On the Definitions of Progress(-ion/-ive) and Regression(-ion/-ive) and on the Myth-Busting Work of Foundation Operation X

Written by Dyami Millarson

The commenter, whose thought-provoking comment led to the publication of yesterday’s article, has provided a further explanation of his definition of progress in his latest comment. Since I felt inspired again, I have written a lengthy reply to him analysing the definitions of progress(-ion/-ive) and regress(-ion/-ive) and which finally touches on the myth-busting role of Foundation Operation X; my goal was to learn more through analysis and I took my time for this analysis since it concerns the very essence of the work that Operation X does. Given that this topic is essential to Operation X work and given that this topic is often brought up in interviews as well as in conversations with people who are curious about our work, I thought that it would be worth republishing my lengthy reply of today as an article here as well; so I have adapted it to our normal article format.

Synopsis: Progress is a positively loaded term, therefore it is not neutral. Compare its opposite, regression, which is a negatively loaded term. The terms process and change match the commenter’s intended neutral meaning. Additionally, progression is not the same as progress. Regress has a different set of meanings than regression, but could be used in the same sense, though regression is less ambiguous when used in that sense and is therefore the preferred option. Progressive and regressive can be used as adjectives matching both the semantic pair progress and regression and the semantic pair progression and regress. Language death can be disproven to be an unstoppable process, since there is human agency in it. Humans can use their willpower to keep languages alive. So it comes down to what we want. The work of Operation X is aimed at dispelling the myth that the death of languages is unstoppable or a morally neutral issue; so our work is aimed at proving that humans have sway over language death, i.e. the notion that humans can control the fate of languages. Dispelling myths is rewarding; for it may usher in a better world. So we enjoy our hard work and its effects (obviously, it would otherwise be a lifelong path of boredom and suffering!).

I understand that the commenter is equating progress with change that may be positive or negative, and that he is mentioning “progression of a disease” as an example of this. 

Given that the commenter mentions progression in relation to his definition of progress, is he aware of the semantic difference between progress and progression? Because, why do we say “progression of a disease” in English but not “progress of a disease”? 

I may state, progress(-ion/-ive) is the opposite of regress(-ion/-ive), but by that, I mean to express the following scheme: 

  • Progress is the antonym of regression
  • Progression is the antonym of regress
  • Progressive is the antonym of regressive

Though all of these terms are etymologically derived from “backward/forward movement,” their meanings are differentiated. 

Progression means “moving (forward) from one thing to another,” hence the progression of a disease but not the progress of a disease, while progress means “advancement (moving forward) to a higher or more developed stage, positive movement through a series of events.” 

I tend to assume I am being trusted, but one might not consider me an authority on the definitions of these terms, so let us take a look at the (relevant) definitions of these terms in two separate authoritative dictionaries. 

The fifth edition of the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: 

pro·gres·sion (prə-grĕsh′ən) 

n.

1. Movement or change from one member of a continuous series to the next: progression of the disease in stages.

2. A continuous series; a sequence: a progression of limousines
prog·ress  (prŏg′rĕs′, -rəs, prō′grĕs′)

n.

1. Forward or onward movement, as toward a destination: We made little progress on our way home because of the traffic.

2. Development, advancement, or improvement, as toward a goal: The math students have shown great progress.

The 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged: 

progression (prəˈɡrɛʃən)

n

1. the act of progressing; advancement

2. the act or an instance of moving from one thing or unit in a sequence to the next
progress

n

1. movement forwards, esp towards a place or objective

2. satisfactory development, growth, or advance: she is making progress in maths.

3. advance towards completion, maturity, or perfection: the steady onward march of progress.

