming of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association to ‘Central Division’ some years back. This rankled this curmudgeon for two reasons. First, the change is wholly unnecessary: given that there is a Pacific Division and a Western Division, one would have to be consummately stupid indeed not to realize that the former is to the west of the latter.

Second, this wholly unnecessary change obliterates an interesting piece of history, namely, that the APA once had only two divisions. Should Case Western Reserve University change its name because the Western Reserve region of Ohio is practically in the East nowadays? (By the way, that strange name is an amalgam of 'Case Institute of Technology' and 'Western Reserve University.' Case Institute of Technology was where Michelson and Morley in 1881 conducted the famous experiment that put the ether hypothesis out of commission. When I was visting at CWRU, I got a thrill out of conducting some of my classes in Morley Hall.)

True, ‘Western Division,’ was a misnomer – but only if one takes it as a description in disguise as opposed to a logically proper name the meaning of which is exhausted by its reference. Recall Saul Kripke’s old example of ‘Holy Roman Empire’ from Naming and Necessity. The entity denoted was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But that did not prevent the phrase in question from functioning as a proper name. Similarly with ‘Western Division.’