Saturday, July 3, 2010

DOOM, 4th of July Edition

From a new Marist Poll:
There’s good news for American education. About three-quarters of residents — 74% — know the U.S. declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776. The bad news for the academic system — 26% do not. This 26% includes one-fifth who are unsure and 6% who thought the U.S. separated from another nation. That begs the question, “From where do the latter think the U.S. achieved its independence?” Among the countries mentioned are France, China, Japan, Mexico, and Spain.
In other DOOM, I overheard the following at a restaurant yesterday,

"You know, sometimes I think that it would be really fun to be an assassin."

67 comments:

GTChristie said...

Not For Profit:
Why Democracy Needs the Humanities
Martha C. Nussbaum

2010 178 pp. ISBN: 9781400834228
Princeton University Press

Anonymous said...

The question is raised, not begged.


That one bothers me more, and it crops up everywhere.

Anonymous said...

6% is noise. It indicates nothing.

And they probably just forgot a few words in the paragraph: "That [just] begs [for us to ask] the question...."

And being an assassin would be fun, just so long as it was a movie/tv assassin.

Glaucon said...

Are you an assassin?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 6.31: why is 6% noise? Compare: we gave 100 subjects preparation L; 6 died within minutes of consuming it. L is safe since 6% is just noise.

Anonymous said...

Great comparison 10:27! Clearly apples to apples. I'm sure nobody would dream of not taking a telephone opinion poll seriously. Surely, no jackasses would give crazy answers to questions they take to be obvious -- like, I don't know, saying that the US achieved its independence from China.

Anonymous said...

anon 6:31, while "That [just] begs [for us to ask] the question...." is probably how this expression came to substitute the longer form in the first place, 'begs the question' in lieu of 'raises the question' is painfully common these days, and makes me nauseous every time. i'm with you anon 9:47.

The Glenn Beck Review said...

I just read this else where. These 26% are the types who support Glenn Beck thinking he knows what he's talking about (since they don't have enough knowledge to know better).

I have a post up about our post-truth politics that you may appreciate. If it's not on the home page by the time you look, it's on the side bar entitled "What is the truth about Glenn Beck?"

Anonymous said...

Yes, clearly this is Glenn Beck's fault. As we all know, political conservatives do NOT know or care about their nation's history.

Anonymous said...

Beck is not the problem: he's the solution. His new university (with courses in Faith, Hope and Charity) will solve the problem.

http://rawstory.com/rs/2010/0703/glenn-beck-launches-university-hires-dr-stoner-the-rights-favorite-pseudohistorian/

Anonymous said...

"Begs the question" rather than "Raises the question" … my students make this mistake ALL THE TIME. And it's more than just 6% or 26% of them. In fact, it's about 5% of them who DON'T make this mistake.

As it is an error which has its roots in the description of a logical fallacy (and an important one), and as it is widespread, I see more DOOM there, philosophically speaking, than in the historical ignorance of this 26% (which could be quite easily remedied).

Glaucon said...

On 'begs the question': it's not just students and nitwits who use this phrase to mean "raises the question"; intelligent, reasonably well educated people have taken this one over. One finds it even in the venerable New York Times. (See this discussion on the Language Log.)

This used to drive me batty, then I saw the light. Language changes. Deal with it, prescriptivists.

English Jerk said...

Glaucon hit the nail on the head. After all, it's perfectly possible to understand what circular reasoning is and what's wrong with it (most of my students don't have much trouble doing so) without having the slightest idea what phrases like "begging the question" or "petitio principii" used to mean.

Anonymous said...

Per Glaucon's point:

http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=693

Anonymous said...

06/03/10 09:47 here.

Glaucon:

I find it hard to accept it as a natural linguistic shift. Similarly, I'm disinclined to accept "their" in the place of "they're," "it's" for "its," "effect" for "affect," "watts" for "what's, or indeed "quantum theory" as a substitute for "math," "intelligent design" as a species of "evolutionary theory," and so on.

As it stands, these are errors in my book. But perhaps I'm just a young and disgruntled curmudgeon. But on the other hand, "begging the question" is a technical term, and I think it deserves the same treatment we'd reserve for other technical terms. I mean, a circular saw and a band saw are fairly similar (they cut things using the same kind of principle), but they're pretty distinct objects.

Anonymous said...

8:03--

My heart is with you. But the trudge of time and its lessons aren't. It's about numbers, and given OMG whas happin now--we are truly screwed.

I make the point this way to my 101s.

Go back 100 years in this class. It's cold. I say: Hey, I need some warmth in here. Would anyone go out and find a faggot for me?

Fast forward 40 years. Same class. I say: Hey, I'm nervous--would anyone lend me a fag?


Today: I can't use "faggot" in class--only mention it, as I did in examples.

Language changes; meanings do too. It doesn't stop. The present media will only accelerate that.

Verification: audad.

Yes, son, it's true.

Glaucon said...

9:47/8:03 --

This may not apply to you, but in my experience, there's an inverse relationship between prescriptivist curmudgeonism and knowledge of the history of English.

Using 'it's' as a possessive pronoun offends against current standards, but have a look at the OED entry for 'its' and you'll see how recent this particular standard is. Moreover, it's not too hard to understand why so many people make a mistake (by current standards) here, given the apostrophe's possessive-making function in most situations. Similarly, it's not to hard to understand why people take "begs the question" in the non-logical sense.

Like it or not, spelling changes, meaning changes, grammar changes. If he were around today, Robinson Jeffers might have added a line or two about accepting the linguistically inevitable to "Be Angry at the Sun."

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:31:

I suspect you were actually made nauseated.

http://phrogz.net/nauseous

Dan said...

If 'begs the question' comes to mean 'raises the question' how then can I unambiguously say what I currently mean when I say 'begs the question'?

That's the difference between language degradation and simple change of spellings, conventions etc.. In language degradation the possibilities for expression are diminished.

Glaucon said...

If 'numbskullery' comes to mean "haberdashery", how then can I unambiguously say what I currently mean when I say "Dan's post is replete with numbskullery"?

If someone can't think of alternative ways to describe circular reasoning, then the so-called degradation of English seems to be, if not the least of their troubles, pretty low down on the list, well behind an impoverished linguistic imagination (or vocabulary) as the culprit responsible for diminished possibilities for expression.

