Story Lines and English
Which Change More Over Time?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright October 2009

As I write this I'm reading a delightful collection of science fiction short stories in The Mammoth Book of Extreme Science Fiction edited by Rick Ashley.

The stories are fun, and one that Mr. Ashley picked out dated back a hundred years, to 1909.

The story was an eye-opener because while the English language used to tell the story was noticeably dated, the storyline felt contemporary.

The start was a Blair Witch Project-style start -- with a missing adventurer leaving a diary that is discovered. In the diary we read a Forbidden Planet/Tempest-style story in which the adventurer encounters a stern, mind-strong mad scientist and his beautiful, naive daughter who longs to see the world, and we meet a character who is added for comic relief.

Umm... we've never seen this story line before have we? (actually, since, because this comes in from 1909.)

Reading this made me realize just how enduring basic story lines are. It made me realize that enjoying Shakespeare is not just an abberation caused by love of a symbol of English language theater. Shakespeare is popular because he was the first to work with a new technology of the time -- plays performed in a theater using written scripts -- and that technology is still useable today.

(The pre-Shakespeare format, oral tradition, is still used, too, but that transmission medium is as mutable as the English language is. These days we use oral tradition for telling jokes at parties.)

Back to the main point: Story lines are unchanging, and language changes constantly and quickly by comparision.

What this says to me is that enduring story lines resonate with deeply instinctive human thinking, and thinking that is nearly unchanging from generation to generation.

Language thinking -- word choice, grammar and syntax -- is also a very old part of human thinking. But, unlike story thinking, these elements are not fixed, they drift with each generation.

This is a mystery: Why should story lines be constant while language is constantly changing?

My guess is that evolution has deliberately favored changing language over unchanging language. Language mutability may be adventageous because it makes it easier to deal with changing circumstances, such as moving to a new region with new plants and animals and new climate. If language changes easily, then adding words for new concepts is easy to do.

Story lines, on the other hand, tap into something that doesn't need to change. That, perhaps, is human motivations and the explanations for them, which seem to change little from generation to generation.


-- The End --