Double-plus good!

August 5, 2010

During my vacation, I am taking an intensive class in beginning Spanish, so I have the language-thing on my mind a lot.  George Orwell spend a lot of time thinking about language too, and his essay, Politics and the English Language is a milestone in the desconstruction of deliberate mis-communication.   Along with many other things from his magnum opus, 1984, the word, Newspeak, has entered our English lexicon as a term for politically motivated distortion of the language.

Newspeak was the language of Ingsoc, the ruling party in the society of 1984.  In a candid moment, its developers state that the purpose of the new language is to make it impossible to think independently.  Language is reduced to a mechanical tool to convey information, with shades of meaning rubbed out.  Not good, better, best, wonderful, etc, but good, plus-good, double-plus good, and triple-plus good.   The instrument of this linguistic assault on truth and independent thought was the Ingsoc dictionary of Newspeak.   Ingsoc lexicographers looked forward to a day when Oldspeak would be forgotten, and children would grow up with Newspeak, knowing, and thinking, nothing else.  The power of Ingsoc would then be unshakeable.

I believe that Orwell had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this.  Can’t you imagine him gleefully writing an entire appendix to his novel, spinning out all his ideas to their logical and absurd conclusion?  We forget that there are elements of deep, deep black humor in 1984, and that it is in some respects a satire. 

Steven Pinker, a linguist who studies and writes about language, dissected this idea and dismissed it.  He argued that thought precedes language, at least much of the time.  As a consequence, there would be no way for Newspeak to prevent new languages and words from developing, which could, in turn become subersive and intellectually critical slang, jargon, argot, etc. etc.  Just get a few 1985 kids together, and they’ll start inventing new words, if only for insults!

[An interesting aside on this theme is F. Scott Fitzgerald's often cited phrase that the mark of genius is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.   This is from his novel The Crackup.  Did he mean it, or was he being ironic?  I haven't read the book, so I don't know, but people often cite it as though he was being straight.  And then we have Orwell's O'Brien, who says that you must accept that 2+ 2 = 5  if you are told to, and that, of course, freedom is slavery.  Were they all geniuses?]

Language is simply amazing.  It grows like mushrooms after a rain wherever there are people.  Be you an Einstein or Joe Schmoe, your ability to use and play with language is a given, and not at all related to your education and social accomplishments:  Education simply teaches you a specialized use of it.  Language grows up around us just as the younger generation does.  Language pedants are fighting a losing and foolish battle.  As Sancho remarked to Don Quixote,

Once or twice, if I remember correctly, I ‘ve asked your grace not to correct my words if you understand what I mean by them, and when you don’t undertand, to say, ‘ Sancho, you devil, I don’t understand you,’ and if I can’t explain, then you can correct me.

Is there nothing solid anymore?

April 8, 2010


A constant preoccupation of mine is the dissolving of things that seem fixed and solid into things, or groups of things that are anything but that. [See these posts on the truths of dots, and philosophy of dots]  Eternal verities that turn out to be contingent conventions; precise definitions that reveal themselves as maddeningly circular; substances that are mostly void, and so on.  A few examples:

  • Matter:  seems pretty solid, but as we know from modern physics, it’s mostly empty space.
  • Self:  long after David Hume noticed the self-deception inherent in the concept, the notion is being revised under the influence of contemporary neuroscience away from a unitary, unvarying core to something more fluid.
  • Organism:  the image of a well coordinated mechanical apparatus is giving way to the notion of a living thing as a community of smaller organisms and enormous collections of cells that somehow coexist in the same space.
  • More on the disappearing self, the void, and organisms here and here.

And just what does that have to do with the two marvelous books I’ve placed at the top of this post?  Of course, for some people, standard English, the Queen’s English (note, it doesn’t even stay as the King’s English) is an immutable and well-defined path from which only the uncouth will stray.  Jack Lynch demolishes this view in his book by giving an intellectual argument why this is absurd, and then providing individual historical treatments of the never ending battle between the language idolaters and the realists,  prescriptivists and descriptivists. 