When reading dictionary definitions, it is important to make a proper selection of senses: I have already left out senses that are too specific in any case and that can be automatically deleted (one can verify this by consulting the dictionaries). Even though I have already made a preselection, not all of the senses I have included are equally relevant to our discussion. For instance, the sense of progress as (physical) movement towards a destination is not relevant as it is too literal, since what we mean by progress is more abstract while it is a reference to time, and so the senses “satisfactory development, growth or advance” and “advance towards completion, maturity or perfection” are relevant to our discussion of the meaning of progress. This pertains to point (3) of my previous article, as it has to do with the fact that progress is perceived as “good/useful/desirable,” and I explained later that if it is not good, then it is not progress, because “goodness” is necessary for it to be progress. 

To make matters even more complex, the situation is the opposite with regress(ion) in terms of meaning when compared with progress and progression: regress as a noun means “return, an instance of going back” while “regression” means “return to a previous stage of development, negative movement through a  series of events.” Making matters yet more complicated, regress can be used as the antonym of progress, though this is less common, and regression is nowadays more commonly – as well as unambiguously – used in English for this sense. 

Again, one may not take my word for it, so let us take a look at the definitions of regress and regression in two separate dictionaries: 

The fifth edition of the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: 

re·gress (rē′grĕs′)

n.

1. The act of regressing, especially the returning to a previous, usually worse or less developed state.

2. The act of reasoning backward from an effect to a cause or of continually applying a process of reasoning to its own results.
re·gres·sion  (rĭ-grĕsh′ən)

n.

1. The process or an instance of regressing, as to a less perfect or less developed state.

The 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged: 

regress 

n

4. movement in a backward direction; retrogression

Only too specific senses of regression are included in the 12th edition of the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, so I will use the Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary (2010): 

re•gres•sion (rɪˈgrɛʃ ən)

n.

1. the act of going back to a previous place or state; return or reversion.

2. retrogradation; retrogression.

Retrogradation is a return to a former, usually worse condition. Retrogression is a return to an earlier, less complex or inferior condition. 

When the commenter said “this is progress,” I understood it as “the death of languages is progress.” Let me quote the relevant context to make sure that we are talking about the same thing: “they are dying out rapidly, as you must well know, and the few we are eventually left with will be all bacterized shells of their former. This is progress, for the good or worse and it cannot be stopped, what we do now is collect and preserve […].” 

In his new comment, the commenter mentioned the progression of a disease as an example for the negative or positive meaning of progress. Given that these two terms, i.e. progress and progression, are not the same semantically as explained above and therefore not readily interchangeable, I should note that he did not say “this is progression” or “this is the progression of a disease” when he referred to the death of languages. Of course, he is free to adapt that if he meant to say progression instead of progress, and I will later take a look at the implications of that for the sake of philosophical discussion. 

Judgement is inherent in the pair of antonyms progress and regression. If we wish to stick to the etymological sense of “forward/backward movement” yet also take into account the current usage of the two terms, we may define progress as “forward movement that is interpreted as good change” and regression as “backward movement that is interpreted as bad change.” The adjectives progressive and regressive correspond to the nouns progress and regression in terms of meaning (yet progressive and regressive can, perhaps confusingly, also correspond to progression and regress in terms of meaning). The two pairs, of which the meaning was expanded from an original sense of “forward/backward movement,” do not just describe “change,” but they pass judgement; so regression/regressive presents a change as bad, progress(-ive) presents a change as good. As said before, this fact is related to point (3) where I explained that progress is perceived as somehow good/useful/desirable. 

Therefore, when the commenter said “this is progress” in relation to the death of languages, it is logically irreconcilable with his assertion of “for good or worse,” which I categorised as point (2) in my previous article, and it is irreconcilable with the commenter’s idea of “it cannot be stopped,” which I categorised as point (1) in my previous article. In any case, any usual sense/understanding of progress is not applicable here; people generally understand progress as positive. In his follow-up comment, the commenter defines progress as “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect, independent from the reason neither of the inception nor of its outcome,” but that is not a usual – or generally accepted – definition of progress in the English language. 

