grammar nazis, explain yourselfs!

(note, this post probably won't make a lot of sense unless you're familiar with facebook.com, the social networking website, and the 'groups' contained therein.)

it has come to my attention that there is a young breed of grammar nazis with a loud, proud presence on the facebook. a facebook search for ‘grammar’ returned 500+ hits for group names. a lot of these are grammar school reunion type groups, but even more are dedicated to proper grammar, or, more accurately, to hating improper grammar. i intended to look at all 500 and count how many were pro-grammar nazism and how many were against, but honestly, i just couldn't take it after about 10 pages of group profiles. (and my search, of course, didn't hit groups about vocabulary, spelling, or punctuation!) suffice it to say, of my sampling, the ratio of nazi to non-nazi groups was about 7 to 1.

this might not appear very worrisome at first glance--after all, has facebook so far proven to be an effective launch pad for political causes? and the ratio of, say, pro-drinking to anti-drinking groups is probably much higher than 7 to 1. yes, they're frivolous and often ironic. so i'm just taking the website, and people's willingness to join these groups as some general indicator of the vague fancies of my generation. the thing that does, honestly, make me feel a bit threatened is the vehemence and violence with which groups (from both sides of the aisle) attack their causes and each other.

i use the word 'cause' carefully in that last sentence. each group on facebook has a category designation, and the most common by far among grammar nazi groups is 'common interests: beliefs and causes'. they're positively militant! several of the group names/descriptions involve the joke 'bad grammar makes me [sic],' but several are even stronger, such as 'bad grammar makes me want to shit myself and die' or 'bad grammar kills kittens.'

aside from the violently titled groups, there are the social pressure groups, which seem to fall into two main categories, with a bit of overlap in the middle: judgmental, and sexual. the judgemental groups are mostly of the 'i judge you when you use bad grammar' variety. the description of the group 'Correct grammar is your friend,' to take one example among many, reads:
Your and you're are not the same thing.
Ur, u, r, and any other stupid abbreviation are not words.
How about we learn how to use correct grammar and spelling so our generation doesn't look like retards?
the groups i'm calling sexual rely on the notion, as do so many causes and ad campaigns, that sex sells. (a search i never thought i'd try, 'grammar sex,' returned 16 groups, about half of which were on topic.) they have names like 'good grammar is sexy,' 'proper grammar is a turn on,' and 'girls like guys with proper grammar.' and isn't that just a coercion off a different color?

of course, i'm not the first to notice this phenomenon. already there is a backlash in the facebook community--that outspoken eighth group that is anti-grammar nazi. these groups have names like 'bad grammar just had sex with your bf/gf,' and 'educated people against grammar and spelling.' a post on the message board of 'bad grammar feels good and sounds cool' (bgfgasc) reveals the depth of hatred between the two camps (i'm sorry for the length--i can't resist posting the whole thing.):
this group is a threat to all who use language.
grammar is not a joke!
grammar does not exist for the purpose of being raped by inexpressive and incoherent fools like yourselves! manipulating grammar to form thoughts and ideas is what allows human progress to occur!
you think shakespeare didn't care about grammar? thornton wilder? shel silverstein?
you fools, with your screwed up syntax and abuse of punctuation, will bring the downfall of language itself!
and such a slippery slope! what's next?
you all simply don't realize what kind of greatness can be achieved by using good grammar in speech and in writing because you don't have the ability or the will.
think about this: [sic--watch as he struggles not to end the sentence with a preposition!] how can bad grammar feel good without the good grammar to which to compare it? when you've reached the point where you don't know the difference between good grammar and bad, how will it feel good anymore?
but seriously. grammar is important. your use of it is what expresses your true intentions.
rape? fools? human progress? downfall of language!!? a group member responds:
"you fools, with your screwed up syntax and abuse of punctuation, will bring the downfall of language itself!"

We can only hope.
there are, of course, more moderate groups like 'good grammar: not entirely unimportant,' but their message boards are equally abuzz with members correcting each others' grammar (even a member of bgfgasc writes, "We're talking about speaking with bad grammar, right? Because poor grammar in writing is bad bad bad.") and railing against the opposite group.

lest you assume i will wholeheartedly come down on the grammar-free side of the debate, let me say that i find many of these groups almost as disturbing as their proper grammar counterparts. first, they use the same rhetorical tactics (sex, death), as the grammar nazis. second, almost all of the groups i've cited so far use the same fallacious reasoning about what grammar is and how it works. personally, i blame the schools.

most, if not all of these groups treat grammar as a set of rules of the type you learn in middle school. and that's fine. be as pro or anti the teaching of grammar as you want. but in a deeper sense, language IS grammar. a lot of group descriptions, and especially discussion board posts, act as though language could exist without a grammar. (another post at bgfgasc: "To have no universal laws of grammar would be like physics without math to explain it"... ... ... WHAT!?) then they argue that this would be good and freeing, or that it's dangerous to the possibility of communication.

both positions are patently absurd because, and i can't stress this enough, even our mistakes are grammatical. EVERYTHING we do toward the end of communication involves grammar. 'improper' grammar follows patterns. speech errors, typos and mispellings are systematic. people who think they're eschewing grammatical rules to feel good and sound cool are sorely mistaken! they're just following even more deeply (cognitively?) ingrained rules that are so basic you don't even have to learn them in school! the same admonition goes for those who think others are 'breaking' the rules. they may break with certain conventions of erudite usage, but they'll never escape grammar or--god forbid--damage communication in any way. if people make mistakes that are too wild, they fail at communication, and that's the end of the story. if the same mistake occurs over and over again (and these are the mistakes grammar nazis are really afraid of), it's, first, psycholinguistically motivated, and second, it becomes the norm (or the rule, if it gains enough status). and that's how language changes.

i did find one group, 'El Club: Where Creativity And Originality Meets Punctuality And Grammar,' that seemed to have a reasonable political agenda. it bills itself as a safe space for spanish speakers to express themselves (in spanish, english, or spanglish) without worrying about grammatical norms. this makes sense because a minority or foreign group can be persecuted/excluded/marginalized for speaking improperly, and speaking properly in a foreign language might be especially difficult and socially intimidating. (interestingly, this group wasn't listed as a 'cause', but as a 'common interest: language' group.)

but, by and large, these groups that people choose to freely associate themselves with are argument for the sake of argument. they're all anti and very little pro. almost none of the groups posted anything resembling the 'beautiful' or 'free' language they claim their approaches will generate. they rhetorically marshal all the best and worst things in life: sex, death, illness, politics (don't think they don't talk about W.), violence, money, prestige, and acceptance, for what? for words? for apostrophes and commas? for a subject-verb agreement that will change in 50 years no matter what we do? that makes me sad for my generation.


i wanna be a grammatologist.

so, on a personal note, i'm casting about for a career. glamorous unpaid internships beckon, as does linguistics grad school. but my real passion turns out to be completely fictitious. worse than that, it's just a grammatical derivation of 'grammatology'.

'of grammatology' is one of jacques derrida's best known works; it's something like the bible (ahem!) of deconstruction. (i've never gotten through the whole thing, nor, unfortunately, do i have a copy in front of me.) in it, derrida outlines (literally--he sets the boundaries) of a non-science known as grammatology. on the one hand, it's a semiotics--a study of signs. on the other hand, it examines the foundations of the possibility of human knowledge. the tenets of the book never add up to a course of action for a positive science or a philosophy that one could live by. grammatology would always be stuck examining its own foundations in a never-ending self-reflexive mess of critical theory and no one would ever read the whole thing (ahem).

a google search for the term 'grammatologist' asked if i really wanted 'dermatologist,' but i think it's too late for med school. grammatologist returns only 763 hits, but they're some of the most interesting i've encountered.

