Thoughts on Writing – Trademarks and Evolving Languages

Yesterday at the writing group my husband and I usually attend, one of the writers made a comment about how English is a growing language. They pointed out that it constantly shifts and adds new words, whereas other languages are stagnant and are ruled by a constant number of words. This caught my interest, so I thought I’d do a little bit of research on the topic.

Though my research didn’t go quite the way I anticipated, I focused on new influencers to a language.

The National Science Foundation website mentions in their article on language and linguistics that there are a few things that can influence a change in language. For example, the invention of new technologies can bring with it new words (or specifically, the new use of words). The article says, “Plastic, cell phones and the Internet didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.” Which, if you think about it, means that time period wouldn’t have had a need for those words.

But what happens when those new technologies develop? The new words have to come from somewhere.

In an article from The Atlantic, they explain the origin of the term ‘cell phone,’ or more accurately, cellular phones. At the time, the word cellular referred to biological cells (still does). What does that have to do with phones?

The network for sending signals to each phone was conceived as being of a cellular nature (check out the article for a diagram). As such, a cellular phone would use a cellular network, and the term was later shortened to ‘cell’ phone.

(As a side note, if you are developing a magic system and your story spans over many years, you might consider what developments might influence that magic. For example, in Isaac’s and my Distant Horizon universe, one of the characters has techno sight… the ability to manipulate (digital) technology with their mind. If you go backward to the Multiverse timeline, there aren’t any computers (at least, not that don’t use artificial spirits), so those characters don’t have the techno sight power. Or they might, but it would basically be an unknown power that doesn’t get used, even if it’s in their bloodline for future generations)).

New technology can impact how a language evolves, especially as new terms are needed.

However, when new technology gets involved, so do trademarks. And that’s where things get interesting. For example, look at the the Xerox photo-copying machine. How many people might say “I’m going to xerox that…” turning Xerox, a trademarked brand name, into something generic… (despite attempts to keep in it in their grasp).

If you look at the name, Xerox is the brand, whereas their product is a photo-copying machine. Note that photo-copy is a combination of two words to describe what the product does. But as people became familiar with the product, they turned Xerox into the verb, and thus a new word (or at least a new meaning to the word) was born. HighNames has an article regarding the origins of Xerox, and it turns out that Xerox pulled their name from a combination of Greek words… xeros (dry) and graphia (writing). If xerox, from xeros, now means ‘to photocopy,’ we can see how influences from other languages, plus the change over time, shaped a new word. (Read more about generic trademarks here).

Even now, companies fight to keep their trademarks intact. Google (to use a search engine, originally pulled from ‘googol,’ the number ‘one’ followed by a hundred zeroes). Kleenex, technically a brand name, but now often used to mean a tissue. (“Go grab me a kleenex.”) This is yet another example of a company having to work to keep its trademark intact (This article from The Atlantic has some great examples of companies trying to protect their trademarks). Yet another example of how a trademarked brand has become (or is on it’s way to becoming) a common word is Coke, in which a Concurring Opinions article mentions people asking for a coke (referring to soda in general) and restaurants must distinguish between a Coke or a Pepsi due to trademark legalese.

If you are interested in more information about the evolution of language over time, TED has series of videos about of “How Language Changes Over Time.” I haven’t watched these, but having watched a few TED Talk videos before, I imagine they could have good information.

So how does all this apply to fiction?

Well, if you include conlangs (constructed languages) in your stories, especially over a period of time, you could have fun with changing the language across the generations. Perhaps it’s a company trying to protect their trademark, if you want to stay with the trademarks theme. Perhaps there is a misunderstanding in general. Perhaps there is confusion, if someone from the future tries to explain something to someone from the past. Or perhaps its the opposite. Someone from the past, using an older variety of an evolving language, has a hard time being understood by someone whose updated language no longer sounds the same. (Refer back to the National Science Foundation article for a good example of having a hard time trying to understand an older language).

There’s all sorts of things you can play with, both with fictional languages, and with real languages and real history.

Alternatively, maybe you have a language that is stagnant. One that has only a specific list of words, and that’s that. How do your characters and your society deal with the changes of time? Do they smash words together? Do they struggle to explain technologies? Do they refuse new technology altogether?

Given the way I’ve currently addressed Cantingen word magic in the rough draft of The Shadow War, I suspect their language will be fairly stagnant, with some interesting combinations when trying to explain an object that doesn’t have a specific name or translation.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. 🙂 Have you thought much about how languages evolve, and how you can use that evolution in your fiction?

Further Reading: – Talks about the frequency of a word compared to how fast it evolves – Text speech (In this case, also slang, not specific to text) and trying to translate text speech – Debates whether text speech is language evolution or a lack of proper teaching (leans toward the latter, but does bring up points regarding text speech and ease of communication that would have been interesting had they been developed further – More or less a counter-argument to the above complaints about text speech, which points out that it got its start with telegraph operators – A Definition of ‘verbing’


Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Thoughts on Writing – Trademarks and Evolving Languages

  1. Heck of a post. I love genericized trademarks, I wrote a paper on them in college. My personal favorite is Crock-Pot instead of slow cooker.

    Another good evolution of language that relates to this is the brand name for an electroshock stun gun. ‘To tase’ something is a backwards generated verb that was backwards engineered from the brand name Taser. Google shows 500,000+ results for “tased”, even though the more correct usage would be tasered – as in they had a taser used on them – but since we invented the verb tase you can get away with tased. English is a strange language.

    • The results of trademarks being genericized can definitely be interesting. I hadn’t known about the Crock-Pot example.

      I also hadn’t considered the Taser example (though I knew Taser was the brand name). The case of “verbing” seems to be a big problem for companies trying to protect their trademarks, but a natural part of our language’s development.

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