Sausages, nails, and infinitives

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A couple of weeks ago, John McIntyre took a critical look at Word Rage ("Walsh should be shot!") — from the prescriptivist point of view ("With friends like this", 4/14/2008). John is not only the Baltimore Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, but also a past president of the American Copy Editors Society, so his opinions about usage are authoritative as well as thoughtful and interesting. As a regular reader of his weblog, I spent a few minutes pondering this passage:

Descriptivists, like the doughty linguists at Language Log, range over all written and spoken language, formal and informal, standard and nonstandard, to turn their findings into scholarship. (That's the grand thing about an academic discipline: Once you own a grinder, you can turn anything into sausage.)

But my doughty descriptive attempts at interpretation didn't converge, as I explained in a blog post ("Scholarship and sausage-making", 4/15/2008).

Now John has explained the meat-grinder metaphor at greater length ("You're not from around here, are you?", 5/2/2008).

He focuses on the role of linguistic choices in marking identity:

Whether you drink soda or pop; whether you order a submarine, a hoagy, a grinder or a po' boy; whether your pronunciation makes any kind of distinction with marry, merry and Mary — all this will mark you somewhere, sometime as an auslander, not One Of Us.

There is always something in language beyond the literal meaning of the words, something social, something understood (or half-understood) implicitly. One of those unspoken understandings is whether or not you belong in the group.

And after discussing his own intellectual history as a English major in the early 1970s, he concludes:

To be respectable, an academic discipline must display a terminology that the layperson has difficulty understanding. Mastering the lingo demonstrates that one is among the elect. The other disciplines must envy physics above all: Not only does it have concepts that are hard to understand, but also it requires a grasp of arcane mathematics. Mathematics is the perfect marker; it shuts out nearly everyone, and it is actually essential and of use. Other disciplines — I won't say education, but you can probably supply some — require the invention of obscurantist terms to conceal what would otherwise appear straightforward or even obvious.

The complication, and the thing that led Mr. Liberman to pick up on the snide tone in the "grinder" remark, is that the jargon, the machinery may well express some valuable concept or insight, but it might equally well conceal that the writer is unoriginal, misguided or befuddled. It can eat away at an afternoon in a carrel to determine that the article in the learned journal before you is, well, stupid. It established that the writer is in the club and helped get the writer promotion or tenure, but it is an utter waste of your limited time on this side of the ground.

With respect, I'm still puzzled. Does this mean that linguistic description is like mathematics, which "shuts out nearly everyone, [but] it is actually essential and of use", or like education, which "[invents] obscurantist terms to conceal what would otherwise appear straightforward or even obvious"?

In my own opinion, the answer is "neither one". There's a certain amount of technical vocabulary in linguistics, but it's not invented to mark group membership or keep outsiders at bay. Linguists — like carpenters, football coaches and newspaper editors — invent new terms in order to make precise thought and discussion possible.

Is the goal (and especially the result) of this terminology to "express some valuable concept or insight", or is it to "conceal that the writer is unoriginal, misguided or befuddled"? Again, the answer seems to me to be "none of the above". The motives don't really matter here, so let's focus on the result — which is, on a good day, that people can think, talk and write clearly about the area of interest, whatever the value or originality of the message. Linguists in this respect are no different from sailors, machinists and dressmakers. Each field's characteristic terminology does identify group members, and can exclude outsiders, but that's not really the point, despite what the outsiders may sometimes think.

Are there cases where specialized vocabulary adds no precision or clarity, and only serves to mask the intellectual emptiness of an enterprise? This charge has often been made, most frequently about the language of religion and the language of politics. Business-school jargon is another frequent target. My own opinion is that one should be reluctant to draw this conclusion about whole fields of endeavor, but that the barrier should be much lower in judging whether or not individuals have anything interesting to say. However, I've suggested some tests that one can use to distinguish communication from obfuscation ("Can Derrida be 'even wrong'?", 9/23/2003; "Labov's test", 8/17/2005;"Cargo Cult linguistics", 3/21/2005).

In any case, the impenetrability of technical language is often exaggerated. The application of linguists' vocabulary to particular problems in the description of speech and language is usually not hard to understand, if someone takes the time to explain it, as we generally try to do here at Language Log.