-most appropriately, in an somewhat clumsy interview, jacques himself explains that there's no such thing as a grammatologist.
-a language log post about the history of the word grammelot and the tediousness of academic review in the blogosphere.
-a post on rhizome.org about a piece of pynchonian net art by mark amerika called 'phon:e:me,' which features a character who 'moonlights as an applied grammatologist' (it can be viewed with firefox, btw).
-and last, but not least, a mysterious message board discussion about martial arts, easter philosophy, and language.

but i think grammatology is more legit than a lot of people who use the term realize. i'm currently applying to a couple of linguistics graduate programs that focus on an phenomena known as 'grammaticization' or 'grammaticalization' (don't worry, linguists, i'm not going to say grammaticization is the same as grammatology!) grammaticization is a process of language change whereby new words and structures form from old bits of linguistic material. a canonical example is 'gonna.' 'going to' used to have a strictly physical meaning, but somehow developed the metaphorical meaning of future or intention. that semantic meaning became phonologically different from the physical 'going to,' which is still used (no one would ever say 'i'm gonna the store'), effectively making 'gonna' a new word or grammatical marker. (i don't really have an adequate grasp of all this yet!)

so, great, grammaticization happens according to certain predictable patterns. what does this have to do with grammatology? well, for semioticians, everything has a grammar. signs don't function as signs (don't convey their intended meaning, let's provisionally say) unless they're properly deployed within a grammatical structure. let's take a fairly literal and real-world example: street signs are a system of signs. they have a syntax--spatial, rather than temporal. the 'stop' sign at the end of my block is turned upside down, so it sort of reads 'pots,' but it still functions as a sign--we still stop at it. however, a friend and i, driving up i-35, saw a truck hauling a sign saying 'NW 63rd street, exit only' across a bridge. we did not interpret that sign to mean that we were approaching 63rd street, because it wasn't within the correct syntactic structure (namely, on a stationary pole over the highway). some errors impair meaning and some don't. if the same 'error' (saying 'gonna' for 'going to') is made over and over, it can enable a new sign to emerge within the same grammatical structure (i wish i could think of an example to apply this to street signs).

if linguists are studying the way new grammatical categories and words and structures form, what if they arrived at a generalizable model for how grammars grow and change? what if we could apply these phenomena of repeated error and re-interpretation to all systems of meaning and explain how totalities form, change, die? wouldn't it be sweet to be a grammatologist?



mike, a fellow student in my child language acquisition class, has posted an experiment (part of his final project) online... it strikes me as a fun task, and you can participate, even if you're not a child!

it's about the way we learn to recognize words in speech. i won't say too much else now, or risk biasing potential subjects, but perhaps after finals, i can recruit him to say a bit about his results.

test 1,
test 2,
test 3

ps - seems there's some paypal (as opposed to cash) money involved.

fake dictionaries

i've been sitting on this one for a while, admittedly, but there are two good reasons to be blogging about the phenomenon that is the fake dictionary genre. the first reason is that i was asked to review one called "mixtionary" by its publsiher, IDW publishing. the second is that i went to a small press book fair in manhattan last weekend (working for coral press www.coralpress.com), and discovered a couple of other prominent fake dictionaries. it occurs to me that the emergence of this genre and its commercial viability probably mean something about our relationship to words. let's see what it is!

the devil's dictionary (view online here) seems like a good place to start, and might be one of the earliest examples of the genre. written by ambrose bierce as a newspaper serial from 1886-1906, it was finally bookified in 1911. a cynical and satirical work, it purports to give the true definitions of common words for "enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang." thus, from the preface, the book is already directed to those who believe there is a right and a wrong way to use language. take, for example, the following entry:
No longer used by the timid. Said chiefly of words. A word which some lexicographer has marked obsolete is ever thereafter an object of dread and loathing to the fool writer, but if it is a good word and has no exact modern equivalent equally good, it is good enough for the good writer. Indeed, a writer's attitude toward "obsolete" words is as true a measure of his literary ability as anything except the character of his work. A dictionary of obsolete and obsolescent words would not only be singularly rich in strong and sweet parts of speech; it would add large possessions to the vocabulary of every competent writer who might not happen to be a competent reader.
as though words could be 'good' based on their aptness of meaning! there clearly seems to be a mindset here that meanings exist in the world, and to best express them we must simply be able to find the words that match.

a newer addition to the true-usage dictionary genre is maggie balistreri's 'evasion english dictionary.' the book is in its fourth printing with melville press, and is a list of trendy, throw-away, and other words the author generally considers useless or even misleading. the dictionary is touted as a mode of cultural critique, but unfortunately written as a personal attack. each definition is written as a statement the speaker might have said instead. for example, one of her ten definitions of 'like' is "I have finished my sentence." the word DOES function this way, and we all understand it to mean this on a daily basis. so why should i buy the book? what's so funny about the fact that 'like' has come to mean something new, and it keeps people from having to say "I have finished my sentence now. Is there anything YOU would like to say?"

the more i think about it, less i know where to start this critique. sure, it's easier to ask "does that make me a bad person?" than "doesn't that make me bad person?" but that's not the fault of any individual speaker, which m.b's rhetoric clearly implies. it also doesn't mean that 'does' MEANS 'doesn't' in any sense of the word 'mean'. and additionally, who says language shouldn't be easier to use? is it lazy or dishonest to ask the question one way rather than the other? is there no room for tact in linguistic prescriptivism? is it even possible to speak completely and literally at all times? watch how i pile up rhetorical questions i'm sure you know my answer to!

both dictionaries wittily point out interesting changes that occur in the language, but the odds that they actually mean anything about our culture are slim to none. there have always been hedge terms. there have always been more or less direct ways to say something. these facts are part of the flow of how language changes. we often abandon words once their meaning becomes too direct and transparent. but this is nothing to be afraid of, and especially nothing to be scornful and superior about.

mixtionary might be a special case, since it defines new, made up words, rather than giving 'true' definitions for words we use falsely. however, its project still has this 'were not using language properly' feel to it, since it seems to be proposing that we need to fill holes in the language. this, however, makes it a cute novelty and not much else.

it's got cartoons of situations in which the new words should be used (which are surprisingly female-centric... almost all of the main characters are women, and there is a disproportionately high number of words about shoes). the words are formed as portmanteau in a, once again, cute but uninventive way (as in 'fleeceo,' fleece + ceo... you can guess what it means). and, to be a nit-picky crossword puzzler for a minute, the words often do not match the definitions in part of speech ('blahtiful = blah + beautiful; a beautiful person who is vapid.')

so the book bills itself (sarcastically?) as "a guide to communicating efficiently in the modern world, in which new-fangled ideas and phenomena leave us at a loss for words." but the idea that anyone might read a book like this and actually adopt a word from it is about as absurd as the idea that people might stop being evasive after reading the evasion english dictionary.

i submit that the fake dictionary genre is intended for people who already care a lot about language and believe that other people don't. it creates a meaning/saying distinction that indicates we need some special training to really understand everyday language. perpetuating this attitude in a joking way strikes me as particularly dangerous, though i'm not sure why. maybe it's because it allows us to discount others' language by believing we know what they mean better than they do. readers can pat themselves on the back for knowing that, though the general public may go on changing language, the literati can always read the truth.


"A mere ripple in cow-infested waters"

A moment of Zen, courtesy of analytic philosophy:

"It might still be said, however, that the dependence of cow thoughts on distal cows is assymetrically dependent on their dependence on disjunctions of proximal cow projections; distal cows wouldn't evoke COW tokens but that they project proximal whiffs or glimpses or snaps or crackles or . . . well, or what? Since, after all, cow spotting can be mediated by theory to any extent you like, the barest whiff or glimpse of cow can do the job for an observer who is suitably attuned. Less, indeed, than a whiff or glimpse; a mere ripple of cow-infested waters may suffice to turn the trick."
(Jerry Fodor, "A Theory of Content, II: The Theory," in Stich & Warfield's Mental Representations)


in a short while

a short post:

i just found this article by Steven Pinker (author of The Language Instinct). though it's a few years old now, it's a succinct and pretty introductory discussion of some of my favorite lingusitics issues.

it touches on the rules/words divide (which, in the guise of overregularization made up several interesting classes in my child language acquisition class this semester), discusses the rumelhart-mclelland computational model of acquisition, and sums up how these cognitive issues (presumably concerned with individual speakers) effect long-term patterns of language change (presumably concerned with groups of people).

he also cites joan bybee's studies of regularity and frequency. i'm just reading a paper of hers (her 2005 LSA presidential address, downloadable on her website), in which she talks extensively about a relatively new usage-based approach to linguistics. as far as i can tell, it's at least related to the school known as functionalism or cognitive linguistics (see also functionalgrammar.com). she begins her speech by questioning some of the structuralist assumptions of more mainstream (read: mostly chomskyan) linguistics and, while she doesn't use the term 'post-structuralist,' the approach is based on treating mechanisms of change (as opposed to a static grammar) as language's universals.

is not just about linguistics, as the 'AI' suggests (although the 'about' page suggests that it stands for 'accelerating intelligence' more than 'artificial intelligence'), but pinker's article reminds us that language will be a key part of any future research into machine learning/behavior. the whole thing is worth a look!


Gender neutral third person singular pronoun update


The war over the appropriate way to refer gender neutrally to somebody in the third person singular wages on, but today I saw something that indicated a small victory for the Populists.

"John Smith added "Physicalism- or something near enough" to their favorite books."