[Oh my fucking god. Did you see what that idiot Glaucon just did? He used 'their' as a singular possessive pronoun! We are fucked. Degraded? You have to pay extra for that...]

Anonymous said...

I started off here being one of those annoyed by the contemporary use of "begs the question" to mean "raises the question," and I still am, a bit, but I think Glaucon may have a point here, although he's made it in a rather assholeish way. Why not this?

1.) To beg the question (new meaning) = to raise the question

vs.

2.) To beg the question (old meaning) = to assume what one is trying to prove.

Doesn't that solve the problem? Rather than give your students a 15-minute discourse on the "true" meaning of "begs the question" (one which they will forget, inevitably, or become confused by), just use a different phrase to describe the same action.

As English Jerk pointed out, students don't seem to have much of a problem getting their minds around what circular reasoning is. If common usage amongst the students is such that "begs the question" means "raises the question" then drop the phrase in the logical context so as to avoid confusing them.

If you were lecturing in Latin, then it might make good sense to hold onto the term petitio principii as a technical one which you would make them memorize, but here it makes no sense.

Dan said...

Well obviously I can express the old meaning by resorting to dictionary definitions of the old meaning. But there *are* reasons people try to avoid talking in dictionary definitions. There *are* reasons people develop a rich and complex language.

So where I now say, ‘You beg the question,’ in future I have to say, ‘You assume what you are trying to prove’. The latter is long winded, lacking richness, elegance and poetry. Thus the language has been degraded because the possibilities for expression have been diminished. As I said.

Whereas conventions on using 'its' or 'it’s' do not diminish the possibilities for expression so do not degrade the language.

Furthermore, that people can understand the difference between ‘begs the question’ and ‘raises the question’ if their attention is drawn to it, does not mean that they have that distinction clear in their mind in day to day conversation. The fact is that sloppy talking and sloppy thinking tend to go together.

So what is happening is that Philistines such as Glaucon wreck the language and the rest of us are impoverished. Great. Why not give up being so fucking craven and down with the stupid-kids, and stand up for intelligence, accuracy, taste, efficiency etc.? You have to draw the line somewhere and fight back, or at least try to hold back the tide – or are we all supposed to descend to the level of street slang and street thinking?

Glaucon said...

Dan, your argument is specious. Oh, wait: 'specious' has changed its meaning. It doesn't mean what Hume meant when he used it (as a term of approbation) in the Treatise and Enquiry. So, since language change = language degradation, "the possibilities for expression are diminished" and thus I can't use 'specious'. Which is too bad, because I'm very fond of Hume. Oops. 'Fond' has changed its meaning, too. Because Hume is the shit. Oh, no. Because 'shit' is ambiguous, depending on which if any article is prefixed to it, "the possibilities for expression are diminished." Maybe I'm just the Mayor of Simpleton, but wouldn't ambiguity enhance rather than diminish expression? In any event, it's ironic that someone who appeals to the "richness, elegance and poetry" of 'begs the question' (as if!) would have such a narrow view of linguistic change.

Oh well. I'd love to continue, but I have some language wrecking to do, right after I (and "the stupid-kids" (at the New York Times?)) cravenly give up the fight against accepting the fact that 'begs the question' has come to mean 'raises the question' -- because that's all part of the Philistine master plan (it's a great combination of slippery slopes and false dilemmas) against "intelligence, accuracy, taste."

Spiros said...

This entire thread = awesome.

Anonymous said...

OK, you all win and I (9:47) concede that begging now means raising! Henceforth, "evolutionary theory" places its emphasis on *theory*. The ID proponents are right, it's just a mere guess, an unproven hypothesis on equal footing with intelligent design.

Glad that's been cleared up.

Dan said...

Glaucon, did I say that all language change was language degradation? Of course not. I gave an example – the convention regarding when to use an apostrophe with ‘its’ – where I indicated that a change was not a degradation. And of course there has been plenty of language enrichment – otherwise I would still be speaking Anglo-Saxon, and you would still be speaking Ancient Greek. ;-)

But just because not all language change is degradation does not mean some language change is not degradation. Or is that too clear for you?

But hey, what does it matter what I actually said. You read into it what you want. That’s what language is all about right? And the more ambiguous something is, the more can be read into it, so the better the communication that takes place. (By the way, that *actually* means, ‘You are talking crap.’)

Anonymous said...

Glaucon is (as usual ;)) half right. Language changes, and you just have to accept that. But language pedants have a useful role to play: we need a brake on how fast language changes, and we need to preserve (temporary) islands of agreed on usage, so that people can communicate unambiguously. So there is no point complaining about the NY Times using begging the question wrong, but you should complain if your students do: the phrase is a technical term and they have to use it as such until the mean has changed irrevocably and the philosophical community falls into line with the vernacular. If students are bright enough to understand circular reasoning, then they can cope with learning a phrase or two in a technical vocabulary (and you should not allow papers to be accepted at journals until they get this right, though of course that is not a reason to reject them). Things are different with singular 'they'. That is just grammar, not a technical term. Anyway, singular they was never wrong, despite what a referee for bigname journal told me the other day (if your usage guide conflicts Jane Austen and Billy Shakespeare, time to get a new one).

Glaucon said...

This is probably a waste of time. Hume, I think, -- or maybe it was Montaigne -- once said that people can't be reasoned out of positions they didn't reason themselves into, and in my experience, the shrill prescriptivism of the kind Dan offers is not the result of careful reasoning in light of an adequate grasp of the history of English; it's usually driven by something else entirely, as is suggested by how quickly the issue becomes moralized (those like me who accept as a fait accompli that 'begs the question' has come to mean "raises the question" in non-philosophical contexts are "fucking craven"), is a proxy for false beliefs about the correlation between language use and intelligence, and indeed is some sort of Manichean battle of good and evil, as though the fate of humanity hangs on insisting on the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ or whatever the pet peeve of the hand-wringing prescriptivist happens to be. That a view about the origin and status of linguistic norms gets people so worked up seems a good sign that they're worked up about something other than linguistic norms.

