Case Study: TRIZ and Language Evolution

G. L. Filkovsky, TRIZ Master,
Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles

As every reader of The TRIZ Journal knows, TRIZ is regularly expanded to non-technical areas such as Software Development, Marketing, Management or Social Structures. Any evolving area of human activities seems to be a subject for TRIZ application. Nevertheless, somehow one such area left untouched by TRIZ conquerors is language.

Language is a system of signs and symbols and rules for using them that is used to carry information. It is a communication tool. Its function is to provide means, by which people can pass to each other their thoughts and feelings. As a special case, language is also used by a person to communicate to self, for example by writing thoughts to remember them later, or to make them clearer.

Language evolves. It constantly changes adapting to changes in world and people. Here we have an evolving functional system. Does it conform to TRIZ laws and principles?

The first law to test is Ideality, the central and the most universal TRIZ concept. As language evolves, according to this law, its function should be performed better while its cost and undesired effects should decrease. In case of a language, it should become clearer and more effective while becoming shorter and straighter. Is this what really happens?

Fortunately, George Carlin in his book When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops? (Hyperion, New York, 2004) collected large amount of data we can use to answer this question. The answer is negative, even contrary. Language evolution occurs toward a decrease of Ideality.

In respect to the researcher, I'll call it George Carlin law of euphemisms. It stays that language evolves to obscure meaning rather than enhance it; it becomes softer, less vivid, direct, and descriptive; it uses longer words and phrases. I will use here just a few of many George Carlin's examples, to demonstrate some aspects of this anti-Ideality evolution.

  1. There is a condition in combat when a soldier's nervous system has reached the breaking point. In World War I, it was called shell shock. Simple, direct language. Two syllables. Then, during the World War II, the very same condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables. It takes a little longer to say and to write. It describes the condition as a softer one. Then, Korea, 1950: the same condition became operational exhaustion. Eight syllables. Reduced impact. Then, Vietnam: the condition renamed post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but the hyphen makes it even longer.

  2. Formerly ordinary store clerk became a product specialist, a retail consultant, a sales counsellor, a customer service associate. If the last four people talk to each other, for a while they'll be under the impression that they actually have different jobs.

  3. The following description:
    "The old man died, so the undertaker picked up the body, brought it to the funeral home and put it in a casket. People sent flowers and held a wake. After the funeral, they put the coffin in a hearse and drove it to the cemetery, where the dead man was buried in a grave."
    after a series of evolutionary steps became:
    "The senior citizen passed away, so the funeral director claimed the remains of the decedent, took them to the memorial chappel and placed them in a burial container. Grieving survivors sent floral tributes to be displayed in the slumber room, where the grief coordinator conducted the viewing. Following the memorial service, the funeral coach transported the departed to the garden of remembrance where his human remains were interred in their final resting place."

  4. Things that used to be free are now complimentary. Hotels that used to offer free doughnuts serve their guests now complimentary continental breakfasts. Sneakers became running shoes, which became athletic footwear. Used cars are now certified pre-owned vehicles. Garbagemen - sanitation engineers. Glasses - prescription eyewear. The Bible's "Jesus healed the cripples" would be today written as "Jesus engaged in rehabilitative strategies to improve the conditions of the physically disadvantaged."

The examples in George Carlin book "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops ?" go on and on. Language evolution certainly goes in direction opposite to what would be TRIZ Ideality. The TRIZ law of increasing Ideality cannot be expanded onto language evolution. One topic of the future research is, an applicability of other TRIZ laws in this new area. The other topic is an applicability of the George Carlin law of euphemisms in technical evolution.

George Carlin analyzed a set of conditions that lead to the decreased Ideality. I suspect that some or all of these conditions exist in technical evolution as well.