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!