Once you understand it, will you find that what linguists have to say is always original or true? Of course not. The proportion of originality and truth is roughly comparable to what you find in other professions, for example journalism. (Well, I like to think it might be a bit better than that, but I can't pretend to have any numbers to support my belief.) And even if it's original or true, is what a linguist has to say always useful to a copy editor? Also no. But we've got a better chance to answer these questions if the statements are clearly interpretable to start with — and that generally requires some "jargon".

So John's explanation of the sausage-making metaphor was thought-provoking, even if I don't agree with all of its implications. The trouble is, I don't really see what the elaboration has to do with sausages. For me, the original phrase ("Once you own a grinder, you can turn everything into sausage") is one several proverbial expressions of undiscriminating monomania ("When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail"; "All cats are grey in the dark"; etc.). Perhaps John sees the grinder as the machinery of linguistic scholarship, grinding up text that would better be left in its natural and unexamined state? But what he seems to mean, in fact, is that the food processor of copy-editing should be used instead.

So let me recommend that you go read his post on splitting infinitives ("Splittists", 5/4/2008). There are no puzzling metaphors, and several pieces of good advice, including this one:

Blogging is publication; it's not circulating the annual Christmas letter among family and friends. It is a public performance, and people who perform in public leave themselves open to evaluation.



22 Comments

  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

    What annoys me is that he himself is missing a use of jargon elements crucial to copyediting itself: copyediting marks, which the layperson is at best unlikely to understand (God I can only understand a third of the marks my translation professors use).

    Your point is most cogent: specialists use technical vocabulary usually not to be obscure, but because it's simpler than to have to manipulate long sentences "the rope between X and Y" for sailors, "a metaphor where the part is used for the whole" for literature and linguists and so on. It's needed to avoid ambiguities. You'd think a copyeditor of all people would understand that.

  2. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    I'd never thought of academics as trying to shut everyone out linguistically. It's a big group to make generalizations about: apart from the office politics math professors and historians surely have different, very narrow agendas.

    But boy, do I agree with the exclusionary-jargon conspiracy theory when it comes to professional schools and the professions themselves. The cliché, "it's what we doctors call…" inflates the prestige and billing of: not only medics and the psycho-professions, but the law, which uses Latin (in re, habeas corpus, etc.) with people who may not be in the mood to construe; architects do it (I know, because I am one) and accountants have all those forms. Dentists don't seem to do it much, possibly because they have more physical ways to impress people with their expertise.

  3. John McIntyre said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    You'd think, the business I'm in, that I'd be able to express myself more clearly. Maybe I can simplify.

    1. The sausage grinder metaphor may not be dignified, but it does apply to linguistics, among other disciplines. Linguists have a method, of which the terminology is a key component, that enables them to examine and characterize all uses of language. Anything, no matter how humble, can be converted into scholarship.

    2. A corollary is that proper manipulation of the terminology is one of the ways that specialists identify someone as a colleague.

    3. Finally — and this was not a shot at linguists, which is why I wrote about my own abortive career in literary scholarship — the terminology can be misused for purposes of obscurantism.

  4. Freddy Hill said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

    Is "linguistic description is like mathematics"?

    Well, is mathematic description like mathematics? Mark's previous post about "logical abstract nonsense" dovetails nicely. If mathematicians wanted their field to be arcane you would not be able to find a clear, understandable definition of the term in Wikipedia because the mathematical witch practitioners would have sworn each other to secrecy.

    It is true that secret professional organizations have evolved throughout history to protect their monopoly on a particular knowledge, starting of course with the masons, and continuing through medieval guilds into our days. But secrecy is one of the things that separates cult form science.

    And Jeremy, I do know what you mean about dentists. They don't even need secret words. Just a couple of rev-ups on that drill and I stop listening.

  5. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 3:50 pm

    "…(linguists) range over all written and spoken language…to turn their findings into scholarship. (That's the grand thing about an academic discipline: Once you own a grinder, you can turn anything into sausage.)"

    An ugly metaphor, the sausage-grinder, but it's true that "academics" like novelists can sometimes use the most prosaic, unpleasant, even boring aspects of life as raw material. For that they can be envied.

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

    —"Anything, no matter how humble, can be converted into scholarship."—-

    Wouldn't it be more accurate to say "can be the object of scholarship".

    When a linguist analyzes an element of linguistic behaviour he doesn't turn it into anything. It stays exactly as it was before the linguist had a look at it.

    As for technical terms, don't you think that copy editors, who claim to be professionals of language, should at least be conversant with the terms we expect a twenty-year old back packer to be conversant with before he goes off to inflict himself on Chinese or Yemeni learners?