He is remarkably fair in his assessment, giving the maven worshippers of linguistic non-change their due – useless to assert that fixed standards are never useful; just try to get an executive job with a corporation by speaking like a rapper in the interview – but even those fixed standards are not fixed in time.  We try to grasp the language in its static entirety and we come up with…nothing.  Like trying to get your arms around a drifting mist.  (You can read about my own struggle with my inner language snob here)

Just as I finished Lynch’s book, I started Robb’s on the geography of France.  The first several chapters are devoted to the mind boggling linguistic diversity that was French culture up until WWI.  Like examining a block of steel at the atomic level and finding vast reaches of nothing instead of solid stuff to bang your head against, when you try to reach in and grab the French Nation, there is nothing but a stupefying mix of local patois, communes, castes, entirely separate languages, and hardly an awareness that this thing called France – What, where is it?  In Paris, you say? – exists.  What a hoot that is, to conceive of the French State, the gold standard of centralized cultural and political authoritarianism, as something of an illusion!

How different is this from other countries?  My guess is that it may be similar to the cultural history of Italy, Spain, or Germany, but certainly not most of the English-speaking world.  Didn’t England succeed in forcing it’s language pretty much over the Isles long before the 20th century, despite the tenacity of local accents and dialects?  Certainly, the royal center made its presence known by edict and sword pretty uniformly.

Intellectual effort is often seen as the striving for the general and universal over the particular and contingent.  But these two books comprise an argument for the opposite view.   What good is system building if it is based on doing violence to the facts?

Spoke too soon!

March 9, 2010

In an earlier post on 2001, I wrote:

Some say we will know we have developoed intelligent machines not when they can speak, but when they can read our lips.

Not so fast!  Today’s article in the NYTimes on Google’s translator programs raises the possibility that we may get lip reading machines before intelligent ones.  Oh well, many people speak before they think already!

It seems that the translators, which are pretty darn good, I think, use models of language that are augmented with, among other things, huge amounts of multi-lingual transcripts from UN meetings.  The translators there are among the best – human – ones around, so their work is the gold standard.  The massive database of phrases and sentences is parsed and indexed a la Google, and that’s why they do a decent job with text that strays from textbook, factual propositions.  What’s to stop the Google folks from feeding in massive amounts of video of people’s mouths speaking words whcih the machine can already process with it’s voice-recognition software?  It would build a model of the relationship between mouth configurations and actual phonemes, which it already knows, lip reading.

Ludwig, Phoney?

January 18, 2008

Again, on with my crank-curmudgeon cap! As a young man, I was intensely interested in philosophy, particularly what is called “analytical” philosophy, i.e. the brand favored by the Anglo-American coven of cogitators. Of course, Ludwig Wittgenstein is a major figure among them, despite the fact that he seemed rather cool to them at many times in his tortured life. These days, I am inclined to agree with a tutor I had during a semester abroad in the UK who thought that LW was a bit of a fraud. I was shocked at the time – was my Oxford tutor’s opinion influenced by oxbridge rivalry?  (Witt was a Cambridge man.)

He came from a Viennese family of incredible wealth and accomplishment in fields of the intellect, the arts, and business. His was also a tormented family – three of his four brothers committed suicide. Do we need to be disciples of the man Nabokov calls the “Viennese witchdoctor” to be convinced that this must have had a tremendous effect on Ludwig? Should we be surprised at his life of never ending searching for…truth, a home, an identity? Raised in a family of converted Jews in a society rife with Jew-haters, a family of suicides and neurotics…should we expect that he would have been normal? And, of course, he too was brilliant.

Wittgenstein hardly wrote anything. Okay, neither did Socrates, but things were different then. There is his Tractatus, for which he was belatedly granted a doctorate, and which he later repudiated, and there is a manual for grammar school instruction during his stint as a schoolteacher.  All of his “works” are books compiled from lecture notes taken by his students. He never developed a coherent philosophical system, or any system, but he excelled at logical analysis of a wide variety of philosophical “puzzles.” He also did time as a religious recluse, dabbled seriously in architecture, was a closeted homosexual, and he was extremely unpredictable socially.