Dan begins with what I assumed was supposed to be a devastating, knock-down objection in the form of a rhetorical question. It was skull-numbingly ineffective (especially in light of the other posts which indicate alternative ways to convey the point). He then distinguishes between linguistic change that doesn't degrade language (e.g., spelling changes) and linguistic change that does (e.g., semantic change), complaining that the instance of the latter in question diminishes the possibilities for him to express himself -- because "you're arguing in a circle" lacks the "richness, elegance and poetry" of "you're begging the question." When presented with various other instances of semantic change – of just the sort he's so ready to fight against, against the “stupid-kids”, though in the more distant past -- he insists that he's already conceded that not all linguistic change is degradation, which seems disingenuous at best, given the way he's made the distinction. He then suggests that I'm acting in bad faith, reading whatever meaning suits me into his words. If he’d like to offer a principled reason for fighting against the tide when it comes to ‘begs the question’ but admitting defeat when it comes to ‘specious’ and ‘fond’ (and ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ and hundreds of other examples), I’m all ears.

But, as I said, I suspect this isn’t about reason at all. My advice: learn something about the history of English.

Oh, and go fuck yourself, you pompous, elitist, self-righteous ninny. (Hopefully, the meaning of that isn’t likely to change any time soon.)

Spiros said...

"(Hopefully, the meaning of that isn’t likely to change any time soon.)"

Nice!

English Jerk said...

Dan:

A good starting point is Brinton and Arnovick's The English Language: A Linguistic History (Oxford UP, 2006). For a rigorous treatment of some of the more theoretical issues in linguistic change, have a look at Mark Hale's Historical Linguistics: Theory and Method (Blackwell, 2007).

Dan said...

Glaucon is clearly unable to read and understand what someone with a different view to his is saying. Hardly surprising then that he is not concerned about linguistic degradation. Nevertheless, in case anyone else is reading this, and takes seriously the misrepresentation of my views in his poorly thought-out rant, I’ll lay them out clearly.

1) It is surely reasonable to distinguish between linguistic change which is degradation and linguistic change which is not degradation
2) It is surely reasonable to think that how exactly you spell this is open to some debate. I had a rough stab, suggesting that linguistic degradation involves a reduction in the possibilities for expression. I am of course open to ideas for how to improve on this.
3) It is surely reasonable to think that linguistic change which is degradation can take place.
4) It is surely reasonable to think that linguistic change which is degradation has taken place (what are the chances that all change has been for the better?)
5) It is surely reasonable to think that linguistic change which is not degradation has taken place.

6) Given the central place of linguistic communication in human relationships, and the importance of human relationships, it is surely reasonable to think that linguistic degradation is a moral matter. After all, linguistic degradation reduces our ability to communicate, share and so understand and interact optimally with each other.

7) From 6: It is surely reasonable to think that it is morally right to oppose linguistic degradation.

8) Clearly there can be debate, and difference of opinion, about how best to oppose linguistic degradation.

English Jerk said...

Dan:

Actual acquaintance with the facts might change your mind. Try it.

Dan said...

English Jerk: Which part of what I have just written do you think is mistaken? Pleaes try to be precise.

English Jerk said...

Dan:

I directed you to introductory textbooks in linguistics because your comments indicate a serious misunderstanding of basic facts about language. You will find, if you talk to a linguist or read an introductory linguistics textbook, that there is no controversy among those engaged in the scientific study of language about the issue of supposed "degradation" that you raise. So I refer you again to the two books I mentioned above (and you also might check out Fromkin, Rodman, & Hyams' An Introduction to Language, which is a reliable general textbook in linguistics).

For example, you say that "[i]t is surely reasonable to think that linguistic change which is degradation can take place." It's equally reasonable that my desk is basically solid, instead of being mostly empty space. But, reasonable or not, my desk is in fact mostly empty space (ask a physicist). Just because something's intuitive doesn't mean it's true. Are there examples of linguistic change that count as "degradation" (in some explicit sense)? It's an empirical question. And it's an empirical question that's been extensively studied--as you will discover, if you read the books to which I referred you. The answer is "no."

Moreover, your definition of "degradation" ("a reduction in the possibilities for expression") is, first of all, vague. How do we know when "the possibilities for expression" have been "reduc[ed]"? If I'm guessing right about what you mean, we'd need more than just dictionary definitions of individual words, since we're talking about words or collocations as they are used in sentences (assuming you still have the "begging the question" example in mind). And we'd have to know not only every possible meaning each word/collocation can have in every possible sentence in which it can appear, but also every possible meaning each of those sentences could be used to communicate in every possible situation (assuming that "expression" involves communication, not just intension).

If this all sounds impossible to do, that's because it is. It is not possible to figure out the limits on the "possibilities for expression" a priori, and there is a mountain of empirical facts (see the above textbooks) to indicate that there are no such limits. As Chomsky likes to say (attributing the insight to Humboldt), language is "the infinite use of finite means." In the right set of circumstances, you can use almost any individual word to mean almost anything. And once you can slot that word into any sentence you choose, then you open the door to nearly infinite possibilities ("nearly" because some sentences are so long that you'd die before you were done saying them).

I hope that's precise enough for you. If you want more precision, and more details, I suggest you crack a book. (The Mark Hale book goes most directly to the question of what linguistic change consists in and how it works.)

Dan said...

What you write is interesting, English Jerk. But I am still pretty surprised that you deny that linguistic degradation can take place.

To take a historical example, my understanding is that it is widely agreed that the language spoken in England was enriched between, for example, the sixth and the sixteenth centuries. And I thought that it would be widely accepted that Shakespeare could not have written such great plays had it not been. He simply would not have had the tools available to him. The possibilities for expression that were available to him would not have been as great.

(Obviously I accept that ‘possibilities for expression’ is quite vague, but does convey some sense of what I mean, I would have thought. And is something which could be fleshed out.)

Now, if you accept that enrichment takes place, then surely degradation can also take place. So words, meanings, resonances etc can be lost. It is in principle possible to regress from a twenty first century language to a sixth century language (though I do not suggest such an extreme degradation is likely to happen).

Or consider a simple theoretical example. Imagine we lost our ability to speak as we do, and could only communicate in monotone grunts. We could then only communicate in a form of Morse code. Clearly this would constitute linguistic degradation. The possibilities for expression would have been diminished. For example, the Morse code language would be less efficient (taking longer to convey things – so the possibilities for expression within a given time frame would be reduced – and all real world communication is time limited). It would also be less poetic (by which I mean, less well endowed with those aspects of language which are central to and most clearly exhibited in, poetry).