In light of the fact that the definition of progress as provided by the commenter is neither usual nor generally accepted and the fact that he may reasonably be aware that people generally understand progress to be good and so the mention of progress creates an impression that it is somehow good, his definition comes across as special pleading in the sense that he is creating an ad-hoc exception to the rule that progress has to be good so as to prevent the definition of progress from backfiring against his assertions that (1) “it cannot be stopped” and (2) “for good or worse.” To be fair, these facts cast doubt on whether the commenter’s definition was special pleading: his definition of progress could very well be the result of contamination (confusion) with the definition of process, and also his follow-up comment is merely an elaboration that is consistent with his previous comment, but the semantic problem nevertheless remains, since his definition of progress is a clear deviation from the normal definitions of progress as can be gleaned from various dictionaries, which I have demonstrated by citing a few dictionaries above, although as I said, the commenter could be confusing the definition of the English term “progress” with the definition of the term “process.” 

Let me clarify what I mean by semantic problem so that there can be no doubt about what I mean: the commenter’s ideas that progress, of which he understood the dying of languages to be a particular example, cannot be stopped and it is for good or worse are irreconcilable with the usual definitions of progress, to which an inherent judgement, i.e. a sense of goodness, is attached. In other words, the commenter cannot remove goodness from progress as he attempts to do in his definition, because that violates the generally accepted definitions of progress. 

Since people adhere to a generally accepted definition of progress, one cannot just change its definition without causing major semantic problems; when the commenter says progress, I am sure he is well aware, it creates an impression in people’s minds based on the generally accepted definitions, and not based on a deviant definition that has been made up by a single individual, which appears like special pleading. 

Of course, new definitions for terms can be created for philosophical purposes, but what progress means has already been well-established in the English language and there is little sense in deliberately causing confusion by creating a new sense that is hard to distinguish from the generally accepted definitions due to people already associating goodness with progress; in this case, it is exceedingly unlikely one can successfully bend the English language to one’s will by introducing a new definition because ingrained associations are hard to kill. Changing the English language does not appear to have been the commenter’s goal, though, as it seems his definition of progress was caused by a contamination, i.e. confusion, with process. 

Given that progress does not match the commenter’s stated definition, namely “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect,” we may however consider other options, such as “progression,” “change” or “process.” We must bear in mind that the commenter said “This is progress” when referring to the dying of languages, and we may replace the term progress, which is apparently not applicable here, with the previously mentioned terms. “This is progression” when referring to the dying of languages seems a rather odd statement, because it is when one interprets it as “the death of languages is an instance of moving from one thing to another” or as “the death of languages is the movement/change from one thing to the next,” it makes little sense and would be a highly uncommon thing to say, even though, in all fairness, one might try to make sense of it as per the commenter’s intended meaning. 

One might also change it to “progression of a disease” and in that case, it would be a comparison: “the dying of languages is a progression of disease.” In this sense, one might imagine the dying of languages as a disease that is plaguing mankind in advancing stages. As I understand from the commenter’s words, that was not his intended meaning. So let us take a look at change: “the death of languages is change” would match the commenter’s stated definition best, since change is “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect.” That would sound a lot weaker than progress – since a great many people would not be willing to accept that change and be willing to die fighting that change – but since we are looking for the right term, change at least matches the commenter’s definition. 

Surely, when one says “this is progress,” it makes a more positive impression on people than “this is change,” and so the commenter might have preferred to use the term progress, but as explained/concluded many times before, no matter how I have looked at the matter from different angles, progress is really incongruent with the commenter’s stated definition, and so what the commenter describes cannot be called progress. Nevertheless, the commenter could have meant to say “process” since that term could mean a series of changes that happen naturally, which does seem to match his intention of using “an abstract neutral term, describing the continuum from cause to effect, independent from the reason neither of the inception nor of its outcome.” That does not negate the fact that the commenter clearly said “This is progress” in his previous comment, while one would expect an indefinite article if he intended to say process: “This is a process.” Because one does not say: “This is process.” And the commenter also mentioned progression in reference to progress. Nevertheless, that does not disprove he could have been confused between the definitions of progress and process, which are ostensibly similar-sounding words in English. 