Facebook's mini-feed has adopted the singular they to refer to persons who have not specified a sex on their profiles. Another point goes to everyday usage becoming mainstream despite the prescriptive grammarians and the Spivak faction.



it doesn't exactly qualify as 'usage of the week' since it's been going on for so long, but there's this neat thing we do when we talk about addiction to things:

chocoholic (this spelling is only slightly more common than 'chocaholic' according to google. both are domain names, but chocoholic.com is much fancier.)

really, whatever-you-like-aholic. so we seem to append the morpheme -aholic (according to certain phonological/phonotactic rules) to mean 'addicted to that noun.' any reasonable person might guess that '-aholic' means something like 'addicted to.'

but consider the form 'alcoholic'. here (and I think most people would argue that this is the origination of the -aholic morpheme), we're actually just appending 'ic'. so how did -ahol become attached from 'alcohol'?

the suffix -aholic has its own listing in the OED online. it reads:
The final element of WORKAHOLIC (after ALCOHOLIC n. 2) used as a suffix forming ns., as computerholic, newsaholic, spendaholic, etc., (chiefly humorous nonce-words) denoting one who appears to be addicted to the object, activity, etc., specified; a person subject to an inordinate craving for or obsession with (something).

according to wikipedia:
Etymologically, "chocoholic" is a blend of "chocolate" and "alcoholic", though some linguists complain that the word, by construction, implies addiction to "chocohol" rather than "chocolate", suggesting that chocolatic is a more appropriate neologism than chocoholic.

under this etymologic history, the word is a portmanteau, but I would argue that -aholic is productive enough as a suffix to merit giving it that label.

the fallacy of the linguists' argument as presented in the wikipedia quotation lies in the idea that construction should imply definite relationships. sure, construction often does and can imply things about meaning (maybe because speakers are aware that novel utterances are more likely to be understood if they follow established patterns?), but the idea that some neologisms are 'more appropriate' than others stems from the mistaken assumption that causality matters in language change. again, speakers tend to make novel utterances predictable, not necessarily logical. it's correlation, not causation, that produces meaning.


identity crisis

the identity property is pretty central to a lot of endeavors. if there's one thing our logical proofs, self-congratulatory objectivism and philosophical arguments rest on, it's the fact that "A is A."

of course, this is a perfect example of why traditional logical assumptions and standards shouldn't be applied wholesale to the study of language. in philosophy of language "A is A" is the foundation for the idea that any statement is identical to itself. this works alright for physical objects, but when it comes to language, there are never two identical statements. there are never two identical statements. there are never two identical statements.

the first A is not the same as the second A. in the most trivial sense, they're in different places on the page. they're articulated at different times, drawn slightly differently or pronounced slightly differently. the fact that these types of differences don't count as differences is the most primary function of language. as derrida says, language is repetition and difference. language is, by pretty much anyone's definition, made of repeating elements. but each repetition involves a difference. it's that whole can't-step-in-the-same-river-twice thing.

to say "A is A" is true is not a tautology. it's not a definition handed down by god or a self-evident truth about the universe. it should be seen as a statement of our most basic assumptions about language. assumptions probably isn't even the right word because it's something even stronger than an assumption. it's the nature of language's functioning to flatten out certain differences, especially the differences that context and repetition throw into the works.

i'm not saying "A is A" is not true. it IS true precisely because we understand two separate tokens of the same bit of language (two of the same statement, two "A"s) to be the same thing. and we have this understanding because of the nature of language. and that's a shaky place to build your logic!


the marked post

today in sociolinguistics, we had a discussion about 'markedness.' the term originated with the prague school of linguistics (generally associated with the structuralist movement), but it seems to parallel useful concepts found in post-structuralist theory. let's explore!

according to the wikipedia article, the linguistic concept of markedness originally referred to certain phonemes that had additional or non-basic features. that is, if schwa (the vowel sound in 'putt') is central, unrounded, etc., it is unmarked in comparison to the vowel sound in 'pete', which is marked for features like 'high.' the same concept has been expanded to syntactic and semantic structures when one is considered more basic or natural.

sociolinguists have found that marked forms are generally associated with more formal discourse. for instance, in english, latin and greek derivatives are more marked than anglo-saxon forms, so 'canine' is more formal than 'dog.' i sense a certain circularity here that i'll return to later.

markedness plays another interesting role in sociolinguistics. in many cases, the unmarked term in a set of opposite terms is also the name of the category that encompasses both of those terms. for instance, 'cow' technically refers to a female bovine. but it can also be used to refer to a group of both cows and bulls. the term 'bull,' on the other hand, can only be used to refer to males, and never to a mixed-gender group. (it's an interesting example, our sociolinguistics professor points out, because it's one of the few gender examples in which the female is the unmarked term.)

in the same way, your height is never referred to as your shortness, no one ever asks 'how slow were you running?' except in extreme cases, and '___ years young' is a kind of joke, because 'height,' 'fast,' and 'old,' are the unmarked terms in their respective binaries.

i'm sure you're asking: what does all this have to do with derrida? well, in the above examples it's fairly trivial to point out that the privileging (unmarking, naturalizing) of one term is arbitrary. it is perpetuated by convention, and goodness knows why it occurs in the first place (that's what sociolinguists try to figure out... good luck, guys). but post-structuralists point out that this also occurs on a more conceptual level. for instance, speech is privileged over writing because it's seen as more natural, older, and because it requires the presence of both speaker and listener (the privileging of speech over writing, besides structuring a lot of philosophical metaphors, is why linguists study speech almost exclusively!). but all the explanatory binaries: naturalness/unnaturalness, purity/impurity, originality/derivation, presence/absence are equally conventional and arbitrary. and linking all the privileged sides of those binaries to each other is also conventional, arbitrary, and empirically untestable. so derrida points out that speech actually has all the impurity, derivation and unnaturalness of writing and that ALL signification is, in this sense, writing.

post-structuralism is often erroneously equated with relativism. undoing all conceptual binaries by demonstrating that they're founded in this linguistic way amounts to relativism only if one believes that language is immaterial. but it can be shown to have real effects in the world. the arbitrary privileging of one half of the writing/speech binary actually determines how we study linguistics. to return to a linguistic example, the difference between saying '21 years old' and '21 years young' is arbitrary, but still meaningful and important.

and i'll just quickly close with my question about markedness and formality: are marked forms more formal, or are formal forms more marked? if markedness develops through conventions of use, these connections can't really be used to predict anything (language change, patterns of reference) except how people will tend to interpret the use of certain terms.


forbidden words

which is the name of the book i was invited to review by the cambridge university press (!), applies to pretty much anything at one time or another. its authors, kate burridge and keith allan, do an admirable job of acknowledging this and the role of context in discourse. unfortunately, they do a fairly poor job of a few other things.

i'd also like to point out that on the back of my advanced copy, in capital letters, it reads
do you think they did that on purpose? the authors do seem to delight in using taboo language (and quoting sade extensively!) throughout, but i doubt this "NAD" was intentional, since there are quite a few things other wrong with this book as well.

first of all, the authors seem confused about who their audience is. they seem to be writing a linguistics text book, and they coin new terms: orthophemism (straight talking), and dysphemism (wrong or bad talking) to go with the more familiar euphemism (sweet talking). but they also diverge into long and unnecessary histories, like the one on the use of the word "taboo" itself, that don't seem to have any place in a scholarly argument.

every chapter after the first two or so introduces a new domain of discourse in which some type of speech is restricted. these range from cursing to bodily functions ("sex and bodily effluvia," excuse me) to naming and addressing. each chapter begins with an unnecessarily lengthy compilation of examples where simply the title would suffice for even a novice reader. broad section headings like "why names are tabooed" begin with broad statements like "the taboo on names is a fear-based taboo," but then devolve into more long series of examples and block quotes and attempts to fit all observed phenomena to the same explanation: speaking humans attempt to preserve well-being.

call me a pessimist, but the idea that all prohibitions on language can be explained by an appeal to our common good-will seems overly simplistic at best. it also, in what seems like a somewhat circular move to me, relies on a theoretic notion based on the colloquial 'face' (public persona) that we each try to maintain in the interest of that well-being. they write, "by default we are polite, euphemistic, orthophemistic and inoffensive; and we censor our language use to schew tabooed topics." really? by default? if no taboo language existed, we would all be polite? the simultaneous creation of politeness and its binary opposite, impoliteness, is never discussed. it seems to me that there are far more things we shouldn't say at any given time than things we should.

dysphemism is defined as "a word or a phrase with connotations that are offensive either about the denotatum [thing being named] and/or to people addressed or overhearing the utterance." this could, of course, be just about anything. so presumably the book must go on to define every single discursive context and, thereby, the words that are taboo within such context. but this is clearly too much to ask. the authors occasionally appeal to a standard mixed-gender middle class setting, which they claim gives rise to the "MCPC," the middle-class politeness criterion. again with the circularity. saying that "she's a hot chick" is taboo because it's often used offensively is circular and unenlightening. how can we define the MCPC in a systematic way except to appeal to our own middle-class intuitions about polite language? no one needs a book for that.

in the final chapter, "taboo, censoring, and the human brain," the authors cite psychological and psycholinguistic evidence that "taboo words are located in a special place within our brains." first of all, don't get me started on whether or not language is an object that can be 'located' anywhere.
this may account for the fact that attempts to stamp them out meet with little or no success. bad language is not just some nasty habit that we can be broke of, like smoking in restaurants or nail-biting. forbidden words flourish all the more vigorously on a diet of individual censoring and public disapproval. linguistic prohibition, like other kinds of prohibition and censorship, is doomed to failure in the longer term. like the worm in the bud, forbidden words feed on censoring imposed by hypocritical decorum. but when we look at the exuberance of expressions that proliferate around the forbidden, it is also clear that we are having a lot of fun.
i'm serious. that's from the last paragraph of the book.

