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Me

Oxford commas and other peevery

You may have noticed there was a bit of kerfuffle around th’internet [400 comments on Metafilter, for example] about the news that Oxford University Press were dropping their support for the Oxford comma (which they aren’t).

I’m always intrigued by the passion that people bring to this stuff. My feeling about the Oxford comma goes something like this: if a publisher as respectable as the OUP uses it, it’s probably acceptable. And since other equally respectable institutions like the Cambridge University Press prefer not to use it, that must also be acceptable. And since these two competing schools of thought have managed to co-exist for at least a century without doing any apparent damage to literature, journalism or anything else… well, it clearly doesn’t matter very much.

So where does all the anger come from? Why the fierce sense that, if there are two possible variants, one of them must be right, and, even more importantly, the other one must be terribly, terribly wrong?

» Comma (Polygonia c-album) is © Eco Heathen and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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Me

Speaking as a dumbed-down chav…

I am endlessly fascinated by the people who are, by their own account, in a constant state of simmering rage at having to overhear other people’s uncouth language. This comment was in response to an article in the Sunday Times:*

Dave Russell wrote:

Couldn’t agree more abouyt the dumbing down of the nation. Just listen to a conversation between a group of people under the age of 25. It seems to be cool to speak like a complete thicko these days, no longer something to be ashamed of. The one thing that really grates on my nerves is to hear people using the child-like term ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’- the mark of the true dumbed-down chav. The other thing is how some apparently intelligent people think its cool to continually use swear words in public-in bars, buses and trains etc-even at the ‘Train Station!’ Most of the this dumbed down class wouldn’t understabnd a single Monty Python sketch-they simple don’t have the educational background.

OK, this is the usual stuff: the suffering of psychic violence when exposed to casual speech, the fear of the demotic. But the idea that the mark of a ‘true dumbed-down chav’ is that they say ‘train station’? That’s genius.

*admittedly, it’s a Jeremy Clarkson article, but even so.

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Other

Verbal ticks and burrs

Peter has an amusing post over at slow reads about a particular linguistic bugbear:

For my entire five-year teaching career, most students have addressed me as “Wait,” as in “Wait, do we need to write this in our sketchbooks?”

These little verbal tics just don’t bother me, and I offer sincere thanks to whichever deity is responsible for the fact. Because it could so easily have happened; I care about language and have copious supplies of pedantry. I should be a natural candidate for writing snippy letters to the Times about young people who say, like, whatever, and supermarket signs which mention ‘eight items or less’, but no, I just don’t care. Even the greengrocer’s apostrophe: meh.

And if perfectly innocuous colloquial language used by well-meaning people sets your teeth on edge, I can only assume you must walk around in a constant state of seething irritation. It must be like having someone following you around, standing just behind you and scraping their fingernails on a block of polystyrene. And we should save all that useful anger for something important, like stupid font choices.

My easy-going approach to language isn’t limitless. One thing that really, really winds me up is when people take it on themselves to correct what they perceive as my errors. The all-time winner being someone who, in apparent seriousness, told me that the ‘correct’ plural for octopus is octopodes. ‘Because it’s from Greek, not Latin’.

» apparently, if you do suffer from verbal ticks, there are special tools you can buy. Including a lasso.

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Culture Nature

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

This is the latest of Pinker’s books on various aspects of language and psychology. Specifically, it looks at what language can tell us about the ways the human mind understands the world. For example, the various tenses available to us might tell us something about the human brain’s inherent models for understanding time. Or different kinds of action verbs tell us something about the underlying concepts our minds use to understand the interaction of objects. All his examples are from English, but he assures us, on his honour as a linguist, that the points he makes are more broadly applicable.

weasel diorama

He sounds very plausible, but as so often with these things I don’t really have the expertise to judge. I daresay there may be other linguists/cognitive scientists/psychologists who strongly disagree with everything he says, but I have no idea what their arguments might be. What has a broad plausibility for me is that Pinker provides a layer of cognitive concepts that act as a framework to make language-acquisition easier without being too implausibly complex. In other words: I am persuaded that infants learn their mother tongue so quickly and easily that their must be some kind of (presumably innate) cognitive headstart. Pinker’s model requires really quite a lot of innate ideas, and I can imagine some people boggling at it, but it is at least an idea of what kind of explanation might be needed. So I found all that broad process interesting.

If anything, I sometimes found myself fighting the instinct to dismiss it because it seems too obvious. I read him arguing that the human mind understands something in such-and-such a way and there was a bit at the back of my head saying “well yes, obviously” even though there’s nothing inevitable about it. It might just be that these ways of thinking seem obvious because they are innate. On the other hand I’ve read books about psychology which have been full of surprising insights, so there’s no reason to assume that we have a clear idea of how our own minds work.

sad lion

So the project is an interesting one. And Pinker writes well, on the whole: it’s sometimes heavy going, because the subject requires lots of close attention to fine details of usage, but he writes clearly and, as far as possible, he keeps the book ticking over with peculiar facts, anecdotes and other sparkly objects designed to hold the attention of the magpie mind. If anything, I get the sense that he has slightly toned down that aspect of his style, though I haven’t done a direct comparison: I seem to remember that in The Language Instinct, which was the first of his books that I read, he could hardly go half a paragraph without some kind of popular culture reference or joke, and it sometimes came across as trying too hard. But there’s still enough there to help sugar the pill.

When I read The Language Instinct I was at university doing an English Literature degree, so I naturally read it with half an eye on whether it could tell me anything about literature. There are two observations I’d make about that: firstly, although many of the literary/critical theories I was introduced to were implicitly or explicitly theories about language, none of them bore any relationship whatever to the ways of analysing language I found in Pinker. Literary theorists, in trying to understand language, had not apparently felt any need to talk to any linguists. The only linguist whose name came up was Saussure; and while I don’t hold Saussure responsible for all the ridiculous things that have been said by the people who name-check him, I’d at least point out that he died in 1913, and linguistics has moved on since then.

bear and dog

The second observation is that, although I found this state of affairs irritating, I didn’t suddenly find I had lots of new and interesting insights on literature after reading the book. It’s only a popular treatment and I didn’t make any attempt to follow it up by reading other books, but still, I spent time thinking about it and didn’t get anywhere. The same goes for The Stuff Of Thought; it’s all quite interesting, but it doesn’t instantly give me any new way of thinking about the literary use of language. In the chapter about metaphor, there’s a short discussion about literary metaphor, which is fine but doesn’t offer anything that you wouldn’t find in a good book on how to write poetry.

Linguistics, cognitive science and other disciplines which examine language and the interface between language and thought don’t actually need to offer an insight into literature to justify their existence. We can’t claim to have a complete understanding of language until we can say how poetry works, but I guess that can wait; in the meantime, The Stuff Of Thought is an interesting read.

» I couldn’t think what pictures to use for this post, neither language nor thought being very visually striking, so I went with stuffed animals. The weasels are by dogseat; the lion is by cenzMounted bear and the hunting dog who found him, and was killed by him is by Curious Expeditions. All are used under a by-nc-sa licence.

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