Wednesday, August 04, 2004


And a short passage from Pinker

Okay, I need to spend some time on here someday to fix up what needs fixin' on this page...but that might be a few months, and in the meantime, you're welcome to the journal...I'm hoping to keep it daily, or as close as a father/husband/tutor/childcare worker/editor/performance poet/journalist can manage...multiple projects coming up over the next 4 months, and I'm hoping to document some of them here. Next week: two face-to-face interviews, one with a jazz musician, one with a head of business with a group that 'culturally integrates' expats here in Munich...and the usual stuff, English with Sophia (5) and Moritz (10) and 6 hours with the pre-school bunch just watching and playing. Plus work on Trip.

Anyway, time's pressing, I need to get off the computer so my daughter can play on National Geographic Kids...but, the promised passage from Pinker. The book again is 'The Language Instinct,' and it's worth it for the linguistic gems peppered throughout alone...among which is Pinker's debunking of the '14-400 words for snow' among Eskimos. It's also pretty accessible for what it is...there's not too much grammar to wade through, but there's enough to stretch most people's grasp. As a sample of the content AND the writing style, I offer the below:

'Sometimes an alleged grammatical "error" is logical not only in the sense of "rational" but in the sense of respecting distinctions made by the formal logician. Consider this alleged barbarism, brought up by nearly every language maven:

Everyone returned to their seats.
Anyone who thinks a Yonex raquet has improved their game, raise your hand.
If anyone calls, tell them I can't come to the phone.
Someone dropped by but they didn't say what they wanted.
No one should have to sell their home to pay for medical care.
He's one of those guys who's always patting themself on the back. (an actual quote from Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye")

They explain: "everyone" means "every one," a singular subject, which may not serve as the antecedent of a plural pronoun like "them" later in the sentence. "Everyone returned to his seat," they insist. "If anyone calls, tell him I can't come to the phone."

If you were the target of these lessons, at this point you might be getting a bit uncomfortable. "Everyone returned to his seat" makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to be in the audience, and everone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph. If there is a good chance that a caller may be female, it is odd to ask one's roommate to tell him anything (even if you are not among the people who are concerned about "sexist language"). Such feelings of disquiet--a red flag to any serious linguist--are well founded in this case. The next time you get corrected for this sin, ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:

Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.

Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible "improvement," Mary saw everyone before John noticed him.

The logical point that you, Holden Caulfield, and everyone but the language mavens intuitively graps is that "everyone" and "they" are not an "antecedent" and a "pronoun" referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number. They are a "quantifier" and a "bound variable," a different logical relationship. Everyone returned to their seats means "For all X, X returned to X's seat." The "X" does not refer to any particular person or group of people; it is simply a placeholder that keeps track of the roles that players play across defferent relationships. In this case, the X that comes back to a seat is the same X that owns the seat that X comes back to. The "their" there does not, in fact, have plural number, because it refers neither to one thing nor to many things; it does not refer at all. The same goes for the hypothetical caller: there may be one, there may be none, or the phone might ring off the hook with would-be suitors; all that matters is that every time there is a caller, if there is a caller, that caller, and not someone else, should be put off.

On logical grounds, then, variables are not the same thing as the more familiar "referential" pronouns that trigger number agreement ("he" meaning some particular guy, "they" meaning some particular bunch of guys). Some languages are considerate and offer their speakers different words for referential pronouns and for variables. But English is stingy; a referential pronoun must be drafted into service to lend its name when a speaker needs to use a variable. Since these are not real referential pronouns but only homonyms of them, there is no reason that the vernacular decision to borrow "they," "their," "them" for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of "he," "him," "his." Indeed, "they" has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wider variety of sentences.'

----A bit arcane, unless you like language issues, I know. But if you do, the book is a very valuable resource--about 430 pages in paperback incarnation, and much more amusing than any linguistic thesis probably has any right to be.

Next up on the reading list: "The Terrorism Reader," edited by David J. Whittaker. &...this weekend is mum's day, so, might be Monday before I come back...or, might not.

Frankly, it's not that hard if you recall that pronouns *can* have more than 3 letters:

Mary saw everyone before John noticed each (of them).

Pinker's neat and all....
P.S. English is *not* stingy; English speakers are lazy and (were) illiterate. We used to be just fine at this level of distinguishing, but we've decided it's too cumbersome to remember dual and second person plural forms of the prounoun.

Wit think that's lame.