Ludwig once remarked that he saw no use for philosophy if it did not answer the questions of how one is to live. I agree, but his Oxbridge friends did not. What the heck do logical positivists care about spiritual issues of life? They are just “badly formed” propositions! Logical analysis will show all those anxious gropings to be simply metaphysical fluff. To say that a question was metaphysical, well, that was the ultimate put-down for those fellows. I mean Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, G.E. Moore, etc.

But Ludwig was right, I think, and that’s what he was doing. Trying to answer those questions of how to live, because he did not know how to. Eccentric, erotically different, brilliant, reclusive, tortured, compassionate and arrogant, displaced by war, his native milieu destroyed by WWI and then Hitler, he was alone and searching. I think he was near mad. When he asks questions about how we know anything, he’s not coming at the question from the academic point of view of a sceptically inclined epistemologist – he’s asking it as a person on the edge of mental disintegration. It’s a REAL question for him.

I once read of a tragic case of a brilliant young man who was felled by serious schizophrenia and was lost in a world of paranoid delusions and fantasy. His father, distraught of course, could never rid himself of the hope that his genius-son would find a way to “think himself out of this.” Alas, he never did. I think this is what Wittgenstein was trying to do. It doesn’t invalidate his philosophical work, such as it is, but it sure puts a different spin on it. And then, of course, there is the objection of Popper that philosophy should not be about “solving puzzles” in the first place.  To see it that way one must feel one is trapped and that the “philosophical solution” is the only way out, or be the type that doesn’t take it very seriously to begin with.

Hear ye, hear ye!

December 1, 2005

Yo! Listen up! May I have your attention, please! Language changes, this is an obvious fact. What was considered ‘correct’ or acceptable English generations ago may be considered wrong today, and vice versa. In fact, if you go back enough generations, the concept of “correct English” doesn’t even exist.

I’ve known this for a long time. I have also long been aware of the simple fact that “rules” of English serve the function of providing delineations of class & status groups, as well as providing tools to keep newcomers out. This functions in all directions. One dialect of English is as good as another, and proper, or correct use, is determined by the community of users. It is fluid. There is no “correct” English in the sense that one way of speaking is right, while the others are wrong.

So, why do I find it so hard to refrain from correcting my childrens’ grammar? Lingering language snobbism, conformity, and the desire to have them be well aware of what is considered standard, educated English in today’s world. After all, you never know when you might find yourself at tea with the Queen of England, and then you would certainly want to know that one says, “Jenny and I,” rather than “Me and Jenny.” But, my concerns are probably ill placed. Any child that is educated and grows up in an educated household can probably detect the surrounding language shibboleths in an instant, and adjust accordingly.

It’s all about socialization, wanting to feel comfortable. People want to speak like their friends and family, which is why local dialects persist in the face of the mass-media onslaught. If people want to fit in linguistically, they can without much effort, provided they have the background. Same thing goes for teaching kids how to eat with a knife and fork. If a middle-class kid with a college education wants to be perceived by his or her peers as such, he says, “…and I.” If he doesn’t give a damn, she says whatever she wants to. It’s really all about class/status recognition and class anxiety.

Buuuttt…I still grit my teeth when I read or hear constructions such as “Give a copy to Bill and I…” So obviously wrong! Give a copy to Bill, give a copy to me, give a copy to Bill and me! Simple. Well…as Steven Pinker points out in his discussion of this construction under his denunciation of “language mavens” in his book, The Language Instinct, one could perceive the construction “Bill and I” as a unit, in which case, the grammar makes sense. Maybe in twenty years this way of speaking will have become so common that it will be “standard.” Only a few cranks will rail against the decay of the language, insisting that it is plain wrong, even though everybody understands exactly what is meant by the phrase. And fifty years on, the controversy will be dead, only a subject for erudite statiric remarks about close-minded curmudgeons.


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