English Jerk said...

No, Dan, it is not "widely agreed" among linguists that Early Modern English is 'richer' (whatever that's exactly supposed to mean) than Middle English or Old English. Dr. Johnson certainly thought languages could degrade (see the Preface to his Dictionary), but that was nearly three centuries ago. You need to bring your point of view up to date, trading in your opinions for actual knowledge, by reading the books I cited above. How many times do I have to say this?

I don't know exactly what you intend your claim about Shakespeare's plays to mean. If you mean that he would have written different plays (or no plays) if he had spoken a different a language, then that's trivially true (he'd almost certainly have written plays, if at all, in the language he spoke). So what? If you mean that his plays would have been worse if he'd written them in another language, then that claim is simply impossible to prove (it has the vacuity that is typical of counter-factual hypotheses).

(It's perfectly possible that these notions are "widely agreed" among ignorant amateurs, of course. But who cares? Ignorant amateurs have all sorts of idiotic opinions about Shakespeare. If you want to know what the professionals think, why don't you try reading the latest issue of a scholarly journal like Shakespeare Quarterly? That's right; the solution is, again, to crack a book.)

Also, you're committing yourself to the view that Chaucer, Gower, and Langland (the three greatest figures in Middle English literature) are linguistically impoverished, which is idiotic. Read them and see. And while you're at it, you should learn Old English so that you can read The Wanderer in the original. Having done so it will never again occur to you to think that Old English is linguistically impoverished. (The surviving written OE corpus is quite small, of course, but you know that a corpus is not a language, right?)

Morse code is not a language. It's a code for the alphabet. A person cannot "speak Morse code" in the same sense that a person can "speak English" (and the latter expression is already a massive over-simplification; to learn why in detail, see Isac & Reiss, I-Language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science [OUP, 2008]). The hypothetical "language" you describe either would have all the computational properties of a natural language (in the technical sense that you could learn all about by cracking a book), or it wouldn't. In the former case, it would have all the "possibilities for expression" of any other language (the properties of language that are used in poems are the same properties of language that are used in ordinary speech; see Kiparsky [1973], "The Role of Linguistics in a Theory of Poetry," Daedalus 102.3). In the latter case it wouldn't be a natural language at all, so it couldn't be a "degraded" natural language.

To study language, you have to look at actual facts, not invented hypothetical scenarios. I realize that the view from the armchair is very appealing and that ignorant opining is fun. But armchairs also have the virtue of being comfy places in which to read books and remedy your ignorance. So now it's time to put on your slippers, brew a cup of tea, and read a book you can't buy in the supermarket.

Dan said...

Of course I am not committing myself ‘to the view that Chaucer, Gower, and Langland (the three greatest figures in Middle English literature) are linguistically impoverished’. It is idiotic of you to suggest that I am. To say that Middle English can be enriched is not to say that it is impoverished.

I also did not say that great literature could not be written in earlier languages. I only said such language could be enriched.

I did say in my last post, ‘Imagine we lost our ability to speak as we do, and could only communicate in monotone grunts. We could then only communicate in a form of Morse code. Clearly this would constitute linguistic degradation. The possibilities for expression would have been diminished.’ You are denying this. And you patronisingly claim that if I were to ‘read a book you can't buy in the supermarket’ then I would come to agree.

Of course I have some familiarity with these issues. And I have spoken to a linguist and a historian who I happened to meet up with today and none of us can make sense of your claim. There is so much in language that would be lost if we could only communicate in monotone grunts. In my previous post I mention two things. We could not communicate so efficiently. And all our speech ‘would also be less poetic (by which I mean, less well endowed with those aspects of language which are central to and most clearly exhibited in, poetry).’ You say in reply as if you are contradicting what I write ‘the properties of language that are used in poems are the same properties of language that are used in ordinary speech’. But reread what I wrote and think about it. Your point is understood and incorporated in what I wrote.

The grunting Morse code speech would have little or no scope for alliteration, onomatopoeia etc. That is a loss. It would lack that richness and music which our language has (yes I know that is vague, but try to read charitably). Something would be lost. If a book has convinced you otherwise then I suggest you stop reading and start thinking.

I need to go now but consider a couple of other examples. It is problematic to translate Rawls famous phrase ‘Justice as fairness’ into German because German only has one word, Gerecht. English speakers have no trouble distinguishing the notions of justice and fairness – which is why Rawls’ phrase is not analytic. Germans have trouble making sense of the distinction because they spend their whole life thinking in terms of the one notion. One might reasonably think that, in this respect, English is richer.

The second example: German does not have the progressive tense. It is not that they absolutely cannot express what we express with the progressive tense, but it requires a somewhat awkward construction (‘I walk now’ rather than ‘I am walking’), and arguably there is a difference between the two. One might reasonably think that a language which has the progressive tense is in this respect richer.

My claim all along has been simply that languages can be enriched, and degraded.

Dan said...

Of course I am not committing myself ‘to the view that Chaucer, Gower, and Langland (the three greatest figures in Middle English literature) are linguistically impoverished’. It is idiotic of you to suggest that I am. To say that Middle English can be enriched is not to say that it is impoverished.

I also did not say that great literature could not be written in earlier languages. I only said such language could be enriched.

I did say in my last post, ‘Imagine we lost our ability to speak as we do, and could only communicate in monotone grunts. We could then only communicate in a form of Morse code. Clearly this would constitute linguistic degradation. The possibilities for expression would have been diminished.’ You are denying this. And you patronisingly claim that if I were to ‘read a book you can't buy in the supermarket’ then I would come to agree.

Of course I have some familiarity with these issues. And I have spoken to a linguist and a historian who I happened to meet up with today and none of us can make sense of your claim. There is so much in language that would be lost if we could only communicate in monotone grunts. In my previous post I mention two things. First, we could not communicate so efficiently (so I would no longer have available me the possibility of getting you to avoid falling down the hole because by the time I was half way through grunting in morse 'Mind the hole' you would have fallen down it). Second, all our speech ‘would also be less poetic (by which I mean, less well endowed with those aspects of language which are central to and most clearly exhibited in, poetry).’ You say in reply as if you are contradicting what I write ‘the properties of language that are used in poems are the same properties of language that are used in ordinary speech’. But reread what I wrote and think about it. Your point is understood and incorporated in what I wrote.