The troulbe is in the notion of (for convenience's sake) treating people like mass nouns (e.g., salt). When everyone calls me, I just don't answer him (or her).
Gotta go with the Pink-meister on this one. Language is a fluid, eight percent alcohol by volume, and everyone has their favorite draught. Mine sometimes comes in a bottle, sometimes on tap, sometimes with a twist, just so long it's instantly recognizable and capable of providing the requisite buzz.

Language mavens are neither brewers nor barkeeps, they create nothing, they serve nothing, yet somehow they fancy themselves authorities. But they're just consumers, like the rest of us. Only more so. They're drunks, really, to abuse the analogy. Addicted and more than a little trapped in their dependency.

I'm an American. We don't speak English, here. We're a democracy, and if someone voted these buggers into positions of authority, I must have missed it. Language belongs to the people, and if we decide to throw out the more cumbersome "rules" - the nerve of claiming that language actually follows rules! - well, Yippee-ki-yay, mutha******!

My advice to the language mavens is try to keep up. The evolution will be televised.
Oops! That was me spoutin' off. Sorry - forgot to sign in.
Hell, I just figured it was the FBI goons letting their feelings about grammar be known...and we know they are all very interested in grammar.

Pinker I had disagreements with, but mostly found it a very enjoyable read, and between that and anthropological books and many, many debates about genetics with the science geeks in this neck of the woods, things were getting pretty heady. I don't buy it all...but I've always hated the masculine generic, and at least now I can start a good argument about it that doesn't immediately swing into politics.

Which is good...
There's a reason they call it "the letter of the law."

-FBI Goons
Gosh, what a surprising response from you, Randy. Not.

Nor do I consider myself anything like an “authority” or authoritarian. I read all manner of poor expression with the appropriate murmur of love for unfettered self-expression. Pinker threw down the gauntlet, I merely stepped on it. It was a non-issue. Not a hard question at all.

Nope, not liking the suggestion of anti-democratic feelings at all. [Note that that string is a fragment.] I am however the scotch drinker of language lovers and reserve the right to look down my tumbler at you bourbon swilling jack-a-napes all I want.

I am not telling you *how* to write or talk, but what the rules indicate, and yes, there are rules of grammar. That being said, there are rules to polite discourse too, but no one observes them either.

At any rate, your eloquent post only goes to further illustrate the problem of letting the poets show the truth of nihilism. You might want to misspell a few words, “disagree” a few subjects and predicates, and otherwise bend the rules you’re pretending to flout.

Non-elitist poseur!

Love you! - tone
OOOO...first fight on the site...I KNEW I wanted commenting abilities for a reason...

Tone: "your eloquent post only goes to further illustrate the problem of letting the poets show the truth of nihilism."

Civil question, really...I'm just wondering if you're suggesting that nihilism is in fact true, or...and that the general populace needs to be protected from poets that would speak that, or...perhaps I'm misreading.

Tone: "I am however the scotch drinker of language lovers and reserve the right to look down my tumbler at you bourbon swilling jack-a-napes all I want."

Absolutely. Only get the drink right: what's the word? Thunderbird.

There are rules, yup...but they get bent for a reason. On this particular one, I don't see the damage, and wholly agree. Whether it's 'laziness' or Pinker is just lazy in his characterization, there's a gap in the language that your original post did indeed fill, but in a very cumbersome opposed to just saying 'them'. In real life, when I'm not discussing grammar, that's what I'd do, and I'd look rather askance at someone who wanted to correct that in me during casual conversation. Written? Well, I don't like the masculine generic, and I know there are lots of other ways around it when you have leisure to pick your words...but sometimes, it comes down to matching a 'singular antecedent' with a 'plural pronoun'. When push comes to shove, I'll take that over assuming the antecedent has a penis, and won't apologize for it.

Hey, what can I say? I live with a female PhD...I gotta adjust with the pressures of the times.
Man, no one feels the pain of trying to speak eloquently and grammatically correctly more so than I, truly. I think the absence of a respectful neuter sucks for air, but I also think an attempt to provide one would suck even more. Using 'them' only spikes the ears of a few hyper-sensitive types like me, and is the best solution I can see (so far).

For the record, I love it when people like you or Randall bend, break and wrangle the rules, but it's because you *can*. Picasso can be a revolutionary because he *knows* the forms and the traditions he's throwing down. I love this kind of bending, breaking and wrangling

Yes, grammar is descriptive. No the rules don't serve much public good at all, if any. And if language is a game, I don't want to be a Ref, but I am going to sit on the sidelines and 'boo' the shitty players...and eat A LOT of grammar park franks. A...LOT.

