Language Log is Ruining My Life

I mentioned before that I have added a link in the sidebar for Language Log, a blog that is the product of the musings of some (I am led to understand) pretty heavy names in the linguistics biz. That their writing is (generally) as accessible as it is interesting is a credit to them and a drug for me. It’s nice to find eggheads with a sense of humor.

Today I was drifting through the archives brushing up on profanity — how it’s encoded, and how it’s legislated, and what makes something taboo in the first place. Recently they have been posting comic pages that go “meta”, stepping outside the frame to look at just what is coming out of their mouths, as when Beetle Baily asks Sagre how a little flower symbol snuck into his invective. It reminded me of a time I actually laughed at The Wizard of Id:

PEASANT: I’m here about the job in the stables.
STABLE BOSS (holds out small object): What’s this?
PEASANT: Shinola
STABLE BOSS: You’re hired.

I laughed because a clean, family-oriented comic made a joke that was funny for no other reason than it made the reader think of the word “shit”. (It’s like saying to someone, “You’re full of something, and it’s not shinola.”) Certainly the lads in the stable refer to shoveling and various other animal waste-related activities, but this time, there was no escaping the shit — not the substance, but the word. The word is far more taboo than the offal it represents.

After that I read some stuff on recent debates about the nature of language. Some heavyweights in the field, including Chomsky (whose value to the science seems to be his ability to start fights), have proposed a definition for human language that damn near rules out Hemingway’s version of English. Some of those arguments were, admittedly, beyond me, but there is no doubt that my writing here, wandering and layered, a double-jointed drunkard lost in the desert (“recursive” is the word the wonks are all going on about these days), qualifies as human. The argument is that no other animal has true language, because other animals are not able to embed ideas within other ideas, and this embedding makes a language able to convey an infinite variety with a finite number of words. Or something like that.

Personally, I’m new to this game, and dangerously ignorant. As far as I can tell these arguments are all about the mechanics of the language, not what is done with it. If those guys asked me, the two distinguishing characteristics of humans are the ability to misuse tools and the ability to use metaphors. Other animals have developed primitive tool-using behaviors, but only people have invented screws and screwdrivers yet still pound screws in with hammers. Similarly, if you told Koko the gorilla, “You’re pounding a screw in with a hammer,” meaning she was going about something the wrong way, she would be confused because she did not even have a hammer. (Don’t give gorillas hammers. Trust me on this one.)

I’m pretty sure the folks in Language Log Plaza would consider the metaphor bit not to be germane to the current argument, which is OK for now as they are finding plenty of things to argue about already. But if they ever run dry, I’ve got a reservoir they can tap.

What a great job to have, where a major part of the job description is to sit around arguing about esoteric shit. To Koko, there is no shit that can’t be thrown.