The grunting Morse code speech would have little or no scope for alliteration, onomatopoeia etc. That is a loss. It would lack that richness and music which our language has (yes I know that is vague, but try to read charitably). Something would be lost. If a book has convinced you otherwise then I suggest you stop reading and start thinking.

I need to go now but consider a couple of other examples. It is problematic to translate Rawls famous phrase ‘Justice as fairness’ into German because German only has one word, Gerecht. English speakers have no trouble distinguishing the notions of justice and fairness – which is why Rawls’ phrase is not analytic. Germans have trouble making sense of the distinction because they spend their whole life thinking in terms of the one notion. One might reasonably think that, in this respect, English is richer. If English had only the one notion, then it would be less rich than it now is. The possiblities for expression would be reduced, because you could not use the phrase 'Justice as fairness'.

The second example: German does not have the progressive tense. It is not that they absolutely cannot express what we express with the progressive tense, but it requires a somewhat awkward construction (‘I walk now’ rather than ‘I am walking’), and arguably there is a difference between the two. One might reasonably think that a language which has the progressive tense is in this respect richer.

My claim is simply that languages can be enriched, and degraded.

Dan said...

Of course I am not committing myself ‘to the view that Chaucer, Gower, and Langland (the three greatest figures in Middle English literature) are linguistically impoverished’. It is idiotic of you to suggest that I am. To say that Middle English can be enriched is not to say that it is impoverished.

I also did not say that great literature could not be written in earlier languages. I only said such language could be enriched.

I did say in my last post, ‘Imagine we lost our ability to speak as we do, and could only communicate in monotone grunts. We could then only communicate in a form of Morse code. Clearly this would constitute linguistic degradation. The possibilities for expression would have been diminished.’ You are denying this. And you patronisingly claim that if I were to ‘read a book you can't buy in the supermarket’ then I would come to agree.

Of course I have some familiarity with these issues. And I have spoken to a linguist and a historian who I happened to meet up with today and none of us can make sense of your claim. There is so much in language that would be lost if we could only communicate in monotone grunts. In my previous post I mention two things. We could not communicate so efficiently. And all our speech ‘would also be less poetic (by which I mean, less well endowed with those aspects of language which are central to and most clearly exhibited in, poetry).’ You say in reply as if you are contradicting what I write ‘the properties of language that are used in poems are the same properties of language that are used in ordinary speech’. But reread what I wrote and think about it. Your point is understood and incorporated in what I wrote.

The grunting Morse code speech would have little or no scope for alliteration, onomatopoeia etc. That is a loss. It would lack that richness and music which our language has (yes I know that is vague, but try to read charitably). Something would be lost. If a book has convinced you otherwise then I suggest you stop reading and start thinking.

I need to go now but consider a couple of other examples. It is problematic to translate Rawls famous phrase ‘Justice as fairness’ into German because German only has one word, Gerecht. English speakers have no trouble distinguishing the notions of justice and fairness – which is why Rawls’ phrase is not analytic. Germans have trouble making sense of the distinction because they spend their whole life thinking in terms of the one notion. One might reasonably think that, in this respect, English is richer.

The second example: German does not have the progressive tense. It is not that they absolutely cannot express what we express with the progressive tense, but it requires a somewhat awkward construction (‘I walk now’ rather than ‘I am walking’), and arguably there is a difference between the two. One might reasonably think that a language which has the progressive tense is in this respect richer.

My claim all along has been simply that languages can be enriched, and degraded.

Dan said...

Well plus the claim that, given this, we should do our bit in the struggle to stop them being degraded.

Anonymous said...

Nonsense, Dan. Germans have no trouble with distinguishing justice and fairness, anymore than we have trouble with the distinct notions of knowledge covered by Kennen and Wissen. We just have to use more words than them to make the distintion.

Anonymous said...

Dan,

What does this have to do with "begs the question"? Has the language been enriched by the non-technical use (allowing people to more elegantly express that something strongly raises the question)? Or do you think that the language has been degraded in some way?

It must be the latter, but for the life of me I can't figure out why you would think that. Why would such an addition be a degradation? Could you explain? Do you think that the word "bank" meaning both a type of financial institution and a slope degrades the language? Is it just that you are afraid that you are going to get confused?

Euthyphronics said...

Me and my buddies all call elms "beeches", and we're wrong. Others and their buddies describe arguments as "beging the question" when they're not circular but raise some question, and they're right. Why the difference? Like Putnam said all those years ago: with words like "elm" and "beech" (and "bandsaw", "theory", etc.), we defer to experts, and so get to be wrong when expert judgments disagree with our use.

I suspect the real beef philosophers have with everyone else using "begging the question" as they do isn't that somehow the purity of language or whatever has been violated. It's rather that we think people should damn well defer to us when describing arguments.

English Jerk said...

Dan:

Since you claim to "have some familiarity with these issues," would you mind proving as much by citing a scholarly source in linguistics that supports anything you're saying? Just one would be fine. Something from, say, the last twenty years.

I did not deny that it would be undesirable to speak only in monotone grunts. I said (1) that your made-up linguistic modality would either (a) have the computational properties of a natural language, and it would therefore be just as "rich" as any other natural language, or (b) it wouldn't be a language at all and so could not be a "degraded" language. And I said (2) that it's absurd to try to prove an empirical point with a counter-factual scenario (especially since your "familiarity with these issues" should provide you with an abundance of actual facts). Now I'll add (3) that the scenario, as you've stated it, is also prima facie absurd, since, among other things, if "we lost our ability to speak as we do," we would surely do what humans usually do in such circumstances: use the modality of gesture (i.e., signing) rather than speech. And you know that ASL, say, is just as rich in every conceivable way as English, right? Surely your "familiarity with these issues" goes that far. (4) Also, you are confusing a modality through which language is expressed (grunts, phones, signs) with language itself, and since you already "have some familiarity with these issues" you surely know that language is modality-independent. In fact, I was being a bit sloppy in this respect, too; odd that you didn't notice.

