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Language Gardeners

Language, like many things, is multifaceted. There’s a variety of languages. Even within English there’s a variety of dialects, accents, and usages. My language, vocabulary, grammatical understanding, and even voice, will never be the same as yours. The concept of a language itself is an abstraction over the hundreds of millions of people who speak, write, read, or listen to it.

I’ve recently been introduced to the idea of a software gardener. The argument is that one cannot be a software engineer, planning out every step of the way with a high degree of certainty. No, instead one must happily tend one’s software garden: helping and incrementally improving the garden, but not necessarily planning every leaf or knowing where every branch will go in the future.

This is a really beautiful idea, also applicable to the people behind a language. English teachers often will prescribe how people should use language, dictating what is correct and what is not. For instance, “affect” is almost always a verb:

Global warming will continue to negatively affect the planet.

And “effect” is almost always used as a noun:

Global warming is having a bad effect on the planet.

There are times, though, where “affect” can be used as a noun—

You’re acting is great, but can you try to take on a more bored-sounding affect?

—and “effect” can be used as a verb.

Global warming will effect the death of lots of polar bears.

But no one ever wonders if they misinterpreted a sentence they hear! We are able to tell the difference in meanings via context. We already do this for plenty of existing English homonyms. The world would be a better place if we gave our children 20 extra minutes of recess and let these two words be forever confused.

This is our language. We can choose what words we use and how we use them. We can decide what things mean! We are language gardeners.