On Being Original

For centuries old was better. Old meant tried-and-true, reliable, dependable.

This was especially true in the ancient world. The Romans gave a pass to Jewish religious observances because they were ancient and venerable; the Christians, on the other hand, were some kind of crazy newfangled cult that needed to be suppressed.

But today, no one wants to be a rehash of what has long been; everyone wants to be an original, to say something new and fresh. Now, part of that is because manufacturers and advertisers figured out that they could get more money from you by hyping the “new and improved” version of the thing that worked just fine as it was.

But another part of that is the understandable desire to leave a mark, to make a unique difference—to say I was here. And for that, unoriginality won’t do.

No More New Ideas

After 5,000 years of storytelling, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones, it can sometimes feel like all the good ideas are used up. What left is there to say? What stories remain to be told?

But here’s the thing: human language is, at its core, inventive and creative, and we see this in a couple of important ways.


One of language’s most fascinating aspects is its recursiveness—its ability to repeat the same structure indefinitely. Take, for example, this classic:

He knows that I skipped class. But I know that he knows I skipped class. Does he know that I know that he knows I skipped class? If so, then I know that he knows that I know that he knows I skipped class. And there’s no way that he knows that I know that he knows that I know that he knows I skipped class.

One of the amazing things about language is that you can do this forever, and every sentence you say is different from the last. Interestingly, even though each sentence is remarkably similar to the one before it, its perspective and implications are not.

This ability to create recursive sentences applies to writing: even if an idea has been told before, there is a perspective on that idea that has not. Consider the following:

  • Tsao stole the money. — A heist story.
  • I know that Tsao stole the money. — Detective story.
  • Wilhelm knows that I know that Tsao stole the money. — A conspiracy and cover-up.
  • Carmen knows that Wilhelm knows that I know that Tsao stole the money. — A tragic romance about a woman in love with a man reluctant to expose misdeeds at his company.

And on and on. There is already a substantial body of literature looking at familiar stories from the perspective of minor or overlooked characters, such as The Red Tent, Anita Diamant’s retelling of the Biblical story of the rape of Dinah from Dinah’s point of view (ignored in the Biblical telling), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, focusing on two minor characters from Hamlet, and others.

Analogy & Metaphor

Some of the latest research on language origins suggests that the human ability to use language coincided with a development in the human brain that allowed early humans to reason by analogy. And the development of language itself is built on understanding analogy.

Let’s imagine that as a language learner, I encounter the following sentences: The girl reads a bookNathan reads a book, and Isabella rides a bicycle. From these sentences, I learn that a grammatical sentence can be made by the formula NOUN + (VERB + /s/) + NOUN. With this knowledge, I can produce sentences like Nathan rides a bicycleThe girl rides a bicycle, and Isabella reads a book. I have never heard these sentences, but by analogy with the sentences I do know, I can create them.

I can even create other sentences with new nouns and verbs as I learn them. If I learn rockthrowclimbtree, and Aditi, I can create sentences like Aditi climbs a tree and Isabella throws a rock just by plugging in the new words I have learned into the places where I discovered other similar words in the formulaUsing this method of analogy, I can even create sentences like The rock reads the kingThe bicycle climbs Nathan, and Isabella rides the tree. These sentences are somewhat nonsensical, but they are grammatical. I have done all of this through a process of linguistic analogy, which, as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure noted, is identical with the principle of linguistic creation in general.1Saussure and Harris, Course in General Linguistics, 194.

This linguistic creativity allows us to fashion novel expressions, but it does not always guarantee that they’ll be meaningful (e.g., The rock reads the king).2Chomsky demonstrated this principle when he came up with a sentence that is perfectly grammatical but semantically nonsensical: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.  However, that same linguistic creativity used to generate the sentence gives us the ability to reinterpret the sentence as meaningful, either through the application of metaphor (rock refers to a reliable person, read refers to gauging the emotional state of someone), or by reinterpreting the sentence through invention and innovation: carving a stone statue of someone reading a book written by the king.3This creative process was used in a Stanford University competition in which participants were invited to make Chomsky’s sentence meaningful (see the above footnote) using not more than one hundred words of prose or fourteen lines of verse. C. M. Street’s entry illustrates the process of creative reinterpretation nicely: “It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.” Linguistic analogy is the great wellspring for human linguistic (and artistic) creativity.

Saber-toothed tiger
“Look out, Dan.”

This source of creativity is significant. Historically, linguists and cognitive scientists have assumed that our ability to communicate through language was what gave humanity an adaptive edge. That is, because we could say, “Look out, Dan, there’s a saber-toothed tiger over there!” or “Don’t eat any of the berries the Neanderthals are selling,” we had an evolutionary advantage. However, other linguists have noted that it was the creative power of language, not simply its ability to communicate, that gave human language the ability to be adaptive and, by extension, to help us be adaptive.

This creativity extends to our ability to be creative in our writing. This creative process helps us to see a familiar narrative and reimagine it, whether it’s by looking at Shakespeare’s Hamlet and imagining it in Spanish Harlem as West Side Story or reimagining Emma in contemporary Los Angeles as Clueless. Creating analogy allows for creativity in narrative and interpretation.

Creativity and Originality Abound

In the end, creativity and originality are built into the way language is constructed. From analogy to recursion to human inventiveness, creativity and originality are everywhere.

Human beings have a remarkable ability to be creative. In fact, people regularly come up with sentences that have never before been uttered in the history of the human race. If we can still come up with original sentences, then original stories, poems, and essays are well within our reach.