    Yet the top of your tree, Bill Walsh at the Washington Post, can still ask how I can get over the fact that "'might' is the past of 'may'" and another charlatan on his blog, who has "been editing copy many a long year" and no doubt pretends to be an expert on the language considers terms such as 'modal auxiliaries' to be "ridiculous terms". http://theslot.blogspot.com/2005/09/when-might-makes-wrong.html

    Even Walsh himself thinks, "learning those kinds of labels is a waste of time". http://theslot.blogspot.com/2005/05/conditional-love.html
    And of course, Walsh is one of the better informed in his profession.

    Imagine a medical journalist announcing that learning all these damm new-fangled words like 'virus', 'gene', 'morbidity' and 'genetic predisposition' because "Unless you're really, really good at wielding them, they're more likely to lead you astray than to enlighten you." After all, if 'humors' were good enough for Aristotle …

    I honestly know of no other profession that prides itself in being totally ignorant of the most elementary terminology of its speciality. Homeopaths and astrologers might disdain the mindset that produces the terminology of medicine or astronomy but they don't flaunt their ignorance of it.

    Of course, you might claim that copy editors have more important things to do than deal with a writer's syntax or morphology, and thus don't need to know anything about it, and I am sure most linguists would applaud the honesty, but most in your field appear to think correcting their contributors' syntax is part of their remit.

  7. Meesher said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 8:24 pm

    I don't think the issue is that the "sausage-grinder" metaphor is "[un]dignified" or "ugly," rather, the metaphor itself serves to obscure the legitimate points Mr McIntyre is trying to make. The essential work of grinding sausage, in my understanding, is to take various pieces of heterogeneous junk and turn them, with brute force, into an uniform and homogeneous mush. This is what a sausage-grinder *does*. It is not, however, what linguistics does. Linguistics is an analytical field, and while its input is perhaps heterogeneous junk, the product is hopefully not uniform and undifferentiated, and the process by which it is obtained ideally avoids the brute force of the meat grinder.
    Hot dogs famously contain dubious meats and meat-like substances, and they and other sausages are of necessity made, in obscure factories, with sausage-grinders. Mr McIntyre seems to assume a reading that relies on this connection, implying thereby the "humble" nature of the subject matter of linguistics. In so doing he seems to ignore the stronger, near-canonical cultural meaning of the sausage-grinder that I tried to spell out above. The metaphor is therefore not just weak but quite confusing and obscurant.
    On another note, is this the friendly face I should take all my complaints with the Balto. Sun to?

  8. John McIntyre said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    You may bring all your complaints about The Baltimore Sun to my doorstep.

  9. dr pepper said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

    Pooh Perplex, anyone?

  10. Jangari said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 11:51 pm

    Apropos of jargon, I'm reminded of a medical terminology joke that I may have read here:

    A linguist walks into a doctor's office and says "Doctor, I have a rash around my mouth". The doctor inspects the rash for some time and says "Mhm, it looks like you've got a touch of perioral dermititis". The linguist looks at him blankly and replies with "Yes. That's what I said".

  11. language hat said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    My take on this is that the "professional deformation" of journalists leads them to regard the world as a treasure-trove of stories that are reasonably simple and straightforward once you clear away the self-serving obfuscations of the bigwigs, crooks, and cranks who use language to obscure the facts. This is a very useful attitude for dealing with the things journalists generally deal with, but it fails them when they try to deal with areas (like science) where the facts are often not simple and straightforward and the language is often opaque to outsiders for perfectly good and sufficient reasons.

    I say this with all due respect to John McIntyre, who I'm sure is a particularly thoughtful member of his profession but who is unlikely to have escaped the forces that shape the journalistic outlook. Just as cops automatically look for crime, journalists automatically look for the one-sentence lead that presents the basic facts to the coffee-swigging reader. I don't think the "sausage-grinder" metaphor is meant to be insulting, but it is. Science is not sausage.

  12. John McIntyre said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    Rather than beat this metaphor (which was meant to be playful, not insulting) to death, I'll make one last comment and then return to grading my students' final exams, leaving you gentlemen to talk among yourselves.

    The way that science is like sausage is that both are human constructs. Antimony, arsenic, aluminum and selenium exist; the periodic table of elements is a human construction (like Tom Lehrer's song) that labels them and describes their properties. The modal auxiliary was in operation for a good long while before a linguist coined a term for it. Saying this in no way disparages either linguistics or chemistry.