And, to re-affirm Anon12:30's sensible point, consider another example: the future tense. Old English did not have a future tense. Did this mean that Angles and Saxons couldn't talk about future events, or that they had no concept of futurity? Of course not. They just expressed the future time periphrastically with time-adverbials and the like (as we still do in sentences like "Jane arrives tomorrow"). So it's absurd to say that OE is less rich than Modern English--doubly absurd, in fact, since ModE also doesn't have a future tense. We also express the future periphrastically using the modal verb will, which in OE was a main verb (willan). Consequently, we have to say "I will arrive" when the Frenchman can just say "J'arriverai." So is French richer than English in this respect?

There's nothing wrong with using more than one word to say something. We do it all the time. See, I'm doing it now!

In the hope of enticing you into increasing your "familiarity with these issues," here's a taste of some of the things you can learn from books. This is from a summary of "What We Know about Human Language" from the first chapter of a standard intro textbook (Fromkin, et al.):

"1. Wherever humans exist, language exists.
2. There are no 'primitive' languages--all languages are equally complex and equally capable of expressing any idea. The vocabulary of any language can be expanded to include new words for new concepts.
3. All languages change through time.
4. The relationships between the sounds and meanings of spoken languages and between the gestures and meanings of sign languages are for the most part arbitrary.
5. All human languages use a finite set of discrete sounds or gestures that are combined to form meaningful elements or words, which themselves may be combined to form an infinite set of possible sentences.
6. All grammars contain rules of a similar kind for the formation of words and sentences."

There are eleven more. Wouldn't you like to know what they are?

Justin said...

Well, sometimes people defer to experts, Euthyphronics; and sometimes they insist that the experts are wrong. Having some training in biology, it strikes me as a mistake to say that tomatoes are vegetables, but most Americans will have none of that. Rather, it seems that insofar as they justify their claims at all, they just defer to different "experts": Many cooks supposedly classify tomatoes as vegetables because they are most often used in savoury dishes. More graphically, I can attest that you will piss off the typical dog owner if you point out that they are raising a gray wolf (albeit a domesticated one). In my experience they typically swear up and down that dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are a different species from gray wolves (Canis lupus)--experts be damned.

Euthyphronics said...

Justin,

They also don't defer to experts on "quantum leap/jump" (as a comment on the beg-the-question LL entry pointed out). I didn't mean to imply that everyone always defers to scientists on every issue.

There are a lot of subtleties here, including generic vs. particular deference ("biologists tell us which species are which" vs. "biologists tell me whether my pet is a dog or a wolf"), polysemy (biological vs. culinary senses of "vegetable", etc.) and so on. Division of linguistic labor isn't clean-cut.

But my main point was more general: the more a population is deferential in its use of a term T -- the more they intend their uses of it to pick out what some group of "experts" mean by it, and the more they are disposed to retract uses when they find out experts wouldn't use it that way -- the less strong the inference from "most people use it to apply to X" to "so, it means X" is.

Zoologists probably get irritated with grey wolf owners for calling their pets "dogs". And understandably so: the pet owners are using a kind of term that people would generally defer to zoologists for, and it's irritating for them to have their expertise on zoology discounted. My suggestion was that, regardless of what "begging the question" now means given the way it's (mis?-)used, philosophers get irritated because a term that originated with them, and for a topic on which they are experts, isn't being used in any way deferentially.

Dan said...

I think part of the issue with English Jerk (and perhaps others) is that he is focused on ‘2’ in his list, and he thinks I do not understand why people claim 2. I do. However I still think it matters what words and familiar phrases (and their meanings) comprise our language. Because this affects how people tend to think and speak. And affects what they can say in a given period of time (time matters in communication!). And affects the possibilities for poetic type expression.

Dan said...

And the possibilities for humour.

Glaucon said...

Spiros, I implore you do to something about Dan's penultimate post, in which he writes "I still think it matters what words and familiar phrases (and their meanings) comprise our language." As every non-Philistine knows, 'comprise' doesn't mean "compose": the zoo comprises the animals, the animals do not comprise the zoo; the language comprises the words, the words do not comprise the language. I know that the stupid kids talk this way, but sloppy talking goes with sloppy thinking. If 'comprise' comes to mean 'compose' how then can I unambiguously say what I currently mean when I say 'comprise'?

It is surely reasonable to think that it is morally right to oppose linguistic degradation, so it is your moral duty to prevent people like Dan from wrecking our language. If you don't take a stand against this heinous misuse of 'comprise', Philistines such as Dan will wreck the language and the rest of us will be impoverished. Please please please stand up for intelligence, accuracy, taste, efficiency etc. You have to draw the line somewhere and fight back, or at least try to hold back the tide – lest we all descend to the level of street slang and street thinking.

As that great linguist, Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: this aggression against English, man, it will ... uh ... not stand.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this pressing matter.

PS In order to enhance "the possibilities for poetic type expression," I offer the following:

Dan likes his armchair linguistics.
He don't go in for historical heuristics.
On this blog he is famous
as a big ignoramus
and a defender of a priori prescriptivistics.

Glaucon can be a bit of a turd
and he always wants to have the last word.
He can give offense
but he doesn't reject evidence
that goes against what he thinks and he's heard.

Dan said...

I am always willing to learn and improve. And naturally I make slips and typos, as do most people. On this particular occasion though I didn't do as badly as Glaucon suggests. The OED has as a definition of comprise:

8 b. To constitute, make up, compose.
1794 G. ADAMS Nat. & Exp. Philos. II. xvi. 238 The wheels and pinions comprizing the wheel-work. 1794 PALEY Evid. I. ix. (1817) 169 The propositions which comprise the several heads of our testimony. 1850 W. S. HARRIS Rudimentary Magnetism iv. 73 These substances which we have termed diamagnetic..and which comprise a very extensive class of bodies. 1907 H. E. SANTEE Anat. Brain & Spinal Cord (1908) iii. 237 The fibres comprising the zonal layer have four sources of origin. 1925 Brit. Jrnl. Radiology XXX. 148 The various fuses etc. comprising the circuit. 1950 M. PEAKE Gormenghast (1968) xiv. 94 Who, by the way, do comprise the Staff these latter days? 1959 Chambers's Encycl. XIII. 653/1 These fibres also comprise the main element in scar tissue. 1969 W. HOOPER in C. S. Lewis Sel. Lit. Ess. p. xix, These essays together with those contained in this volume comprise the total of C. S. Lewis's essays on literature. 1969 N. PERRIN Dr. Bowdler's Legacy (1970) i. 20 As to who comprised this new reading public, Jeffrey..guessed in 1812 that there were 20,000 upper-class readers in Great Britain.

