Linguistic Anarchy

I have become something of a linguistic anarchist. The way I see it, the English language does not have rules. Moreover, it does not need rules. As a matter of fact, the most popular “rule book” for English writing is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, the very title of which indicates that it is not a book of rules but a stylistic guide. One is not “wrong” if he does not follow Strunk and White, he is simply “unfashionable.”

That said, children ought to be taught “proper spelling” and “proper grammar.” Before one can be a free thinker and an innovator, one must have a firm grasp of what they are rebelling against. This opinion of mine extends to the fine arts as well. I have a deep-seated distrust of extremely novel painters and musicians who did not first demonstrate their ability to master more conventional forms. Dali and Picasso are both extremely interesting to me and they are made much more so by the fact that they established themselves as traditionally talented before their work became more heterodox. It shows that their art is not simple novelty, but innovation.

As it turns out, the same principles may apply to mathematics. Euclid’s geometry is every bit as artificial as any attempt to construct an “English grammar.” Whereas the concepts of number seem inherent (eg. the number 2 can correspond with two “real” objects,) The principles of Euclidean geometry do not correspond with anything other than definitions and axioms. As Einstein writes in his book Relativity, “The concept “true” does not tally with the assertions of pure geometry, because by the word “true” we are eventually in the habit of designating always the correspondence with a “real” object;” there are no tangible “straight lines” or “points” or “circles” as defined by Euclid.

And yet, it is essential that an education in geometry start with these “artificial” constructs in the same way that an education in English should start with grammar and spelling, or an education in music should start with scales. Eventually, the most gifted mathematical minds can move beyond Euclid, but it is impossible to make any serious headway as an innovator without knowing what one’s jumping off point is.

Beer of the Week: Viru – This beer comes in an octagonal pyramid bottle. Not a “true” octagonal pyramid, but pretty cool none the less. I have no reason to think that I had ever seen or touched anything from Estonia before purchasing this beer. In fact, the extent of my knowledge about Estonia consists of being able to identify the flag (it is black, blue and white) and the knowledge that they are often grouped with Latvia and Lithuania. Now I know one more thing: their beer is of a rather middling quality.  It is very, very pale and exhibits no extraordinary features. It is nothing but a standard macro-brew in a very silly bottle. It is hard not to judge a country by the quality of their beer, but I’ll give Estonia a pass since they were under Soviet rule for so long… I think.

Reading for the Week: Relativity by Albert Einstein, Section 1 – The beginning of this book is a great teaser for what is to come. Einstein refers to Euclid as “the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers.” And then he questions the “truth” of that edifice and indicates that by the time he is done, “we shall see that this “truth” is limited, and we shall consider the extent of its limitation.”

Question for the week: Do you believe that English has rules? Maybe Steven Fry can help free you from that:

5 Comments on “Linguistic Anarchy”

  1. Cole Simmons says:

    If you mean things like punctuation and sentence structure, then yes, it is pretty conventional. But isn’t there a difference between a verb and a noun?

    • I understand your question in two ways: formally and definitionally.

      By formally I mean “can a verb take the form of a noun and vice versa?” In this respect, I don’t think there can be any doubt. I don’t remember my Wittgenstein very well, but it seems to me that what I what I’ve said is in line with his concept of a “language game.” His example of a carpenter and his assistant illustrates that the difference between a verb and a noun exists primarily in usage. When a carpenter yells out “Hammer!” his assistant hands him a hammer. What we would usually call a noun (“hammer”) is in this case stretched verb (meaning something like “give me the hammer”). In the video, Mr. Fry presents other examples, asserting that Shakespeare “tabled the motion and chaired the meeting in which nouns were made verbs.” As for verbs becoming nouns, there are far to many to count. But I could think of several examples in a blink of an eye.

      By definitionally I mean “are we not bound by the definitions of the terms of grammar? A noun is defined as such and such and a verb is defined as whatnot, and no matter what word you use as a noun or a verb, you are still within the confines of the definition. That is to say, there are rules about what a noun is and what a verb is but you couldn’t break those rules even if you tried.” I’ve never thought of this before, and I find it pretty interesting. However, it is not the labeling of the word as a noun that makes the sentence intelligible; it is the intelligibility of the sentence that makes it possible to label the words in it. So call “Hammer!” a noun (with an implied verb) or a stretched verb (with a few words removed for brevity); neither definition has any actual effect on the language.

      Did I understand your question and reply appropriately, or was that all nonsense?

  2. Hi–my fantastic friend Elizabeth led me to your blog. Really interesting, love the ways you’ve connected language, art, and Euclid.

    I don’t think you’re being a linguistic anarchist, though; you’re being a good linguist. Henry Higgins gave linguistics a bad reputation. Most linguists are interested in how people actually use language, rather than prescribing fabricated rules of how language should be used. (I blogged about this a long time ago, so I won’t get too in depth here, but if you’d like to read more:

    And to Cole’s point, about the differences between nouns and verbs; yes, language has verbs and subjects and objects and I don’t think anyone has found a language that lacks any of the three. All language varieties–even those things you might not call languages, like ebonics/AAVE, or Southern dialects, or Spanglish–even those are guided by an underlying structure. There are rules that allow us to form sentences in nonstandard ways of speaking, even if those rules don’t match up with Strunk and White.

    • Thanks Desi, I am glad you enjoyed it. Your post on prescription v. description may be the first thing I’ve ever seen on Tumblr that I enjoyed even though I don’t know from art. Now I have to see about paying Elizabeth a referral fee for new readers.

  3. Michael says:

    I think this comic might interest you. Other comics of this astrofysicist are good too.

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