Each year, when the Fourth of July, or Independence Day, rolls around, we often hear discussions about the most resonant passages in the country’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. Particular attention is paid to its arguably most famous pronouncement: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Often noted are the antiquated use of capital letters to emphasize important concepts—like Creator, Life, and Liberty—and the sexist use of the phrase “all men” to stand for “all people.” But why write unalienable when the most common form of the word is inalienable?
Historians have pointed out that in a draft of the Declaration of Independence, its author Thomas Jefferson wrote “certain inherent and inalienable rights,” choosing to use alliteration. But Jefferson’s wording and spelling were later changed to “certain unalienable Rights.” To add to the apparent mystery, on a wall in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., the phrase appears as “certain inalienable rights,” and inalienable is the spelling found in most modern quotations from the Declaration.
In one way, the solution to the puzzle is simple: until sometime in the 1830s, unalienable was the overwhelmingly preferred spelling. But since then, inalienable gradually replaced it. Today, were it not for our annual commemoration of the Declaration of Independence, the spelling unalienable would be all but forgotten.
In another way, the answer to the puzzle is less straightforward: it is evidence of the constantly competing and changing word forms found in English. There are many other examples of unruly rivalries involving the prefixes in- (from Latin) and un- (from Old and Middle English), both jostling for dominance in the formation of “not” compounds. For example, inarguable and unarguable have been fighting it out for well over a century. Although both forms are still in use, inarguable recently began to clearly edge out its rival. In contrast, unability may have once had its day, but it has virtually disappeared from English, bested by its rival, inability. (But we still prefer unable for the associated adjective.) Sometimes un- and in- have helped us create differences in meanings. For example, inhuman (in the sense of “cruel”) is contrasted with unhuman (in the sense of “not being human”). And inartistic (in the sense of referring to a person lacking artistic sense) is contrasted with unartistic (in the sense of referring to something not done artistically).
So the Fourth of July can also remind us that word forms in English are constantly changing and revitalizing the language.