first of all, for a neutral textbook-type of writing, the whole text is shot through with agressive descriptivism. (a side note even mentions that burridge proposed the removal of the apostrophe from the english possessive to scorn from all sides. duh! this is prescriptive liberalism! just as bad, if not worse, than any other kind of prescriptivism!) it's excessively anti-censorship while being excessively pro-self-censoring (remember, we censor ourselves to be good! the government and prescriptivists censor us because they're bad!)

but political agenda aside, the lengthy quote above still reveals what i believe is a fatal flaw in most lines of reasoning about various particular types of discourse. though the passage states that tabooed behaviors are here to stay, it still treats them as something that intervenes from the outside. taboo is a worm in a bud. it flourishes like a parasite.

i'd like to propose a more interesting and useful type of discourse analysis. why don't we analyze proper speech for the things it lacks? what is it we strenuously avoid saying, even though we know we could? language isn't, as burridge and allen claim, an object that is attacked by taboo, dirty language and censorship. these things have always already been a part of it. they form an essential part of, lets say, our reasons for having more than one word for an object. if such a one-to-one correspondence existed, there would be little need for language as we know it. an analysis that tries to tease dysphemism and euphemism apart and treat one as the natural default and one as the interloper is both hopeless and too complicated for words.


how to speak and write postmodern

just got this link from a friend, who apparently thought it had my name on it:
how to write and speak postmodern
it's an excellent crash course in how to be a jerk.

but, as another friend says, if anyone can get any mileage out of this, it's invented usage. so i'll just say that postmodernism (poststructuralism, too) gets a bad rap for being so convoluted and buzz-wordy. but these phrases (and the invention of them!) do important theoretical work for the philosophers that use them (although it's true that they will just make you sound pompous if you use them at too many receptions).

for example, a philosopher might choose to use an obscure phrase coined by another philosopher and only understood by philosophy students without explicating it. he might do this, and do it legitimately, to make his own writing less accessible. this can actually be useful, if, for instance, he wants to point to the context of another philosopher's work and use the term in the way the other philosopher used it and ensure that only people who understand this earlier philosopher even bother to tackle his argument. scientific papers often do the same thing when they quote a paper or refer to a school of thought they just don't do it postmodernly (yet).

so the implication is that using the language means you know the background. hopefully the instructions in the article linked above don't ACTUALLY produce coherent-sounding postmodern speak. but all language users run the risk that people aren't using the language according to the conventions we expect.

all jargon, and particularly university jargon, IS exclusive and jerky. it makes academic literature hard to get a foot hold in. it DOES perpetuate the status quo in university teaching because you are more likely to need a professor to help you get that foot hold. but postmodernism is good because it tries to acknowledge these things. and postmodern-speak, if used properly (i mean, according to convention... that was a close one!), is good because it's efficient at acknowledging things. it allows you to say 'yes, i know my speech reflects my education/educational system and european-descended middle-class background; yes i KNOW my use of these terms is contradictory or circular at some level; i'm aware of the arguments of philosophers who wrote on the topic and used these terms; BUT...' all at the same moment that you're starting to engage with the topic and making a further argument, which you obviously consider to be valid and worth talking about or you wouldn't have bothered, given all the above caveats you just made.

now that's an invented usage that packs a whallop!


post kia eyan kia feni!

i've only recently discovered the world of constructed languages (or 'conlangs' if you're in the know). a constructed language differs from a natural language (natlang) because it is designed by a person or people, rather than evolving as natlangs do.

esperanto is perhaps the most famous conlang. it was developed for international communication in the hopes of fostering peace. wikipedia estimates that there are 100,000 to 2 million fluent speakers of esperanto and 1,000 native speakers.

other well-known conlangs are those created by j.r.r. tolkien for his fantasy characters to speak. while these fictitious languages can't be said to have evolved 'as natural languages do,' tolkien famously evolved them himself, creating a world full of languages that were realistically related and distributed according to the movements of populations. some langs, though fictional, are constructed to be as realistic as possible.

people also create conlangs for philosophical reasons, especially to test the sapir-whorf hypothesis, which, at its strongest, states that the range of thought is limited by the range of language. Loglan is philosophical a language meant to limit or eliminate ambiguitity. for instance, one cannot express a finite verb without also expressing a tense eliminating ambiguities such as the english "i am going to the store" (later? right now?). Láadan is another fascinating philosophical language. It was made by Suzette Haden Elgin as part of a fictional work and also to determine whether western natlangs are systematically male-oriented. each sentence in Láadan ends with a tonal (one of the few tonal conlangs!) particle that expresses the mood of the sentence: fact, hearsay believed to be true, hearsay believed to be false, etc. just check out wikipedia's list of conlangs and be amazed at the number of people who have constructed whole languages and the diversity of their reasons for doing so!

now, journey with me to a small corner of the internet where one much-maligned little conlang lives. Kalusa is not listed on wikipedia. and i might be wrong, but i think it's the first unplanned conlang. the kalusa corpus is created one entry at a time by any user. each entry must have an english translation. then other users can vote on the acceptability of the entry. if an entry's score falls too low, it is removed from the corpus. users can search the corpus by english or kalusan keywords. it began with four simple sentences posted in may.

not exactly how a natlang develops, but closer than most conlangs get. it's hard to classify kalusa according to the typical taxonomy of conlangs. it's not exactly an artlang since it's not used in fiction; not really an engineered language since it has no philosophical purpose and isn't really engineered at all. i guess it's kind of an auxillary language, but most of those are created for some political purpose (like esperanto). at its heart, i think it should be called a language game.

i was immensely excited when i first found kalusa because it's all invented usage! what could be better than a totally open-minded community of language inventors trying only to encourage each other to understand and play by certain rules of a language game? isn't that a perfect little utopia of how language could work?

as it turns out though, where there's language there's always controversy. the forum on the kalusa site is often filled with interesting and open exchanges of information and curiosity; but it also reveals that everyone thinks they know what kalusa should be. gary, aka gregor samsa posts:
The earliest utterances of the language should deal with the most basic daily needs of the people who speak the language, and not with "existentialism" and "hyperinfracaniphilia". Therefore, rather than allowing contributors to add random (and often "goofy") sentences and words, a large collection of simple sentences dealing with the daily concerns of the people would be provided in English; sentences such as "It is time to plant the corn." and "Father has gone to the marketplace."
but the shared basic needs of kalusa users are NOT corn and marketplaces. in fact, the most shared things among kalusans are probably philosophy, linguistics and the internet. but if you believe, as gary does, that kalusa should be naturalistic (a common goal among conlangers), then for some reason we have to make believe that it started in the days of one syllable words. additionally, he proposes some sort of central control to keep people focused on such basic vocabulary before allowing departures. unfortunately for gary, the development of a language like kalusa would be fundamentally influenced by the technology surrounding it (not to mention that all its creators speak english). it will never begin with one-syllable words for corn because words for 'internet' and 'existentialism' are more interesting and more useful to its speakers.

dedalvs, another disatisfied kalusan, writes: (to an unkown poster)
If one were just to look at your entries, the obvious conclusion is that you have no idea how /s/-reduplication works (one need only look at /fortusortu/, to figure that out). But that isn't quite the truth. You've been against it, and everything else that didn't quite make sense to you, from the beginning, and so you just coined a bunch of obviously ungrammatical, nonsensical, or just plain ugly words to make the whole process seem ridiculous. Well, no need to bother any more. Just use your trick to continue getting as many votes as you want, delete all the sentences you don't like, and start coining away until you're satisfied. If you decide you're interested in an interactive language, though, let us all know, so we can come back. Until then, enjoy.
careful what you wish for! as i've said before, a language (any language) can't truly be interactive, because it's not an object that exists outside of people. because it belongs to many people all at once (those with certain types of power -- in this case, the ability to win votes), it is subject to wild 'ungrammatical' 'nonsensical' or 'ugly' changes. even if the person to whom dedalvs refers is dumb (doesn't know how s-reduplication works!) or mean (uses tricks! hijacks the language for irony's sake!), he/she is still a participant in the language. that is, to someone who approaches the language as a new user, the trick/nonsense/sarcastic words are just as good as the 'real' ones. what's real in a lang anyway?

i'll post again soon about the actual grammar of kalusan and my own adventures with coinage. but, of course, politics come first!


living on invention

it's only somewhat related to our recent milestone, but we've been getting more and more traffic from search engines as our size and internet notoriety has grown.

recently, we've been hit by searches for "exclusionary tactics," "language is use wittgenstein," "deconstruction (use of language)," "anymore usage," "cheetah template trailing comma," "poet wag," "when was the word snot invented," "semantic narrowing," "putz definition," "fruit that is actually a vegetable," "flurl means," "definition mad crunk," "triangle as meaning," "who invented the first army tank," "fugly urban dictionary," and so on.

