john_mcwhorter's picture
Professor of Linguistics and Western Civilization, Columbia University; Cultural Commentator; Author, Words on the Move
Path Dependence

In an ideal world all people would spontaneously understand that what political scientists call path dependence explains much more of how the world works than is apparent. Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.

The paradigm example is the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboards. Why not just have the letters in alphabetical order, or arrange them so that the most frequently occurring ones are under the strongest fingers? In fact, the first typewriter tended to jam when typed on too quickly, so its inventor deliberately concocted an arrangement that put A under the ungainly little finger. In addition, the first row was provided with all of the letters in the word typewriter so that salesmen, new to typing, could wangle typing the word using just one row.

Quickly, however, mechanical improvements made faster typing possible, and new keyboards placing letters according to frequency were presented. But it was too late: there was no going back. By the 1890s typists across America were used to QWERTY keyboards, having learned to zip away on new versions of them that did not stick so easily, and retraining them would have been expensive and, ultimately, unnecessary. So QWERTY was passed down the generations, and even today we use the queer QWERTY configuration on computer keyboards where jamming is a mechanical impossibility.

The basic concept is simple, but in general estimation tends to be processed as the province of "cute" stories like the QWERTY one, rather than explaining a massive weight of scientific and historical processes. Instead, the natural tendency is to seek explanations for modern phenomena in present-day conditions.

One may assume that cats cover their waste out of fastidiousness, when the same creature will happily consume its own vomit and then jump on your lap. Cats do the burying as an instinct from their wild days when the burial helped avoid attracting predators, and there is no reason for them to evolve out of the trait now (to pet owners' relief). I have often wished there were a spontaneous impulse among more people to assume that path dependence-style explanations are as likely as jerry-rigged present-oriented ones.

For one, that the present is based on a dynamic mixture of extant and ancient conditions is simply more interesting than assuming that the present (mostly) all there is, with history as merely "the past," interesting only for seeing whether something that happened then could now happen again, which is different from path dependence.

For example, path dependence explains a great deal about language which is otherwise attributed to assorted just-so explanations. Much of the public embrace of the idea that one's language channels how one thinks is based on this kind of thing. Robert McCrum celebrates English as "efficient" in its paucity of suffixes of the kind that complexify most European languages. The idea is that this is rooted in something in its speakers' spirit, which would have propelled them to lead the world via exploration and the Industrial Revolution.

But English lost its suffixes starting in the eighth century, A.D. when Vikings invaded Britain and so many of them learned the language incompletely that children started speaking it that way. After that, you can't create gender and conjugation out of thin air — there's no going back until gradual morphing recreates such things over eons of time. That is, English's current streamlined syntax has nothing to do with any present-day condition of the spirit, nor with any even four centuries ago. The culprit is path dependence, as are most things about how a language is structured.

Or, we hear much lately about a crisis in general writing skills, suposedly due to email and texting. But there is a circularity here — why, precisely, could people not write emails and texts with the same "writerly" style that people used to couch letters in? Or, we hear of a vaguely defined effect of television, despite that kids were curled up endlessly in front of the tube starting in the fifties, long before the eighties when outcries of this kind first took on their current level of alarm in the report A Nation at Risk.

Once again, the presentist explanation does not cohere, whereas one based on an earlier historical development that there is no turning back from does. Public American English began a rapid shift from cosseted to less formal "spoken" style in the sixties, in the wake of cultural changes amidst the counterculture. This sentiment directly affected how language arts textbooks were composed, the extent to which any young person was exposed to an old-fashioned formal "speech," and attitudes towards the English language heritage in general. The result: a linguistic culture stressing the terse, demotic, and spontaneous. After just one generation minted in this context, there was no way to go back. Anyone who decided to communicate in the grandiloquent phraseology of yore would sound absurd and be denied influence or exposure. Path dependence, then, identifies this cultural shift as the cause of what dismays, delights, or just interests us in how English is currently used, and reveals television, email and other technologies as merely epiphenomenal.

Most of life looks path dependent to me. If I could create a national educational curriculum from scratch, I would include the concept as one taught to young people as early as possible.