Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Undoubtedly, yes, states the scholar who lurks in the corner of some untidy office shared with another who professes the same beliefs. William Shakespeare said so. But what if he had not said so? What if, instead, a student of literature had posed this as an extension of Juliet’s soliloquy in an essay?
One can only have supposed that a student would have been admonished in dulcet tones by the very same scholar; one must be clear, one must not speak so analogously, such a comment does not belong in an essay. But what if the student had gone further, found their own word for a rose to illustrate the very point our playwright was making?
We may imagine two scenarios as concrete consequences: the first that the professor understands the word through the context in which it is placed and the second that the professor cannot understand the word and refers to the student. In the first case the professor, nonetheless, criticises the student for making either a gross misjudgement in illustration or a grave error in spelling. In the second case the student offers a definition, still to be gently lectured on their mistake. The question then: who has the authority to create words and, more broadly, to create ideas?
Let us now press the rose between the leaves of a leather-bound copy of Romeo and Juliet. Let us place it on a shelf of that untidy office so that its earthy binding and ribbed spine form the background of our thoughts. Let us leave our scholar to profess that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, if Shakespeare said so and not a student of literature.
The question remains: who has the authority to create words? Not a student. Not a professor (at least not of literature, as the professor has most certainly suffered the same education as the student). Both toil at the same work: self-congratulatory reproduction. What happens when the proper procedure is overcome? A student fails to meet a grade; a professor is shunned for corrupt research. What if an idea has been created? Either it will be supposed fraudulent or obliquely proved so.
It seems once an idea has been created, it is owned and propertied by its creator; a sign warning private passively aggressively placed on paths leading to this and neighbouring plains of thought. Whoever thought that two people could, independently and without knowledge of the other, come to the same conclusion, the same idea. After all, some people do think the same. As with an idea, so too with a word. Student or professor – neither party create understandings; they may only study or profess them.
Who has the authority to create words? Shakespeare certainly did, but an individual, little known, no longer has this power. Yes, there is popular force; if enough people make use of a word it will be created – it will become a word. Collective creation bolsters cultural identity where the diverse and personal creations of the individual do not. But this allows the author none of the esteem bestowed upon the few ‘respectable’ and ‘reputable’ creators who do succeed in expanding the English language. Maybe these ‘respectable’ and ‘reputable’ creators no longer exist. Perhaps there are no more words left to be created. But we must leave behind such superfluous hypotheticals. What we should be asking is why the authority to create words has been limited at all.
The English language has come across a border impregnatable. It is floundering under the stern brow of protectionism. We are too concerned for the preservation of a language that, despite its exploitation, is outmoded due to its inability to adapt. We are afraid we will become alien to it as it traverses and finally destroys the bounds of the inferior. And the superiority of a language is inevitably its downfall. Its extinction is due partly to the incapacity of its users and partly to the availability of an invariably simpler language on the international stage. Adaptation does not necessarily mean survival.
At what point do we draw a distinction between the language that is and the language that was, before adaptation? When its users can no longer understand its form? Then surely the language of Shakespeare would constitute another linguistic system? The swiftest answer is that language relies on spatial location and cultural identity. But surely it is arguable that an advanced form of a language is as different as the distinction between two temporally equivalent systems reliant on the same roots?
Whatever the answer, a language may easily fall out of use, either due to its own complications or through adaptation over time (let alone through invasion and other violent methods of linguistical change). Again, we are afraid we will become alien to our own language – the language we collectively and individually possess from birth. Perhaps this concept of possession holds the key. A language is part of a collective identity in a nation; when an individual creates a word or idea it is perceived as private property which threatens the communality of a language with the face of elitism. Shunning creators becomes a method of conservation.
What are the benefits of conservation? The most obvious, perhaps, is the perpetuation of a cultural identity. But does this rely on a language? When most of the world speaks English (due to its simplicity and circulation) either as a first or as a second language, it appears – at least now – that the use of a unifying language to allow open communication between nations has by no means hindered or damaged national identity. Arguably, it has prevented violent threats to it by allowing comprehension and diplomacy. There is no immediate evidence, however, that a sole universal language would not damage one’s collective identity. Even so, languages do seem to present a popular barrier to communication.
Yet, in protecting from the elitism of a language, an alternative elitism has been created; only the ‘reputable’ few can successfully create a word or an idea, often in a ‘respectable’ and literary context, preserving the cultural identity that simpler languages and potential adaptation has threatened. After all, a language must be regulated.
A rose by any other name will, in the immediate sense, smell as sweet, but soon a rose will no longer ‘smell’ or have a ‘name’ by which it may be ‘called’. These ideas will be replaced as a language gains flexibility, although perhaps losing meaning at the same time. But then perhaps a word retains its meaning, just as a rose maintains its smell. However, the primary purpose of a language is still impeded, since communication is hindered when words convey only personal meaning.
But the student, say, who uses alternative words and derivations to create new ideas, is surely not a threat? The greater threat is the stagnation of literary, psychological and historical understandings due to the absence of fresh ideas with no words to convey them.