i'm not sure what a few of these people were thinking. but i'm thinking that, as far as the internet is concerned, language is location. (maybe this is support for my point that language has other purposes than communication.) that is, we ARE "invented usage." just the words. but if people get lost, then we're near a few other related things. for instance, insert any noun that has sparked recent discussion on inuse into the frame "who invented the ____" and google it.

invented usage is in the top five hits for:
"who invented the tomato?"
"who invented the army tank?"
"who invented the semiotic triangle?" (hit #1! i feel lucky!)
"who invented text apparatuses?" (ditto)
"who invented the stradivarius?" (yes indeedy)
"who invented the snoot?" (also, too)

and so on. pretty much any noun in one of our recent post titles will work. and the same goes, by and large, for the frame "usage of ____." if, on the internet, language is location, then it's possible to be in a lot of different places at once. it's like we live on 'invented' street, and also on 'usage' street, and also on 'flush toilet poem' street, and anyone who thinks to go to those locations might happen to wander in here.

and it seems people are desperate for prime linguistic real estate. hit counters swarm with ads for traffic-boosting keywords, and spam robots pile their product name into every available space to increase its importance on the internet (hence our comment verifier!).

but the corner of 'invented' and 'usage' seems like a pretty cozy place to be. while we're not on the first google page for either word, we are in pretty interesting company. search 'invented'. search 'usage'. for instance, i just learned that people invent problems to sell solutions; that the yo-yo has an interesting history behind its invention; that 'invention' is a vague thing, especially where al gore inventing the internet is concerned; and, near and dear to my heart, why QWERTY was invented. we picked such a nice neighborhood.

Happy 10,000

I would just like to congratulate myself as being the 10,001 visitor to Invented Usage! Whoever got the distinction of being 10,000, screw you because my number is a palindrome.

Anyway, it's been a great year plus. Hopefully, we're well on our way to 100,001.


i don't know what they're teaching you kids these days

The other day I found myself in William and Mary's bookstore which is basically a Barnes and Noble with a textbook section in the basement. Being a college graduate now, I was curious about what books they are making the poor children read in English classes at the prestigious Virgina college. It wasn't but two years ago that I did the same thing and found a copy of Charles Simic's "The World Doesn't End"--a book I'd been looking for--sitting on one of the shelves.

Sadly, I made no similar discoveries. In fact, there were probably enough poetry books on the nearly 20 feet of shelf space occupied by the English textbooks to count on two hands. Half of those books were anthologies. Of the books that were individual collections of poetry most were of the ethnic-American sort. Not that there is anything wrong with that on its face, but it was clear based on the books in proximity to those collection that the poetry filled a genre void in a class otherwise devoted to race and not primarily poetry. One got the impression upon viewing the shelves that poetry is more and more becoming an exotic bowl in a china shop. Interesting to look at, but not something you want your neighbors finding on your living room table. "Who would buy a bowl that looks like that?"

There really is a place for poetry in the college English program. I just suspect the professors are getting more and more daunted by the prospect of teaching it. They avoid having to really come to terms with the 'tradition' by padding poetry courses with period poets (Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes etc). These poets are about as safe as they come. They've already been well canonized and most literate adults have at least encountered them once before. For example, they were the sole focus of the only poetry unit I had in highschool. At the conclusion of that unit we all wrote "Songs of Ourselves". Yawn. At Brown University there is a contemporary American poets course that doesn't even touch Creeley, Ashbery, Ginsberg, O'Hara, Baraka etc. Now, I realize I'm being a little bitchy here, but I think professors in English departments need to grow some backbone and start teaching this stuff. There is an absolutely rich tradition of writing in America that most people are barely aware of! At the very least, an education in it would provide a great counter to foreign attacks on our lack of 'culture'. Additionally, a lot of contemporary poetry would act as a great background upon which to teach a lot of the concepts introduced in literary theory courses.

I digress, but would recommend "Hell's Angels" by Hunter Thompson. It's been providing some entertaining reading while my parents and I have been shuttling around the south.


text apparatuses


so, even though i haven't done any research yet, i feel pretty comfortable hypothesizing that the layout of the keyboard is one factor in determining how language (text, in this case) is produced. it not only structures how we're able to create text on a computer, it has also irrevocably changed how language is changing. that is, in some circles 'teh' is a word with its own meaning. '!!!11oneeleven!!' is an expression of excitement. 'book' can mean 'cool' because they're frequently confused words in the text messaging system T-9.

the keyboard is a technology. it is a tool that helps humans accomplish a task; it extends the body in a certain way. it intervenes from without and acts upon language. but i would argue that it is also already a part of language. a historical linguist reflecting on this period of development 1000 years from now could not understand the process of language change that English (and probably all languages, to greater or lesser degrees) is undergoing wihout understanding the technology of the keyboard.

linguists have to study the configuration of the human mouth, lungs, and vocal cords in order to understand the way languages change over time and why people make the mistakes they do in processing it. is the mouth also an apparatus of language? does it intervene from without? is it the original extension of the body? is it an extension of the mind (from which language flows directly)?

is the brain an apparatus? is the way it's configured responsible for how language is configured and used? i think most linguists would say yes. how could we ever study language separately from the apparatuses used to produce it? but the brain is viewed as something integral to and inseparable from language use.

whereas the keyboard is not.

we could switch keyboards any time.

but we don't. we can't, actually. there's a better keyboard design ( the Dvorak simplified keyboard) out there. ndividual typists are perfectly capable of learning a new system quickly and effectively. the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout was intentionally designed to slow typists down back when hitting keys too fast would cause typewriters to jam. if the purpose of language were fast communication, and everyone worked toward the end of making communication efficient, we would all go buy Dvorak keyboards tomorrow and start producing different typos.

but everyone doesn't work toward the end of making communication efficient. everyone works toward the most conventional end. Convention (as defined by David Lewis in his book of the same name) is a continuation of the same behavior on the expectation that everyone else will continue the same behavior (or a complementary behavior like understanding you when you speak). how the behavior gets started in the first place doesn't actually matter. it can be established by precendent, by analogy to another situation, by fictional or second-hand analogy to a similar situation, or so on. we try to make language as useful as we can without rocking the boat too much. each individual could switch keyboards or create a private language or make up slang, but for a change to be recognized as part of the language it has to occur on a much wider scale. in fact, it's probably most likely to occur on a wide scale if it's caused by the apparatuses we all use (more or less the same way) to create language.

have i gone in a circle yet with this? just because we CHOOSE a technology for some arbitrary reason doesn't make it any less integral to language than the structures of the mouth or the brain. how a convention begins doesn't matter. if we all keep using it, it will continue to work, and if it keeps working we will continue to use it. there. there's the circle.

i think what i'd like to get at is that all parts of language (phonology, syntax, semantics, etc.) are fundamentally shaped and changed by these processes which are not logical or rational but conventional. what are the odds that structures that formed conventionally over thousands of years and accidents can be re-written in binary or reduced to logic? slim to none, i'd think. why do we formulate 'if then' statements for phonological rules and binary trees to explain syntactic structures?

maybe those are just the conventions we're born into.


text errors

i'm so excited! forgive me if my fast tyoing leads to a few errors now and again...

iit's official! i'm starting an indepeendent study on typos. a lot of luinguistics research is done on the nature of speech errors, anbd they reveal a lot about the way we store, retrieve, and rpcoscess speech. but it's only recently that typing has become an isntantaneous form of communication. this raisse all kinds of interesting questions about what the nature of our typung errors reveals about those same processes--how is typing differentf rom speech? how si it the same?

i won't be testing a specific hypothesis in my study, partly because there's sso little research available on this tpic right now. i'll just be collecting typing inj a laboratory setting (not just the finished product, but every keystroke using some sort of keylogger software), and trying to categorize the different types of errors epoeple make.

most typos, i assume, will be explainable on the basis of the keyboard's design. that is, most letters that are insterted will probably be near the intended letter on the keyboardd. a lot of metathesis (reversal of two lettres) too, probably. these kinds of things can be explained by the motor processes involved in using the keyobard itselv.

however, what if there are other errors, maybe ones that odn't freqyuently make it into the final text (even in IMs or other informal settings), that couldn't be eexplained by proximity or other motor functions? what if someone swithced a 'b' for a 'p' or typed 'thear' instead of 'there'? these kinds of errors would reveal something really really relaly intersting about the processes we go through before generating text. specifically, we could hypothesize that certain errors would reveal that a phonological (sound) pattern is generated before motor control is initiated; that is, it might demonstrate that we do hear words, in some sense, before typing them.

other errors could shed light on just how motor (i just typed 'mother' there, i swear it!) control is accomplished. for instance, if someone frequently typed 'the' and then deleted the 'e' in words that used 'th' like 'that' or 'this', we might hypothesize that letters are stored and retrieved in 'chunks' of some kind rather than letter-by-letter. or typing 'buutton' for 'button' (typing mistaken double letteres more frequently in words that have actual double letteres) might mean that there is a command for 'type two letters' that is supposed to go with the command 'type a 't',' but gets misaligned.

mayube i'm the only one that maes these kinds of errors... but i think we've all had that mysterious 'why on earth did i type that?' experieince. maybe there are other even more itneresting errors out there!

there's also a lot of research on self-monitoring and repair in speech--what errors do we catch ourselves making? what errors do we block before we make them? how do we monitor our own speech; do we hear it the way we hear other people's speech? thed same questions cam be casekd about typing, so i'll be looking at which errors people are likely to correct/notice before they push 'send', how long it takes to catch different types of errors, and so on.

lots of big questions!, so don't be surprised if you see more posts on this one!


