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.


24 thoughts on “Language Log is Ruining My Life

  1. For those of you not from those parts, “He can’t tell shit from shinola” is a common phrase in the middle reaches of the northern half of the western hemisphere.

  2. Thanks. But it happens. You’d probably find that if the ball was down the other end of the pitch, one of our blokes would have taken a dive in the box.
    I’m stoked that we made it this far, and at least we didn’t have to get beaten by those Argies – that would have sucked.

  3. Also, the concept of ‘intellectuals’ sitting around arguing about the origin and mechanism of language seems to me to be on a vague parrallel with a bunch of scientists discussing the pigmentation methods of paints, or the frequency fluctuations of electric guitars…..
    To quote my dear friend Edmund Blackadder (probably way out of context):”It’s not how big it is, it’s where you stick it”

  4. Actually, gizo, Blackadder is excellent in his own way with analysis of the language.

    One thing that interests me is that we humans keep trying to come up with a definition of what separates us intellectually from “animals,” and then somebody discovers an animal that does what, previously, it had been thought only humans did. Tool use was once thought to be a purely human activity, but then some animals were discovered who used tools. When Koko the gorilla was taught sign language, the original belief was that imagination and the ability to lie were purely human — until Koko was caught in a lie.

    Ability to understand metaphor is a very sophisticated thought process. I have known some humans who don’t have this ability. So can it be used to distinguish humans from animals, if some humans don’t even have it? And what happens if (when?) some animals are found to have it?

  5. Indeed. I should state that my response to Language Log was made before reading any of it (because I am nothing if not an Idiot).
    I like to think that the separation between Humans and Animals is that humans are human, and animals are not. (Again, the idiot reference) ;)

  6. Apparently, the jury is still out on whether what Koko and her crowd does constitutes language, and a majority of jurists are leaning in the “no” direction. It is one of the things that is fueling the interest in defining what a human language really is.

  7. You beat me to it, Jesse, but there is now an explanation for the hyperbolically impaired over in that thread.

    Gibraltar has monkeys… coincidence?

  8. Just so you know:

    Te backlight on my TiBook is out, which means I can’t see the screen. That makes it hard to use. There’s a longer story that includes a pretty woman and asphalt, but the road warrior is not in combat form, and I have no way other than the commets to tell you that.

    New episodes will be on hold until hardware is brought around to bear.

  9. I’d prefer a PowerPC laptop over the Intel (longer battery life), and even if I got the MacBook I’d still need a PowerPC machine to test JersNW on. I’m going to get my TiBook repaired and buy a Mac mini to use as my development platform. My bigest concern is that this problem with the screen is just the start of a series of problems, as the years of abuse I’ve heaped on my computer come back to bite me.

  10. Back, for a moment, to Shinola.

    Last night I was cruising Amazon (forgot to use the Jer link) looking for my next non-fiction read, and considering the likes of Tipping Point, Blink, The Paradox of Choice, and Freakonomics when Amazon helpfully told me that 2% of those that bought one of the above also bought On Bullshit, which apparently is a similarly academically inclined tome on exaggeration, fabrication, and obfuscation. (I strongly suspect the author was just another psuedonym for our own resident expert, Mr7k.) The description I liked (and that reminded me of your episode, Jerry) was “part of the book’s charm is the puerile pleasure of reading classic academic discourse punctuated at regular intervals by the word ‘bullshit.'”

    If any readers would care to recommend any of the above books to me, I’d be interested as I haven’t made my purchase yet.

  11. One of the Language Log episodes I read concerning profanity and the ways we don’t say what we want everyone to hear was about an inteview with the author of On Bullshit on NPR where for the entire hour they never said the title of the book they were discussing.

    Or something like that.

  12. You don’t have access to a spare monitor lying around that you could plug yr powerBook into when yr in the apartment? It’s not very portable though.

  13. Slightly off topic, but I read about this in the Albuquerque Journal, and for those who have never seen “Pirates of the White Sand,” it might be an opportunity, even if it’s just the film-festival version and not the directors’ cut that will eventually be available (I hope soon).

    BitTorrent is now carrying all of the films from the past several Duke City Shootouts — what it calls “the world’s strangest little film festival.” Films are available for download in WMV (HiRes) or MP4 (iPod) formats.

    I haven’t tried downloading yet, since I have a slow dialup connection, but according to BitTorrent’s press release, the way data is stored and sent via multiple servers is supposed to be faster and more efficient than other methods.

  14. You will need a Bit Torrent client to download – I recommend Azureus. If you have a cable modem or DSL you will probably have to do some configuration as well.

    Any time you download a torrent, you should keep the connection “Live” until you have uploaded as much as you downloaded.

    I learned about the torrent the other day, but I haven’t mentioned it because we’ll have a much better version soon… uh, right, pL?

  15. Hey Keith — bit late to the game (and a newcomer here), but I’ve read both “Tipping Point” and “On Bullshit”, and would strongly recommend the former. “On Bullshit” is interesting mostly for the shock value of the title and the idea of treating the topic with scholarly dispassion. (I can summarize the book in a single sentence, I think: “Bullshit is lying where both the liar and the listener know it’s a lie, and still like it.” The Tipping Point has a number of very interesting ideas in it.

  16. Thanks, dondo.

    Jerry, is there still no better way than scanning the “ten most recent comments” on the side of main page to find posts since the last time I visited? I would have missed this entirely if I had shown up two hours later and it moved off the main page. I know you must have Power Tools to see all posts since last you visited, but what about us mere pervious HOHs?

    I am suddenly concerned that Bob is not benefiting from reading all the comments in which I graciously mention him.

  17. No, I’m afraid there isn’t a better way. The rss feed that is used to generate that list is done automatically by haloscan, so I can’t change the length or make it time-based. I do have a “power view”; unfortunately it is in password-protected land. I have expressed to the developers that it would be nice to let others use a similar view, without the admin tools.

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