    An instance from my old discipline: A friend was talking to a colleagye with a freshly conferred Ph.D. in English who was teaching her first undergraduate course, on Jonathan Swift. She had assigned a series of major critical works to the students, and my friend said, "Do you think maybe it would be a good idea for them to read "Gulliver's Travels"? She had mistaken the secondary thing, criticism, for the primary thing, the original text.

    Academic disciplines are excellent and useful things, but they are attempts to describe an external reality that is independent of them.

    And sausage is an excellent food. Let's not disparage it, either.

    One last thing: I have to take exception to Mr. Young's remarks about Bll Walsh. Mr. Walsh, in a dozen years on his Web site, in two books, and in numerous workshops, has labored indefatigably to correct misapprehensions about grammar and usage that journalists have been taught. Some have resisted. The human tendency to cling to error after it has been exposed is so common that we have a term for it, mumpsimus. Mumpsimus is not Bill Walsh's fault.

    Neither should he be condemned for writing to his audience. For most purposes in journalism, the traditional terms of grammar and usage suffice, and those are the terms that journalists are likely to know. That elementary and secondary schools don't teach linguistics (hell, they don't even trouble much with grammar in any form anymore), or that journalists and English majors are not required to learn linguistics, may be deplorable, but it is not Bill Walsh's fault. He is not stupid or anti-intellectual; he is writing for an audience of non-specialists. I know what a modal auxiliary is, but it's not a term I could use for my colleagues or the readers of my blog without having to explain it to them.

    Back to you.

  13. Chad Nilep said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

    Stephen Jones said,
    "When a linguist analyzes an element of linguistic behaviour he doesn't turn it into anything. It stays exactly as it was before the linguist had a look at it."

    After which, John McIntyre said,
    "Antimony, arsenic, aluminum and selenium exist; the periodic table of elements is a human construction (like Tom Lehrer's song) that labels them and describes their properties. The modal auxiliary was in operation for a good long while before a linguist coined a term for it. Saying this in no way disparages either linguistics or chemistry."

    And after this, each goes on to (ever so light-handedly) impugn the other's profession, broadly defined as Journalism versus The Academy.

    What I find most interesting is that the two are stating, if not the same thing, at least entirely compatible arguments. I'm not sure whether to blame the defensiveness of their rhetoric on the norms of academic discourse, the habits of journalism, or Someone Being Wrong on the Internet.
    http://www.xkcd.com/386/

  14. Aaron Davies said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    I wonder if Chomsky has any part to play in any public perception of linguistics as being full of deliberately obfuscatory jargon?

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 8:42 pm

    Bacteria were in existence, Mr. McIntire, millennia before anybody found a word for them, or were even aware of them. I would still rather avoid a doctor who considered the term obfuscatory terminology.

    It is perfectly true that Mr. Walsh has published two books, and that there is much good advice in them. What's that got to do with the price of fish? Somebody who thinks that 'might' is the past tense of 'may' still has serious limitations in his understanding of how English verbs work. Walsh has often said in his favour that he normally refrains from prescriptivism, so why don't we give him some slack and allow him his 10% personal peeves (aka 'judgment calls' ). 90% of Dr. Shipman's patients weren't murdered. The courts still didn't give him any slack for the other 10%.

    And the attack there was not against Walsh so much as the person who considered the term 'modal auxiliaries' a 'ridiculous term'. Mind you, it appears that you have the same opinion, since you feel the term is well beyond the comprehension of your 'colleagues'. Unless you've changed profession, and are now a goat herder, or teacher of kindergarten art, I would presume that your 'colleagues' would be copy editors who would claim to have some understanding of the English language. If you feel they are not aware of the most basic terms (and you would not pass a four-week course in teaching English as a Foreign Language without knowing what auxiliaries and modals are) then surely it says something either about professional standards in your field, or about how much it is concerned with the analysis of language.

    I was delighted to hear the second hand anecdote about a colleague of a friend of yours. Perhaps in a further posting you can give us more details, such as what color dress she was wearing, or a recipe she got from her mother. It's nice to have intellectual argument interspersed with a bit of local color. I would however be a little wary; your litany of academic inadequates might lead one to believe that the teaching of English Literature at the institution you went to, or even in the US in general, is patently sub-standard.