Get off my back, Monteray Jack!

Sorry to lower the intellectual bar, but if there is anybody who can get any mileage out of this comic, it's Invented Usage!

In general, qwantz is superb.

T-Rex: "Seriously? Does that mean I get into heaven FOR FREE?"

That should be our motto, in dialog(ue) form.

Now, there is much to discuss:
  • The viability of T-Rex's alternatives for "bitches."
  • How much prescriptivist linguistic crusades suck.
  • The brilliance of qwantz's use of minimalist form.
  • Whether or not it looks funny to add the "ue" to the end of dialog(ue), and whether expressing indecision about it by parenthesizing those awkward silent vowels is anything but awkward.
  • Why Cristi never capitalizes anything except for emphasis (I'm curious)


deconstruction of a stradivarius

i already devoted a whole post to this article by David Foster Wallace, which appeared in Harper's. as satisfying as writing that was, there is one point, one essential metaphor of Wallace's text, that deserves even more attention.

writes wallace: "A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that
listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails."

a wildly descriptive analogy (isn't it?) that serves to illustrate wallace's SNOOTy outlook for the rest of the article. the analogy doesn't just characterize a snoot's logical position, but also the rhetorical and emotional impact of the 'mis'use of language. to introduce such a charged metaphor into what wallace considers a 'logical' argument is to already break down those distinctions (logical vs. rhetorical vs. emotional appeals) to which wallace clings so strongly.

consider the emotional impact of watching someone literally use a stradivarius to pound nails. one would be not only appalled but almost sickened, and certainly justified in trying to stop that clearly destructive action. that is, this use is not just misapplication of an instrument and an unsuccessful endeavor. it also causes the destruction of something finely-wrought by a long-dead master, which, had it been preserved, could have been used by someone else to produce something profoundly beautiful.

it takes a lot of training to properly use a violin, and even more to derive the full benefit of playing an instrument like a strad. there are those, one supposes, who appreciate the music but do not have the education necessary to produce it, but there are apparently others whose ignorance regarding the instrument reveals a ignorance to even the beauty of music.

a stradivarius is a fragile physical object with huge historical significance. to even have access to a strad means having extreme privilege and expertise. the number of such old violins is so limited that even professional recording artists must take excessive precautions when playing them. the VERY wealthy own strads. the poor pound nails.

a SNOOT is one who believes that the voice of an uneducated person is a detriment to language.
they believe that your 'mis'use of language is an infringement upon their ability to use language correctly--not just correctly, but sublimely.
they believe that language is an object that a community shares and should view as a valuable link to the past. if you 'mis'use it, it is significantly, violently and irreparably damaged.
they cannot write the poetry of Keats because you say 'ain't.'

i'm not sure how the idea that language can be damaged got started, but it's very old and often taken for granted. perhaps the snoots feel that the nail pounders should be given an instrument other than language--at least it would be well-applied to the kind of communication 'most people' engage in.

the metaphor, of course, carries intense classist and even racist undertones. the violin and the hammer might as well be symbols of stereotypical leisure and working class activities. the violin is the height of a certain kind of refinement--but only classical european refinement--the only kind that counts. the metaphor calls to mind a savage native trying to bootstrap up to his first use of tools while the european craftsman looks on, disgusted.

doubtless, the snoot utterer, being perfectly in control of language and very well-educated about the consequences of its 'mis'use, knew all this in advance and packed it into the metaphor in question to precisely reveal her own superiority. doubtless wallace quoted it for its concision at debasing those who don't use language as prescribed. kudos to them both. now that's an artful use of language.


the SNOOT fallacy

at issue is this article by David Foster Wallace (who i typically like and agree with). it's quite lengthy but well worth the read; Wallace is a very interesting writer and the topic is the politics of usage and dictionary-making. what could be more at home here on invented usage? there's a lot here i'd like to talk about and argue with, but i'll try to focus.

the article, which appeared in Harper's, i believe, amounts to a glowing review of Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. true to form, though, Wallace also gives us all the backstory including the 'seamy underbelly' of lexicography: the descriptivist/precriptivist divide. descriptivists would like a dictionary to reflect language the way people actually use it, insofar as possible, while prescriptivists tend to believe that a dictionary should tell us what's right and how to use words properly. i found it somewhat surprising that Wallace himself comes down firmly on the prescriptive side, proudly calling himself a SNOOT. that's a nice, cute term for something i've called a 'grammar nazi' or a 'big fat jerk' elsewhere on this blog. i'm sure he has his reasons for capitalizing it (and for once mispelling it as 'SNOT,' i'd like to add).

his precious reasons. wallace, garner, and snoots of their ilk are fond of reasoning about language. and the basic premise of 99% of logical arguments about language is... drumroll please... "the purpose of language is communication." in fact, this maxim is taken so keenly for granted that it is embedded only in parentheticals on linguistics departments' webpages. (Brown's for instance: How does the function of language (to communicate) interact with its structure?) so of course wallace feels justified in defending at least the prescriptivist rules that aid 'clarity and precision.'

i'd like to submit (usage liberal that i am) that language has more purposes than just communication. i even believe it goes beyond wallace's observation that the diction/style/accent we use communicates something about us. language is used to confuse, to distract, to entertain, to kill time, to remember, to make art, to perform ceremonies, all of which could be considered communicative under my usually broad definition... but beyond even that, the ways people judge each other based on language use are PART OF LANGUAGE ITSELF. its purpose is also to divide, include, grade and judge. these functions determine who gets listened to, and in extreme cases, who gets listened to is a matter of life and death.

wallace quotes a snoot friend of his: "listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails." this analogy reveals more than a few things about the prescriptivist (snoot) perspective. first, it reveals that they consider language an object. an object that we all approach the same way from the outside and use for a determined purpose. they believe there is a right function and a wrong function for language, that that function is essentially benign and beautiful. wallace acts as though prejudice, awkwardness, and judgmentality are faults of people, and not built into language in any way.

wallace writes,
These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian Uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity, of advertising and P.R. or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will — we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument's plausibility or soundness), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument's emotional impact) have now pretty much collapsed — or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it almost impossible to advance an argument on "reason" alone.
and i'd like to object. postmodernism is NOT relativism, though this is a common misconception. postmodernism never says 'everything is the same. it doesn't matter how we speak because everything is as good as everything else.' it says 'the distinctions we make in language are arbitrary, but they have to be made. we have to make the choice to have an official academic language, or to read a certain text a certain way. it's just VERY important that we consider why (and from what cultural standpoint) we're making those decisions.' wallace's distinciton between different rhetorical strategies is an old one--one of the oldest, in fact. but language has never been transparent. there has never been a 'logical' argument that was not also rhetorical and emotional. EVERY statement that has content also has form and also has a speaker who speaks from a particular perspective and whose words therefore have a particular emotional impact. as soon as a word enters the language (or is uttered... not the same thing, i guess) it's encoded with information about the social and mental status of those who use it. logic never has been and never will be free of language.

wallace finally praises garner's dictionary of modern usage because garner himself seems not to speak from a normal human position.
It's like he's so bland he's barely there. E.g., as this reviewer was finishing the book's final entry, it struck me that I had no idea whether Bryan Garner was black or white, gay or straight, Democrat or Dittohead. What was even more striking was that I hadn't once wondered about any of this up to now; something about Garner's lexical persona kept me ever from asking where the guy was coming from or what particular agendas or ideologies were informing what he had admitted right up front were "value judgments."
that is, according to wallace, the perfect person to judge language is barely a person at all. garner lays bare his assumptions, but doesn't admit the sociocultural ground he makes them from (although i'll lay 20-to-1 he's white). this is perfection in scientific distance and objectivity. maybe it's a great way to write a text book, but it misses something fundamentally beautiful about what language is: inconsistent and ever-changing, as anything determined by everyone in the world all at once has to be.


triangle battle!

here's a version of the semiotic triangle from seb's last post:
it was made famous by ogden & richards in a 1923 book known as 'the meaning of meaning.' it's important to note that the line along the bottom is dashed and labeled 'an imputed relation,' since symbols can only refer to objects (referents, that which is referred to) through a concept or thought.

