My hypothesis that English is a loose language

I’ve always thought English is a loose language. Take the words ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’, for instance. Even dictionary definitions sometimes mix their meanings up.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 - after he'd published both the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Albert Einstein lecturing in 1921 – after he’d published the Special and General Theories of Relativity. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientifically, the word ‘theory’ means a ‘hypothesis’ that has been established to be true by empirical data. Take Einstein’s two theories of relativity, Special (1906) and General (1917). We call them ‘theories’, by name, but everybody with a GPS-equipped cellphone or GPS system encounters proof that Einstein was right, every time they use it.

This is because GPS satellite clocks have a correction built into them to cope with Special Relativity time dilation that occurs because they’re moving at a different velocity than the surface of the Earth. It’s miniscule –  6 millionths of a second loss every 24 hours. There’s also the need to cope with General Relativity time acceleration relative to the surface of the earth, because they’re in orbit, putting them further away from the mathematical centre of Earth’s mass than we are on the surface of the planet. That totals 45 millionths of a second gain every 24 hours.

If all this sounds supremely geeky and too tiny to worry about, millionths of a second count,  because its on differences at that order of magnitude that GPS calculates positions. If the net relativity error of 39 millionths of a second every 24 hours wasn’t corrected, GPS would kick up positional errors of up to 12 km on the ground. Einstein, in short, was totally right and if we didn’t use Einstein’s equations to correct GPS, we’d be lost. Literally. Yet we still call his discovery a ‘theory’.

Hypothesis,on the other hand, is the idea someone comes up with to explain something. Then they run tests to figure out the rules. Take gravity. Everybody knew it existed. However, Newton figured he could come up with rules – his hypothesis. Once Newton had a hypothesis, he was able to run experiments and sort out actually how it worked – creating his theory of gravity.

Neptune. A picture I made with my trusty Celestia installation (cool, free science software).

Neptune. Discovered by mathematics, thanks to Newton’s theories. A picture I made with Celestia (cool, free science software).

One of the reasons why these explanations are called ‘theory’ is because science sometimes finds refinements. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity is also a theory of gravity, integrating the extremes of time and space Einstein described in his Special theory. It replaced Newton’s theory. But that didn’t mean Newton was wrong in the terms he observed and described. On the contrary, his equations still work perfectly for the things around which he developed the theory.

So in the strictest sense, ‘hypothesis’ means ‘how we think things work’, while ‘theory’ means ‘how we’ve shown things to work’. Science sometimes creates supersets of theories, like onion skins, that explain things differently – but usually don’t invalidate the core of the earlier theory.

And my hypothesis, which I think should be elevated to theory status on this evidence, is that English is a pretty loose language. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


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6 comments on “My hypothesis that English is a loose language

  1. EagleAye says:

    I think you’re right. When something is repeatedly proven to be correct, than it should be a physical law, or least a fact. To call General Relativity still suggests it’s unproven, which it most certainly is not. Then again, physicists in all seriousness named certain quarks, “Up”, “Down”, and “Charmed.” I don’t think scientists take words as seriously as others.

    • I am sure they don’t! Not to mention googol, which I gather was a kid’s nonsense word before the proud dad assigned it to 10 100. I’ve never known whether the way Messrs Brin et al spell it was deliberate or not.

  2. Jules says:

    Loose is an aspect of versatility.
    English has a huge vocabulary, of Latin and Nordic and Germanic origin, and there is much more overlap between the vernacular and academic English than in Spanish for example. This makes English very accomodating and yet precise. The Scandinavian languages are spoken by so few people that the meaning of words are regularly revised by nothing more than consensus. It is difficult to follow for outsiders. The dictionary still holds authority in English.
    Finally, a loose language is good for inventing because one is less limted by description.

    • I agree. Polyglot origins and a vocab of around one million words makes English one of the most versatile languages around. And loose. But as you say, that’s a bonus.

  3. KM Huber says:

    I am with you on the Loose Language Theory. You’ve shown me! Great post. Matthew.

    • Thanks! It always surprises ne how the looseness of the languages surfaces around us. It lurks in corporate spin. This week in Wellington they had what the railway called an ‘operational incident’. No it wasn’t. They rammed a commuter unit into a terminus buffer at speed, causing the train to go skywards. I drove past after dusk on my way home and the wreck was still there 14 hours later. They had to close the city’s main motorway overnight to get cranes in to move it and as I write this the rail line involved remains closed for 2 days while they repair the collateral damage to the infrastructure. This was an ‘incident’ in corporate speak. Loose English – but under very clear control. Mercifully only one person was slightly hurt.

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