    —–"For most purposes in journalism, the traditional terms of grammar and usage suffice,"—-

    As long as one of those purposes is not describing how the language works, then you would be correct. I agree with you that there is discussion on what are the appropriate terms to use, but to stick to a terminology that has been proven inadequate because alternatives seem to have shortcomings hardly seems sensible. And of course, learning new terminology in other fields such as computing has never been a problem for journalists. The problem for copy editors, is that they can't be 'arsed to learn any new terms, because they think what they were taught in grade school by the school ma'am who half-remembered what she read in a book somewhere is good enough.

    —"What I find most interesting is that the two are stating, if not the same thing, at least entirely compatible arguments."—–

    I'm not arguing with John's points regarding terminology, merely that they have any relevance at all. The truth is that they're a red herring. When a 'language maven' comes up with a ridiculous statement that has no basis in fact, we point it out. Instead of addressing the language at hand, they go off on a tangent, and announce, "Ya boo, these guys use big words so you can't trust 'em. Look at this example of big words from another of these 'academics'. Stick with a good ol' boy like me who uses good ol' traditional terminology that has been sold in patent bottles since the end of the eighteenth century."

    And you don't need special terminology to know that 'might' is not the past tense of 'may'. Just a grade schoolers understanding of English. It is the 'traditionalists' who are bringing in their tomes of criticism and rules and forgetting altogether about the language in question.

  16. John McIntyre said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    I apologize for any implication that Mr. Jones is an obscurantist, the vocabulary of insult being universally comprehensible.

    So Bill Walsh committed an error about grammar.

    So another unnamed copy editor made a stupid remark.

    So I pointed out that the traditional terms of grammar remain in common use for most purposes — as can be seen in such diverse references as "Webster's New World College dictionary," "The Chicago Manual of Style," the stylebooks of the Associated Press and The New York Times, "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage," and any number of others.

    So I pointed out that it is possible to go through 17 years of schooling without once being instructed in linguistics, and that indeed many people earn advanced degrees in English and journalism without benefit of instruction in linguistics.

    So I pointed out that many of my colleagues in journalism (I use the term without quotation marks) are ignorant of linguistics. Bless their hearts, many journalists are equally uninformed about the traditional terms of grammar, viz., the multitude under the impression that you cannot insert an adverb between an auxiliary and main verb because that would be "splitting an infinitive."

    Therefore, it appears, I am a dolt, and so are all other copy editors. This is valuable information.

    I will follow with interest Mr. Jones' campaign to win hearts and minds to linguistics by personal abuse.

  17. Topher Cooper said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    As I see it there are a number of things going on in the use of technical jargon that blurs these distinctions quite a bit. Sometimes, as was pointed out, a technical term allows a single word to replace an entire phrase, allowing greater economy of expression. Sometimes, as was pointed out, a technical term is more precise than a more common term that might have been used instead.

    But sometimes, it seems like their is no difference in meaning between a bit of jargon and a common term. Why do medical professionals (and frequently criminal justice professionals) prefer the three syllable "contusion" to the apparently equivalent, more widely understood and shorter "bruise"?

    The reason, I think, is in the old distinction between "connotation" and "denotation". The technical term may well denote the same thing as the common term, but the two terms have different connotation.

    I don't want to make too rigid a distinction about this — I don't think that there is a rigid, unambiguous distinction between denotation and connotation. Its mainly about where you want to draw a line. I could say, for example, that "stubborn" and "pig-headed" are denotational synonyms but that "pig-headed" carries a stronger negative connotation, but I could alternately say that the denotation of "pig-headed" is something like "stubborn to a frustrating and counter-productive degree." But although the distinction between denotation and connotation seems to me somewhat arbitrary, it is nevertheless useful. Frequently, the connotation (or part of it) is so well separated from the denotation that it is difficult to accurately describe it.

    Anyway, connotation is not clearly different from the other uses for technical jargon I mentioned above. The connotation can make a term more precise, or can replace a qualifying phrase. But the connotation of a technical term can also tie it into an entire technical vocabulary, an indication of knowledge, and a shared understanding of how particular things of interest can be looked at.

    For example, perhaps a "bruise" might be most accurately defined as a dark spot on the skin that is the consequence of a blow, and that we might know to be caused by capillaries in the skin being broken and leaking blood. On the other hand perhaps a "contusion" means to a medical person (I'm not one, so I'm just speculating) the damage to the capillaries themselves with the mark being a sign that this has taken place. When a medical person hears another person use the term "contusion" rather than "bruise" (though this may be too commonly known to serve as an accurate example) this would then indicate to them that the other person is accepting the norms and viewpoint of the medical field (focusing, according to my speculation, on the underlying damage than rather than on the visible sign), and that what that person has to say, both immediately and more generally in the conversation, should be interpreted within that context, and responded to with an assumption of the implied technical knowledge and worldview.