Glaucon said...

Oh Danny boy,
Do you not see I'm mocking you?
And that your response
Undermines most of what you've said?
To cite common usage against a prescriptivist distinction,
Is a concession that prescriptivism's dead.

Oh Danny boy ...

Dan said...

You are obviously nasty, abusive and mocking Glaucon. No need to point that out.

What I don’t see is any evidence that you have actually read, thought about and understood what I have written. You certainly have not provided reasons for rejecting it.

As for the dictionary entry, obviously conventions are important in communication. I have never denied that. And dictionaries record some of those conventions.

English Jerk said...

And the possibilities for humor.

Glaucon said...

Violating prescriptivist norms about 'begs the question': boo; appeals to common usage the tool of Philistine language-wreckers.

Violating prescriptivist norms about 'comprise' v. 'compose': hooray; appeals to common usage perfectly permissible.

So, violating norms I dislike degrades the language; violating norms I don't dislike (or am ignorant of) is fine. Typical, ahistorical, ignorant, inconsistent, arbitrary prescriptivist tripe.

Have a Fresca, Danny.

Glaucon said...

The Ballad of Dan the Prescriptivist
by Glaucon (who clearly needs to learn to leave well enough alone and who should probably find more productive uses of his time)

Dan suffers from a cognitive affliction:
He can't see a plain contradiction.
It scuttles his views
Though it wouldn't be news
Were he not wedded to unreasoned prescription.

To use begs as raises: degrading!
Those who accept it require upbraiding.
But comprise as compose?
Common usage again shows
Another distinction that's long been a-fading.

So why fight against one and not the other,
My arbitrary prescriptivist brother?
Your distinction won't work
As was shown by E. Jerk.
Is it just unprincipled, personal druther?

Dan offers no scholarly sources
Or evidence of linguistics courses.
His view's a priori
So a fortiori
I conclude he's the ass of some horse's.

Dan says I've treated him shitty.
I concede it hasn't always been pretty.
He complains I don't get him
Just because I don't fĂȘte him.
Sounds to me like a big bowl of self-pity.

Dan's a prescriptivist clucker,
A norm cherry-picker, a plucker.
But this much is clear,
Oh Danny boy dear,
You're really one dumb motherfucker.

Dan said...

As I say, you obviously have not bothered to read and think about what I wrote. You just have a certain philosophical position in mind that you do not like, assume I hold it, and so are attacking me. You avoid reason and debate, which might actually get us somewhere, and just prefer to be unpleasant.


Glaucon is a philosopher trite
Constantly deluded he is right.
I know it’s a pity
The truth’s in this ditty!
He’s obviously talking pure shite.

Dan said...

Christ I still feel irritated by you, Glaucon. You remind me of a ten year old who won’t listen to sense and just keeps repeating the same claim in the hope that repeating it will either make people believe it or drive them round the bend.

Just in case there is any chance of getting this into your bonehead, and just in case anyone takes seriously what you claim about me, perhaps I too should repeat myself. You claim that I am a prescriptivist and that I also appeal to common usage, and thus I contradict myself. However consider that what I actually claim is:

1) Obviously conventions are essential in language. Naturally I generally employ words in accordance with established conventions (as I did when I used ‘comprise’ as I did).
2) If there is now the prospect of a change to the conventions of language which can reasonably be construed as a change for the worse (such as abandoning the established meaning of ‘beg the question’ and having this phrase in future mean the same as ‘raise the question’) and if there is some prospect of opposition to that change being successful, then it is right to oppose that change.

There is no conflict between 1 and 2.


Conventions to language are essential
Upon that point I’m not penitential
In my use of comprise
It’s so clear in my eyes
I was doing nothing bad consequential

If a language much worse might become
That’s something from which we should run
If there’s chance of success
We must do our best
Or forsake complex thoughts, rhymes and fun

Between these views there is no conflict
To see one you must be a dumb prick
You talk out of your ass
No exams would you pass
You’re just a malevolent old git.

The noun ‘git’ is quite a new one
Without it the rhyme would be less fun
So language is enriched
No words need be switched
It’s the sort of change that I welcome

long time watcher first time caller said...

Dan, why is the change in the meaning of "comprise" (which is still in some sense "going on") not worth resisting while the change in meaning of "beg the question" is? As far as I can tell, your earlier complaints against "beg the question" apply here, too. (How can I unambiguously say what I want to say, with the same poetic power, with "comprise" if it sometimes means "compose"?)

Dan said...

Hi 3.26,


Blimey this is like tag wrestling – except I have no one to tag with…. Come to think of it, it is rather like The Gorgias, where there is a sequence of interlocutors giving Socrates a hard time: English Jerk appears to be a bit like Polus; and Glaucon is clearly Callicles in disguise; so perhaps you are Gorgias? :-) (And before anyone tries to trip me up, I know the interlocutors here are in different order to that in The Gorgias, and that there is no similarity between me and Socrates. :-) )

Thanks for your post though, that’s a fair question.

In answering it I think it important to distinguish the general principles, from debate about particular words or phrases.

So let’s say the general principles are those laid out above. To reduce the chance of misunderstanding I’ll paste them here:

1) Conventions are essential in language. Naturally I generally employ words in accordance with established conventions.
2) If there is now the prospect of a change to the conventions of language which can reasonably be construed as a change for the worse and if there is some prospect of opposition to that change being successful, then it is right to oppose that change.

The thought is that once a convention governing the use of a word is sufficiently embedded in a linguistic community then, what shall I say, well let’s say it is simply part of the language. We can distinguish this from changes of conventions, changes to the language. Clearly this border will be a bit fuzzy, open to debate. Some uses of language can confidently be claimed to be established convention. Others can confidently be claimed to be changes to convention. Further others may be less clear and the subject of debate (of course, that a given usage falls into this latter category does not mean it is not part of established convention, only that there is debate over whether it is).

Let us turn now to a particular case. ‘Comprise’ as used by me above, appears to fall into this last category. I was writing a quick blog post, the word ‘comprise’ came to mind, probably because I have seen it used in this way so many times before, and so I used it in this way. It didn’t cross my mind that this usage would be subject to debate. When called out on this usage I checked some dictionaries, found this had been an established usage for over two hundred years, and concluded that it’s probably time to think of it as an established convention.