here's how ferdinand de saussure, writing slightly earlier, saw the relation between thought and language:
where A is the medium of thought (nebulous, undifferentiated), and B is the medium of language (undifferentiated sound material). the vertical lines are the arbitrary connections between the two media.

roland barthes, an interesting theorist who bridges the structuralist/post-structuralist gap in the mid-20th century, used this model: i personally like the more specific labels of the relations between the three vertices of the triangle. later, he turned to this image to explain the structure of the 'myth': here, the sign is a more complicated amalgam and the whole process of sign formation/understanding is recursive. (derrida, in particular, is known for his claims about the infinite play of signs and meanings).

another more recent semiotic triangle is extended to include the term 'definition'. this one is from 1997 and is credited to Suonnuuti, who i've never heard of before. i guess the definition is added based on other conceptual systems or something like that.

here's what i guess could be called a post-structuralist semiotic schema. it's greimas' semiotic square. it's not actually about the structure of a symbol, but the structure of a particular opposition within a text. remember, post-structuralism isn't a philosophy per se, it's just a way of handling texts and their meanings. in this example, the 'deconstructed' binary is 'beautiful/ugly', and the corners represent (more or less) different positions that characters in a story can occupy or represent.

and here's an epistemological model of the semiotic triangle that i think tries to explain what an artificial intelligence would have to have in order to understand signs: pretty, no? i don't really understand it, but it has the most lines, squiggles, and circles so far!

i guess the point is that these kinds of models are very vague. what lines and circles mean is pretty debatable and not even very empirically useful. also, the value of using a little picture to talk about symbols seems dubious at best to me. these kinds of diagrams only make sense when they're responding to one another, or when one philosopher says 'but what if it did work like this...' and uses an illustration to demonstrate their difference from some other tradition. someone should probably launch a study of these kinds of diagrams as a form in the semiotic/linguistic/cognitive fields. maybe someone already has...



this is awesome

A quick link:


More about this later after I have some time to putz around with it.

usage of the creek

Bonus! today's invented usage is actually a whole pattern of word formation!

when a friend of mine looked up some other word on urban dictionary, she stumbled across 'mugly,' and was immediately able to figure out its etymology. (we guessed 'mother-fucking ugly,' but the site also lists 'mad ugly,' 'monkey-ugly' and 'man ugly.') at any rate, these formations all have something in common. they all take the onset (first consonant sound or group of consonant sounds) of the first word in a pair and use it to replace the onset of the second word. fans of the movie Mean Girls also encountered this in the word 'fugly,' and if you can guess what that means, then i feel justified in saying that this is a productive morphological process!

it's interesting that in most of these cases, the word-formation combines the first letters of an adverb with the end of an adjective to form a new adjective. also, the 'adverb' in some of the cases i cited above is just a noun placed before the word. this too is a pretty slang-ish usage, i think, and i read it as 'adjective as a noun,' like 'ugly as a monkey.' it also seems possible to derive a new noun by combining an adjective and noun in the same way.

some examples that i found on urban dictionary:
fex (pretty much any consonant followed by -ex is a word, whether by this formation process or not)
mex (the first definition at least)
it's amazing what we have words for. (though more than a few of these did not mean what i expected them to.) a couple use additional morphological processes (changing vowel sounds, inserting another consonant after the onset...) but seem to be based on the main one we're talking about here. also, note that many of them have alternate definitions; for instance, i'm not sure 'f' can be considered a true morpheme since it has multiple meanings ('fake,' 'fucking,' 'female').

another key example is 'crunk,' a term made popular by rap producer lil jon (thank you urbandictionary). i always thought it was an adjective meaning 'crazy drunk,' since it has similar distribution distribution to 'drunk.' but, as evidenced by the contention on urban dictionary, the word has beaucoup de ambiguity. whereas 'drunk' (almost) exclusively applies to people, one can go to a 'crunk party,' and some claim there is a genre of music by the same name. there are also claims circulating that 'crunk' is a mix of 'chronic' and 'drunk,' and means to use alcohol and marijuana at the same time.

despite these ambiguities and alternate definitions, it's important to note that upon being introduced to a novel word a speaker of english slang can propose a systematic formation process. after hearing any one of these words we can create infinitely many more, whether we know the 'true meaning' or 'actual' formation process of the original example or not. after all, one example does not a pattern make. that is, it's possible that a morphological process actually becomes systematic for the first time when we try to come up with a coherent explanation for how morphology relates to meaning and then use the process (which the hearer has imagined!) to create more words. it's just possible.


a tomato is a vegetable

such a vegetable, in fact, that people frequently have to remind each other that it's 'actually' a fruit. these are often the same people who like to correct grammar mistakes in conversation:
Me and Bob are going to add some tomatoes and other vegetables to the pasta.

You know tomato is actually a fruit. And I think you mean 'Bob and I.'

Oh, then you must not have meant to start a sentence with a conjunction just now...

anyway. we can tell that the tomato IS a vegetable because that fact organizes things physically in the world. for example:
1. the produce aisle.
2. the garden patch.
3. the hamburger. ask a friend: "have you ever tried fruit on your hamburger? it's actually great..."
4. it tastes like a vegetable, whatever that means.
and so on.

that is, the 'technical' definitions of a fruit ('the sweet and fleshy product of a tree or other plant that contains seed and can be eaten as food') and a vegetable ('edible part of a plant cultivated for food', thank you dictionary.com) are useful in some speech communities: scientific, botanical; but are incomplete and unable to explain certain facts about the physical tomato (it goes in the vegetable section of the supermarket). nevermind for the moment that 'vegetable' seems to include 'fruit' under these definitions. i'm fairly sure that in most speech settings they're a binary. enough to make the point, at least.

Scott gets credit for the observation that 'fruit' is by far the privileged side of the 'fruit'/'vegetable' binary. consider calling a person a 'fruit;' this is either a derrogative term for a homosexual man (but not nearly as offensive as some other words) or just a goofy person. calling someone a 'vegetable,' on the other hand, is an offensive way of saying that they are literally comatose or brain-dead, or a very offensive way of saying that they are a 'couch potato.' consider the brave tomato, following its instincts in spite of confusion from humans and jeers from the other fruits.

the Essentialist school of philosophy (and philosophy of language), which claims that any specific type of entity can be defined as a class such that every member of that class must share some finite list of characteristics (thank you wikipedia), would have a hard time with the tomato. poor confused tomato. it seems trivial, but figures like the tomato, which straddle two or more categories, have major implications in certain fields: the weeks-old fetus - human or not? the transgendered person - male or female? meaning - inside or outside of language? the answers to these questions are essentially decided by the usage of the terms, which can never be completely controlled by dictionaries, laws or experimentation.

calling 'a tomato is a vegetable' a category error means several things. it means you rely on a certain scientific and physical definition to determine the 'actual' 'real' 'true' category of an object. it also means you believe much of the world is often making errors by not adhering to that standard definition. it might also mean you think that everything definitively fits in one category or the other, and that this category can be determined (a transsexual IS actually male or female, a fetus actually begins living at a particular instant) as long as you have enough physical evidence.

and, while that isn't necessarily bad, it does, like the questioning tomato, make me slightly uncomfortable.


viewn as viewn from above

Well, it turns out I'm not cloud nutzo after all. A quick scan of google hits for "viewn" revealed that there are other speakers/writers out there who ride the 'viewn' train.

Take this website for example. You'll see a lovely picture and a usage of "viewn". Now, what's interesting to note in this example is that the usage appears to be from a native german english speaker (note the ".de" extension on the URL).

Also, I'm no expert computer programmer, but you'll notice if you check out the search results that many of the URL extensions contain a "viewn" modifier such as the one in the URL above.


Maybe someone more adept at programming could enlighten us, but I suspect it's actually "viewn" and not, say, "view N".

The moderater on this board (which seems to have something to do with an internet radio station) demonstrates what I'd conjecture is the most common usage of "viewn".

Under no circumstances should this station be viewn as an opportunity to go off on a tangent and play only things you like.

"Viewn" amounts to basically a passive form of "view" and the two seem function as a pair much like "see/seen", "show/shown", "tear/torn" "grow/grown" or "shear/shorn". In an impromtu test of my roommates just now, I asked them to construct a sentence in the passive voice using to verb "to view" that functioned as a caption that explain what on was looking at in a picture of the Empire State Building from the top of the World Trade Center. One roommate didn't react at all, but the other said "you want me to say viewn, but I know that's not right."

Interesting! Here is one other potential candidates for the "viewn" treatment (unforunately the only one I can think of):

Shoon (Shoo) - "The rat was shoon from the house."