    Here is a metaphor that may make this clearer: As I understand it, the system of colored belts introduced into Judo (and later adopted by other martial arts) were not originally intended to represent a mark of achievement given as a reward. Rather they were intended as a safety feature. Two people practicing or casually sparing with each other could tell at a glance how experienced the other was and therefore how careful they needed to be to avoid injury to the other, what moves or skill the other was likely to have, etc..

    Similarly, jargon — even when it serves on more explicit function — allows two people conversing about the field (or even verbally sparing about some issue) to understand what level of knowledge and viewpoint that the other has and to adjust both their interpretation and choice of expression appropriately.

    Of course this is a matter of the jargon being used to distinguish "insiders" from "outsiders" but it is a benign use of shibboleths — though I wouldn't deny that it can easily degenerate into exlusionism (if that's a real word), elitism and attempts to befuddle outsiders.

  18. Jeremy Hawker said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

    "And sausage is an excellent food. Let's not disparage it, either." John McIntyre.

    I'm sorry I said it's an ugly metaphor. The metaphor's perfect, it's the purpose of the machine that is ugly.

  19. language hat said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    Topher Cooper: That was an awful lot of words to establish a fairly irrelevant point. The post was not about jargon used to distinguish "insiders" from "outsiders" or "a benign use of shibboleths," it's about a refusal to acknowledge basic truths about language. Stephen Jones was unnecessarily insulting in his comment, and I understand why John McIntyre took offense, but he was right: the situation is that linguists try to provide basic information about how English works and are mocked by idiot "grammar mavens" and those who listen to them. This is not about obscurantism or shibboleths, this is about science versus know-nothingism, much like the current fight to keep Darwin in the schools.

    The difference is that most people were taught basic biology in school, so they have no excuse for listening to knuckleheads promoting "intelligent design"; hardly anyone is taught linguistics (or rather, taught English in ways informed by the findings of linguistics), so that, as John says, "it is possible to go through 17 years of schooling without once being instructed in linguistics, and that indeed many people earn advanced degrees in English and journalism without benefit of instruction in linguistics." This is not the fault of John and his (and my) fellow editors, though they might be a little more willing to break out of their inadequate schooling; it is the fault of educators who for a century now have resisted adapting their curricula to take account of the findings of linguistics. It is as if the schools still taught that the sun goes around the earth. Frankly, I would find it hard to believe if I didn't know it to be true, but there it is, and insulting John and others who have suffered miseducation does no one any good. All we can do is try to get the word out.

  20. Topher Cooper said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

    Sorry about the length. It is a point that I have had trouble getting across to people in the past, and since I was constrained in the time I had to write, I was unable to take the time to polish it down to something shorter.

    As to its relevance or lack of it. It may have been irrelevant to what you considered to be "important" but it, in my opinion, was quite relevant to what was said. For example, we have:

    "Does this mean that linguistic description is like mathematics … or like education, which '[invents] obscurantist terms to conceal what would otherwise appear straightforward or even obvious'?

    In my own opinion, the answer is 'neither one'. There's a certain amount of technical vocabulary in linguistics, but it's not invented to mark group membership or keep outsiders at bay. Linguists invent new terms in order to make precise thought and discussion possible."

    I was pointing out that marking group membership is one of the proper uses of technical jargon that can be positive and useful rather than obscurantist and hostile to outsiders.

  21. language hat said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

    OK, fair enough. I'm just leery of anything that gives aid and comfort to the know-nothings who are all too ready to seize on the idea that it's all just "jargon." To me, the important point is not whether it serves a useful bonding purpose (as interesting as that may be) but that it's necessary scientific terminology. Most people who don't bat an eyelash at physicists talking about quarks and neutrinos are happy to sneer at comparable terminology used by linguists.

  22. Topher Cooper said,

    May 7, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

    Bonding is also interesting, I suppose, but was not what I was talking about. I was referring to marking as something that can aid an improve the overall communication process even if a particular word is "just the way we say things" without it being more precise or expressively more compact in itself. It clues others to a set of shared knowledge (including vocabulary) and ways of thinking that allows the entire communication process to be more efficient.

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