OK, let's return now to more general discussion. Of changes to the language, these might then fall into two categories, changes for the better and changes for the worse. We may debate for particular changes whether they would constitute a change for the better or for the worse. Sometimes we may be confident a change is for the better or for the worse. Other times, perhaps often, we will not be sure.

Of changes to the language which can reasonably construed as changes for the worse we can distinguish those changes we might be able to do something about, and those changes we cannot do anything about. Again there is room for debate.

So, let's now look at a particular case. Well you can see where I am heading. I would have thought taking ‘begs the question’ to mean ‘raises the question’ is a change, a relatively new departure. And also that it is a change for the worse. And a change that we might, *possibly*, be able to do something about. Hence it is a change to be opposed.

Finally, even if it were accepted that using ‘comprise’ the way that I did is an established convention, I can see that a case could be made for trying to eliminate that convention. However given how well established that convention is, and given that it does not generally reduce clarity or result in unwanted ambiguity, I would have thought efforts might be better directed elsewhere.


Does that make sense? I am always pleased to learn from friendly questions and suggestions.


Cheers


Dan

English Jerk said...

Dan:

1) Language is not a matter of "convention." That's an intuitively plausible view, but it turns out, in fact, to be mistaken. See the Isac and Reis book I cited above and the first two chapters of Chomsky's Knowledge of Language (1986).

2) No change in language can be reasonably construed as a change for the worse (or for the better). See the Fromkin, et al. book I cited above, or any intro linguistics textbook.

3) Prescriptivists have, in fact, almost never been successful at actually changing the way ordinary people speak (split any infinitives lately?). Sometimes, with tremendous resources, they can construct or artificially preserve a prestige dialect that the tiny minority who speaks it uses to convince themselves of their superiority to ordinary people (e.g., the Queen's English, which even Elizabeth II does not speak). See the Brinton and Arnovick book I cited above.

4) I'm still waiting for you to cite a single recent source from the linguistics literature in support of anything you're saying.

Dan said...

1) AAAOO AOAOAO, OAOOA AO AO AA A AAA OAOAOA AA OAOA AOA AOAAAA OAO AO: OAOAOOOAA A OOO A OA O OA AA.

2) O OAAO AA OA AO AAOA, AA OOOOOA AA AAOAAA OAAA OAOOOAOAO? A OAO AOO OOOAO AAOAA. AAAO OOOOOA OA OO AAAO AAA AO AAOOA OOOOAOO.

3) AOAOAOA AOA AOOA OA A O AAO AOOA A OA AOOA AA OO! A OAO AOOA OA AOAAA O A O.

4) A OA OOOA OA OOAAA AAOA AAA O AAAO OOA AA OAA OOAA OOA OAO AOA OAO (2004) AAOA AOA AO OOOOA pp24-41. :-)

Glaucon said...

Entries for The Philosophers Anonymous Lexicon/Guide to the Philosophical Wild:

Danimal, noun. Philosophical beast who ignores relevant empirical findings and thus literally does not know what s/he's talking about. Preferred habitat: the armchair. Feeds at intuition pump. Prefers books bought at supermarket to scholarly tomes from academic presses. Distinctive call: surely it is reasonable to suppose that.... Seeks mates by feigning openness ("I am always pleased to learn from friendly questions and suggestions") but ultimately suggests one "stop reading" if a book conflicts with the deliverances of the armchair. Thinks with danus (q.v.). Hunted for shiny coat, from which D-bags and asshats are made. When cornered, insists that others don't understand his view, engages in position redescription, post hoc rationalization and other ass-covering maneuvers.
Example: "What kind of danimal wrote that piece on [language change / perception / philosophy of physics] without any actual knowledge of [language / perception / physics]?

danimosity, noun. Hostility to the findings of the relevant natural or social science, especially when the findings conflict with a cherished position. Typical of danimals.

danus, noun. Dual-function body part on which danimals sit and with which they "think." Danuses are prized by collectors for the fine asshats they make. Also, used synecdochally (e.g., That danimal is a real danus").

danaphylaxis, noun. State of profound confusion brought on by abnormal levels of danimosity. Those in a danaphylactic state are overcome by "the possibilities for poetic type expression" in expressions not thought to be especially poetic (e.g., 'begs the question'). Example: "He must have been in a danaphylactic state, because he kept insisting that Hamlet's famous soliloquy begins, 'To beg or not to beg - that is the question'."

English Jerk said...

May we all hope for the return of Dan, that Glaucon have further occasion to flex his wit.

Dan said...

Further entries for The Philosophers Anonymous Lexicon/Guide to the Philosophical Wild.
(Not in alphabetical order.)


glauconoma, noun. Philosophical shortsightedness. Often accompanied by philosophical tunnel vision, which is a failure to see other points of view, or acknowledge new ideas or considerations. Usually caused by glaucophobia.

glaucophobia, noun. Deep-seated fear of changing one’s mind. Generally leads to glauconoma and a refusal to enter rational discussion.

glauer, verb. Avoid rational discussion through instead mounting personal attacks on individual with whom one disagrees.

glau, noun. Feeling of self-importance and/or self-affirmation brought about through being unpleasant to others

glausterbation, noun. The generation of a perverted thrill through repeated stroking of one's ego. Often involves one glauering, feeling glau and thinking how clever one is. Schoolboys used to be told that it causes hairy hands and glauconoma.

glau-con, verb. Deceive others into thinking one has philosophical understanding. Often involves attacking others philosophical understanding in a way which avoids entering into any rational discussion which would reveal one’s lack of philosophical understanding (see also glauer). Example: ‘He glau-conned his colleagues.’

glaucon, noun.
1. An individual who suffers from glauconoma and glaucophobia; and who glauers, glau-cons and glausterbates. Example: ‘I never realised he was a glaucon, but then I read his blog posts and it dawned on me.’
2. Git. Example: ‘Glaucon is a glaucon.’

Anonymous said...

Unlike English Jerk, I do not want Glaucon to exercise his wit further. He might be right on the substance (I really can't be bothered to do the work of finding out) but I am highly irritated by the sight of someone being so much of an asshole.

Troy Camplin said...

From an informal poll of several college English comp classes:

Q: "When was the last time anyone here had more than a week of grammar?"

A: "6th grade."

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