Can you think of any more?


some internet 'walla'

(Note made some slight alterations and additions since first posting -SK)

By which I mean background chatter, like the chatter Al Qaida is so fond of. To diverge for a minute and if you'll make this leap with me, the chatter is part of the world wide 'walla' or at the very least a large portion of the US's 'walla'. Background noise is so important especially in a culture fueled by the notion/infatuation with/realization of conspiracy (JFK / Da Vinci Code / Enron). There is certainly a feeling, which is hard to avoid, that the surface of things is only the record needle reacting to the minute shifts of the vinyl, the noise below it. In this metaphor, it appears there is something to be said about the distinctions drawn between speech and writing. Although, I'll save this (mostly) for another time, it's my belief that a conspiracy weary culture privileges writing and the text. Conspiracy makes us question the body and the words that come out of the body's mouth. The Smoking Gun demonstrates this. It has celebrity mug shots to reveal the falseness of the rich and famous' appearance in photographs, television and movies. Then it features documents to reveal the men and women behind the mask, in all the full figured infamy. Bill O'Rielly knows this well. We know how these public figures are to be viewed, but the website asks us to look at the 'walla' of their lives so that we might see the flaw in their design. In some ways, the entertianment provided by this unmasking supplants the entertainment that these people have dedicated their lives too. It's more interesting to read about O'Rielly's penchant for Loofahs then it is to watch him enter his chaotic No Spin Zone. I'll concede that the ins and outs of Lindsay Lohan's drug addictions and paternal strife are eminently more fun than "Herbie: Fully Loaded".

Now, I digress. In writing the above, I realized that I was being dogged by a phantom word. When I was writing:
We know how these public figures are to be viewed,

I kept wanting to write:
We know how these public figures are to be viewn

"Viewn" as is a modification of 'view' that rhymes (mostly) with "loon". Now maybe I'm going cloud nutzo over here, but do people actually say "vyoon", as in "The report on North Korean was vyoon by the President and his cabinet"? I really think they do and I believe I have and will. Someone should fax a memo to Hollywood to makes sure people are using this in their 'walla'. Without it the 'walla' in Hollywood restaurant scenes might seem as bogus as ray shields or GENERAL GREEEEVOUS in Revenge of the Sith. What do they use for 'walla' in those movies, by the way, just gibberish???

This brings me to my last and final point, the one I actually started this post for. I wanted to encourage you all to check out the blog for the Electronic Writing Course I finished only a month ago. The Prof has been so kind as to provide links to all of the final and midterm projects that people produced (minus a few that weren't internet friendly). Some are, no doubt, more successful than others. My personal favorites are:

"What We Want": A mash up of the NY Times and Craigslist.


"30 Poems": A poem with a very inventive and mysterious navigation method.

I've already pushed mine on you all, so I won't do so again. But... THEY'RE COOL! More later.


usage of the walla

getting a head-start on planning my fourth-of-july menu, i looked up 'deviled eggs' (or is it 'devilled'?) on Cooks.com today, and i found a recipe that ended with this gem of an invented usage:
Walla - deviled eggs!
recipes on cooks.com are submitted by individual cooks, and 'walla' is certainly an easy leap from the american pronunciation of the french-loaned 'voila' - a pretty good phonetic transcription. of course, the problem with this kind of linguistic research is that it's impossible to know whether the writer was using the utterance jokingly or believed there was a word spelled 'walla.' an email client known as 'walla!mail' may be playing on exactly this confusion.

the linguistic purists over at urban dictionary have added their fiddy cent as well, listing it as slang from Arabic, Australia, and as a word meaning a stupid person. they've also already hit on the cooks.com usage:
""Walla" is a word used by ignorant people (particularly Americans) who simply don't know any better."
and from a particularly intolerant poster:
"Being stupid Americans though, they can't pronounce anything which doesn't sound 100% English (not that they can pronounce English either) so in their incredibly lazy way, they don't even try to pronounce it correctly."
they don't mention anything about the creative (and phonetically accurate!) orthography except to note that it's the result of a 'lazy' pronunciation... because writing is necessarily parasitic on spoken language, and old language is best language, and france is better than america in every way, and people who change language without realizing it are clearly inferior, and.....

but you invented users know that almost everything IS already a word. a cooks.com search for 'walla' revealed that there is a type of onion known as 'Walla Walla' or 'Walla Walla Sweets,' (assumedly named for the town) but didn't yield any more instances of the emphatic 'Walla!' (this search may also only hit the ingredients list now that i think of it.)

a google of 'walla' produces 26.1 million hits, overwhelmingly in favor of Walla Walla, Washington (a great name to begin with) and associated universities, onions, vintners...

filmsound.org also tells us that 'walla' is a standard term in the sound effects industry for crowd chatter.
"The word walla was created in the old radio days when they needed the sound of a crowd in the background. They found if several people simply repeated "walla, walla, walla, walla" it sounded like people talking."
and of course, it's now an adjective too:
"Today the walla group use real words and real conversations. The walla actors come prepared. They ... have researched the local jargon and geography so that the background dialogue will be authentic. Group walla has to be cut very skillfully like sound effects so that it does not sound artificially placed."

if there's one thing i can't stand, it's improper walla.


sentence complexity

let me briefly and profusely apologize for our extended absence. the last month or so has been filled with vacations, moving, job hunts, comments on my last post, and so on. enough with this 'sorry' blather! on to language...

speaking of jobs, i'm spending the summer as a research assistant in a cog sci lab. i'm helping write/assess a government adult literacy and vocabulary test. that's right! i'm one of those people that makes standardized tests! i think there was a point in my life when i thought it would be an interesting career... i wasn't totally wrong.

so far i've written 20 questions. each focuses on one word with multiple meanings (usually including more than one part of speech). i write three fill-in-the-blank sentences that would make sense with the target word in the blank, and then i write three 'matching' sentences that would NOT make sense with the target word in the blank. but in all cases, the wrong sentences have to match in missing part of speech and all the sentences have to use the same form of the word (that is, no plurals or past-tense or suchwhat).

now i'm collecting a wide range of statistics on each possible answer sentence so that we can make sure, for example, that the wrong answers aren't systematically different from the right answers.

i'm running each sentence and all the sentences for each question together through a readability statistics website that gives me the Flesch-Kincaid reading ease, grade level, Gunning-Fog index, and average number of syllables per word.

i'm also taking a list of statistics about what i'm calling the 'syntactic complexity' of each sentence. these include number of prepositional phrases, number of strings of modifiers, number of non-main clauses and so on. it would be really interesting if any of these statistics ended up correlating with the response time we will empirically collect for the sentences.

interestingly, since the standard readability tests are partially based on the average number of syllables per word, lots of grammatical words (prepositions, quantifiers, conjunctions, etc) tend to yield low Flesch-Kincaid grade levels, but tend to make my 'syntactic complexity' score very high. this type of complexity also correlates better with sentence length than the readability stats do, since you can't have a syntactically complex sentence that's only four words.

no real conclusions to draw yet, except to say that a lot of these grammatical categories are tough to define, and sometimes come down to my research-assitant judgement.

if anyone out there in linguo-blog land knows of any official measure of syntactic complexity or any measure that's been used to predict reading times, send it on in!


quantum language theory

since handing in my paper for 'metaphor and thought' today, i've been able to finally formulate my own metaphor for the great divide in the philosophy of language that's been bouncing around in my head since i watched that 'elegant universe' documentary.

first there was the newtonian theory of physics, which was fairly over-simplified and deterministic. then (to over-simplify a bit myself), along came albert einstein and came up with a much better theory that explained a lot more phenomena and required a major shift in everyone's thinking about the universe. einstein was pretty smart, but toward the end of his life when people started to talk about quantum mechanics, he couldn't handle it. 'gott würfelt nicht,' he said, meaning, 'god doesn't play dice, the laws of nature aren't based on probabilities.'

this is the same position analytic philosophers are in. (i think it's a nice metaphor for them too... they get to be einstein!). they cannot believe there is not a truth 'out there' in the universe to be discovered (i think a lot of philosophers might consider themselves atheists, but i'm just saying... gott might würfle). Their theories work a lot better than older classical models of language, but just try telling a philosopher that reference isn't deterministic, that language doesn't have to have a strict dependence on the world, that the odds determining how a word is used depend on the odds that another word was used two weeks ago and so on..., that vagueness isn't a problem that needs to be solved. you'll get a funny look and a bad grade.

now imagine a contemporary university physics professor who not only doesn't teach quantum physics, but doesn't believe in it. if you told them that light is both a particle and a wave (a very post-structuralist move, by the way!), they would give you a funny look and a bad grade, but then they also might get fired for being 50 years behind the times (unless they had tenure, in which case they might just be ridiculed in the literature and discussed angrily in the cafeteria and department meetings... i don't know how these things work.)

granted, from my understanding, there are more outlandish theories out there (like string theory) that aren't widely accepted or taught in most physics courses. to continue the analogy, i'm not saying philosophy classes should start teaching all the craziest semiotics they can get their hands on. i'm also not saying there's no value to studying analytic philosophy. it's smart, it's interesting, and it maps out a lot of the territory of philosophy of language and shows where the problems are. i'm just saying that philosophy departments and classes exclude out of hand, for no apparent reason other than the fact that it would force them to rethink 100 years of their own research, a huge branch of thought about the same questions they claim to be asking.

some quest for knowledge, huh?