My point about poets and nihilists is this. A great poet will always be a poor spokesman for nihilism because poetry is affirmation. You cannot eloquently espouse nothingness. If anyone could do it, it would be a poet, but then the nothing becomes a something and a well-wrought something as well. Not in league with a real poet like yourself, or Simic, or Yeats, or Eliot, but I do consider myself a sometime poet. I am not pulling a Plato here, kicking them out of the Republic while reading Aristophanes before I go to bed. I am saying that they are ill-equipped for speaking about nothing. By definition, their speech is transcendent and "True". Hope that clears it up without getting me into too much more trouble.

Thugs...these ar ethe nihilists. No one wants to hear them though because their grammar SUCKS!
"a real poet like yourself, or Simic, or Yeats, or Eliot"

Jesus...don't set me up much, do you?

Maybe you ain't Plato, but one can't help but suspect there's a shade of Socrates in a sentence like that.

Nevertheless, 'tis clarified--and I'll pop for the next Ball Park, kay?
Honestly, no irony or undue self-effacement intended.

I got a few years and about a billion words ahead of me before I get there...but the sentiment is very much appreciated...

...though there is that tiny part of me that almost wants Socrates more. Maybe it's not so tiny, even...cuz growth lies in that direction. Ya know.
At this risk of over-posting, ya kinda lost me on that second bit. I mean I know *what* you are saying, but not how you are saying it, if that makes any sense.
Opposition, I generally find, is both personally easier to deal with, and potentially more rewarding, than acceptance. That probably says something about me psychologically, but I'm not entirely sure what it is.

Maybe 'opposition' is the wrong word. Maybe a better word is 'challenge.'

To be mentioned in the same sentence as Yeats and Eliot is of course very much a compliment to me...and much appreciated...but I guess I kinda hope I don't hear too much of it while I'm alive.

Does that make more sense?
Backing up a bit: This is an old "fight" between, us, Gene - and one we dearly love. We don't even really disagree that much: I've made the same argument re: Picasso, myself, many times. And I do, in fact, believe that any few language skills I may still possess stem from both extensive knowledge of - and deliberate rejection of - what some choose to call rules.

And, Tone - Of course, when I poked the "language mavens," I was aiming for the very same as referenced in Pinker's text (those less apt to differentiate between correctness and truth than yourself). But honestly, I did guess that you might identify with the blighters and take it to heart. Bonus. Love you, too!

Nevertheless, I was perfectly serious in suggesting that there are no rules in grammar. If I were to pen an aria, I might have some justification in claiming that it must be sung just so. If, however, I try to capture the songs of songbirds, and in so doing hazard to put down the rules of their discourse, if the songbirds then subsequently sing a different song, they are not breaking rules. I was merely mistaken in thinking that I had captured them.

There are no rules in grammar, because those who write them down are at best historians, and at worst gossip columnists. Grammar, itself, is of course, the agreement that allows communication to take place. But rules? Pah! They're merely traditions guarded jealously by petty bureaucrats (qualifying, this time: don't mean you - I know you value pure expression, too)!

Language, and therefore grammar, is evolutionary. If it was truly bound by these silly, arbitrary rules, then breaking the rules would break the thing they claim to constrain. But that's clearly not the case. So I rest my own.
Incidentally, I agree entirely on the issue of nihilism; but then I've never really identified myself as such. It's not that I believe in nothing, it's that I believe in everything, indiscriminately, in a self-canceling sort of way. (Okay, that's a lie, but an illustrative and nicely symmetrical one.) More to the point, I believe in inherent properties, but not inherent values. But just because we have to supply our own meaning doesn't devalue the creation - if anything, it elevates same.

We are what we is, we make what we love, we love what we make, we love making love.
Of course, and well said as always.

For the record, wasn't calling you a nihilist, just saying that those who use grammar well are sometimes the worst advocates for...what, arguing against proscriptive grammar...rprecisely because they are so well-spoken. No, if there is nihilist lurking here, it is I. Well, I guess I am not lurking at all...Drat.

Yes, Gene, an old fight, and like an old couple, we're not even on different sides. Good on ya, both.
Damn that was fun! Let's do it again! I get to argue formalism this time!
People who use grammar well are poor advocates for it because if it can't be taught, it means we've less competition for this field, that's a plus.

If we can keep language a mystery, we get to be the priests. Heh.
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