Friday, September 28, 2012

that up with that we should not put -- how certain rules threaten the English language

Someday I should post a formal note somewhere about certain rules which are a real drag on the English language. But it takes a lot of time and effort to link up with new communities, so for now I just post here on the blog. If anyone else is better positioned to publish an article or policy memo on this, please do so... We all remember the rules are taught in elementary school, by grammar teachers who tell us always to write in complete sentences. No stand-alone phrases, like this one. No "animal noises" like "huh?" There is a lot of value in that kind of discipline, just as there is value in the discipline of poetry. Yet, as Rudolf Flesch pointed out (in The Art of Readable Writing), that doe snot do perfect justice to the richness of the spoken English language -- or to what we can in written language. We shouldn't really have to abide by that constraint rigidly in all circumstances. There are times when I think that all college graduates should have to learn a special kind of "Chinglish," what a computer might generate if it "translated" Chinese into English in a very simple-minded literal way, simply mapping Chinese words into English words (and inserting about ten to twenty basic nontranslatable words, like "deh" and some basic versions of "huh?"). That would help people get past the Chomskyian delusion that all sensible human languages are based on well-defined logical propositions expressed in complete sentences. And it would be a lot easier than having to learn all the characters and pronunciation of the dialects of Chinese. But back to some examples of bad rules... A lot of the rules used today in copyediting and major publishers do not reflect what we now know about the nature of human languages. In my papers in Neural Networks in 2009 and 2012, I describe our new mathematically-grounded understanding, quite different from Orthodox Chomsky, yet very close to the important insights of great linguists like Sapir. Sapir noticed long ago how human languages seem to follow a kind of bell-shaped curve over time, starting from older and more "natural' languages which are uninflected, rising to a maximum of inflection, in languages like Sanskri and perhaps Russian and Arabic with many subjunctive forms and so on, and then evolving back to less inflection, ultimately down to languages like English and Dutch which do not even have masculine and feminine groups of nouns. Chinese represents the less inflected side on the left, since many aspects of Chinese were codified many centuries ago, due to the early arrival of printing and continent-wide politics in China. English and Dutch represents the less inflected side on the extreme right, because they are new languages which evolved, nonetheless, in areas of relatively high formal intellectual development (relative to social and political development). Interesting questions are: why do English and Chinese have so much in common, at one level, despite being so far away and at opposite ends of the Sapir cycle? I can still being amazed, when reading an elementary Chinese text, how many idioms are the same in Chinese and English, such that the text did not even mention them. (I was very confused for awhile, because, having learned some French and Latin, I had learned NOT to assume idioms would carry over... but many English idioms which would not carry over to French or Latin would carry over to Chinese.) Both languages have minimal inflection, and both rely very heavily on subject-object-verb ordering. In my view (again, see the papers in Neural Networks), the Sapir cycle is due to one key factor above all else. It is due to the invention of formal verbal logic, by folks like Socrates and Plato and the progenitors of the Upanishads in India (Sanskrit). Today we take it for granted that a logical proposition is a kind of abstract object, which we can talk about in words just as we talk about other more physical objects. Many people interpret Plato's "two worlds" as a kind of mysticism (and it really did lead to some real mysticism), but I agree with Max Weber that this was his way of trying to explain the modern attitude which we take for granted to a world which wasn't quite there yet. In the original world, like early Chinese, strings of words were basically "word movies" or "dances with words," conveying VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE (and progtotype generalizations of strings of experience). More and more qualifiers and inflection become added, as people started to express things more like logical propositions In fact, as the history of Sanskrit and Upanishads shows, it may be that the groping to create mental objects came first, and the more explicit rules of logic later, as language became more able to support logical reasoning, which treats propositions as objects. But then.. to simplify.. just as the Indian invention of the digit zero revolutionized mathematics, the invention of the word "that" (a cousin of the mathematician's parentheses) revolutionized language. Instead of saying "All plants sort of may be green, in my thinking," We may now say: "I believe that all plants are green." Instead of using a fuzzy qualifier or a subjunctive, we create an abstract object which we can treat like any other object in our grammatical creation of well-posed sentences. The object is the noun phrase "that all plants are green." The magic word "that" creates a new noun, a new object, which we can manage like any other know. We can say "I broke that, I believe that.." We create a world of thought which is powerful, elegant and self-referential; this is similar in a way to Von Neumann's breakthrough, when he essentially invented the Turing machine. And so, for many centuries, standard English textbooks said that the word "that" in English has two uses (unfortunately) - use as a pronoun ("I like that") and use as a conjunction ("I believe that plants are green"). There is another word "which,' with an ancient lineage, which may be used in two ways: (1) adding information ("this election, which will be on November 6, is hotly contested); (2) adding specificity to what object is being referred to (" the election which happens in November will include more candidatyes than the election which was held last year"). We use "which" in both cases, and we use a comma to signify which is which. (In spoken English, we use cadence and intonation to "speak the comma.") But -- horror of horrors -- the Government Printing Office (GPO) decided years ago to outlaw traditional English, and many publishers felt they had to follow suit. Maybe their change works better in some advertizing jingles, but by ordering a change in the use of the word "that," to take over from "which," they do tend to dilute the original meaning of "that" as a conjunction. Because that original meaning is absolutely fundamental to the value of English as a vehicle for high-order logical reasoning, this is extremely unfortunate. Sure, we can survive it. We can even talk about complex scientific issues in word-movie languages, like the Chinese of four millennia ago. But to support logical structures in our thinking -- structures which are already severely strained by the complexities of modern life -- we really would be better off getting rid of such nonsense. Of course, there are other changes suggested by Flesch (as in "up with whihc I will not put") and Mencken which would also be of great benefit to the English language. There are times when I think the EU or even the UN should overpower the GPO here, and define a streamlined version of English (and Chinglish?) as new official languages. Best of luck, Paul

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