May 17, 2012

Talkin' 'bout an evolution

President Obama has changed his mind on same-sex marriage. No, wait, his position on the subject has "evolved". What an interesting choice of verb. In Modern English, it can be used as a non-agentive intransitive verb (or a so-called "unaccusative" or "ergative" verb), meaning, "To be transformed from one form into another by a process of gradual modification."

This use of "evolve" is fairly recent (19th century). According to the OED, originally, the verb was used transitively and agentively, meaning "to bring to light," "to release." But that is precisely not what President Obama had in mind when he made the famous (and often-ridiculed) statement listed below:

President Obama, December 2010: "My feelings about this are constantly evolving" (note the use of progressive aspect "is evolving")

..... evolving..... 

.....more evolving .....

....lots of evolving ..... 

... Vice President Biden going on record with saying he is "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage...

President Obama, May 2012: "I've been going through an evolution of this issue... " (note the use of perfective aspect: "have been")

And the result?
I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married." (ABC News Interview)
Note that the verbs used here (conclude, go ahead, affirm, think) all express deliberate involvement of the subject. Note also the use of the first person. The subject is now the President himself, not some part of him, like "his feelings." It makes you think of the etymology of "to evolve": In Latin, "evolvere" means "to eject with a rolling motion, to roll out our away".

See video snippets of the President's linguistic evolution here.

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