Since we have now spent a great deal of time on definitions, it is now time to take a brief look at the assumption that the dying of languages is merely change or a process that (1) cannot be stopped and (2) is for good or worse. As stated in my previous article, the way to test the validity of this claim is to see whether there is human agency in the dying of languages; after all, the idea that the death of languages is an unstoppable process, for good or worse, is a falsifiable claim that rests on whether human agency can be (dis)proven. 

Simply put, the biggest problem for the hypothesis of language death as a natural process is the fact that language death falls in the same category as the (mass) extinction of plants, animals, indigenous peoples, etc. in the modern world which means we humans created the conditions for that to happen, and if we could create those conditions, we can also choose to reverse that. Thus, it is not a natural process. 

If the commenter’s intention is to prove that language death is a natural process, then the fact that willpower can be used for the survival/revival of a language is a big problem for his thesis; if it were a phenomenon over which humans exercise no control (i.e. “it cannot be stopped”), then human volition should reasonably not be able to affect it, as I explained in my previous comment. The idea of “natural process” leaves no room for human agency, and thus the fact that an organisation like Operation X can help languages survive or bring them back from the dead relying on willpower is a serious problem for the commenter’s falsifiable hypothesis of language death being a natural process. 

It is understandable that if the commenter believes that language death is a natural phenomenon which is inevitable whether we like it or not, he concludes that this is the only option left to us: “what we do now is collect and preserve.” Many linguists would tend to agree with him, and they analyse language death along similar lines as he does. However, they make the mistake of overlooking human agency in the death of languages, which is what jeopardises any notions of language death being a natural phenomenon that cannot be stopped whether we like it or not; there are, therefore, also linguists who have the insight that language death can be stopped and that when certain languages have died, their death can even be reversed by revival efforts. 

There are certainly those who do not like that Operation X can help languages survive or make them alive again, because that completely destroys the theory that language death is inevitable, whether you like it or not. If it were really an inevitable process that cannot be stopped, those people would not worry about the actions of Operation X; they apparently dislike what we are doing since we are proving them wrong with our actions. Yet if they were right, they would have nothing to worry about, since all our actions would be in vain, but clearly they are not, and that is what is causing much hate to be directed towards Operation X. No matter how much others dislike or hate our action, what we are doing cannot be stopped, since we have the willpower to continue our work for generations; Operation X is an intergenerational project. Saving languages is part of our philosophy, and it is a philosophical mission we pursue with zeal; we are philosophically motivated never to give up. Also, to be honest, we do really enjoy our role – or I might call it work – of destroying the myth that nothing can be done about language death whether we like it or not; Operation X is the very embodiment of what can be done.  

Languages can be kept alive through learning/transmission, and if the production of fluent speakers continues, a language continues to live; if even just one master passes his knowledge on to one student, and that student repeats the process, a language can be kept alive between one master and his student. The concept of “one master, one student” would be the absolute minimum one needs for survival, but it also serves to demonstrate that languages can technically survive very adverse conditions, i.e. not much is needed for their survival. Languages are robust, and this insight is crucial to the work of Operation X. Furthermore, the concept of “one master, one disciple,” which is an important part of Operation X philosophy, is a minimal goal for all Operation X projects, and while Operation X pursues minimal goals, this does not rule out the possibility of achieving much more. We believe in keeping our goals as small as possible first, yet that does not stop us from striving for much more. Our goals are naturally ambitious. However, we are strict with ourselves, since we never wish to make unrealistic promises; we just want to deliver what we have promised, nothing less. So that is why Operation X goals are generally exceedingly minimalistic on the surface, yet that has never stopped us from pursuing more ambitious aims. 

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