Beyond “Fun” linguistics: The Deconstruction of BS and the Search for Truth

I suppose I should not be shocked by the trivialization, in the popular view, of the discipline to which I devoted so many years of my life and still consider myself a practitioner: linguistics — the objective, scientific study of language. I’m not surprised because many sciences get trivialized. The ongoing search for knowledge of nutrition spawns health fads and new diets galore. The data of biology and astrophysics are twisted to support crackpot theories of creationism. The bewilderingly complex study of climate change is as polluted by politics and emotion as the environment is itself polluted with human, toxic waste.

Fun Stuff

So I’m not surprised that mostly all the public sees of linguistics is what I call “fun” or “schoolmarm” linguistics.

Yes, there have been very insightful books on verbal self-defense by Suzette Haden Elgin, as well as much useful language study by Deborah Tannen.  Other than that, linguists are silent, except for the irrepressible Chomsky, one of the most overrated minds of all time (though I agree with much of his criticism of American imperialism).

What we see in “fun” linguistics is not serious pursuit of the truth via the tools of linguistics…but cocktail party chatter.  Fun linguistics is preoccupied with questions such as…

— Which of two expressions is correct (or “more correct”?)
— Where did this word or expression come from?
— What is the trajectory of the current cliché or buzzword?
— What slogan or saying has this or that celebrity made popular (e.g., throw under the bus)?
— What are the many meanings of this word or phrase?

That’s all I ever see.  It’s fun stuff, doesn’t hurt anybody or ruffle any feathers. William Safire has made a second livelihood out of it, and more power to him.  But he is not the only language maven in the land.

Path to Truth

What about linguistics not as a source of cocktail party chatter… or as a way to play linguistic “gotcha” games of correctness and one-upmanship — but as a legitimate branch of knowledge, as the search for truth?

What do the facts of language tell us about ourselves and the way we shape our world and manipulate each other?  If the subjects are never discussed, then all the bullshit and manipulation can continue unquestioned, and for some people that is unquestionably a good thing.

It is good to keep certain kinds of knowledge from people.

Three of the properties of language to which most people are quite blind are the ability to talk about things that are not there; the ability to assign multiple labels to the same reality; and the ability to comprehend multiple realities under one label (i.e., have different meanings), depending on one’s feelings and perspective.

From this it follows that the meaning of a phrase or word is what the speaker/writer intends it to be, provided that this meaning is also understood by the audience.  Many factors go into it, but communication is a two-way street.

BTW, I’m also a big fan of sentence diagramming, a lost art.  It really helps you to see what a string of words means.  It’s beneficial to persuaders of all kinds – clerics, politicians, marketers – for people to have limited discernment in this matter (just as the case for evolution is best kept secret from fundamentalists), and indeed they do.  Any plausible-sounding string of words is assumed to have some meaning, when all too often is it nothing more than a string of feel-good words (e.g., most New Age psychobabble).

Essence of BS

One of the simple intellectual techniques is that manipulators — notably, politicians, marketers, and clerics — would rather not be widespread… it is the ability to determine the meaningfulness of the sentence.  You would think that would be quite a simple matter.  Just decipher the grammar, figure out what each word means, and you’ve got it.

It doesn’t work that way in actual practice.  Some of the sentences we compose have multiple meanings or even contradict themselves… or have no meaning at all.  They may refer to entities that do not exist.

Yet — and this is the important point — they all SOUND as if they have meaning — they may be completely grammatical — and so one assumes that they indeed are meaningful, without applying the simple techniques of attention to words and what, if anything, they refer to in the real world.

This brings us to the essence of bullshit: the skillful intermingling of the language about the unreal (or, alternatively, vague abstractions) with language about the real, thus confusing an imaginary, subjective, fantasy world with the actual one of common experience.

By this criterion, much or most of the language of advertising, religion, and politics is bullshit.  It slides by so effortlessly, because simple techniques of understanding language — and thus understanding when it goes awry — are simply not part of the public curriculum.

The Best

You don’t have to be an academic in order to make incisive observations about language.

For decades I have admired George Carlin in his many incarnations.  I remember him on the Johnny Carson Show as a fast-talking newscaster and as Al Sleet, The Hippy-Dippy Weather Man (“Tomorrow’s high – whenever I get up, man.”).

The Seven Words routine was classic.  Years ago I played it in my linguistics classes to teach that they’re just words.  Typically, one or two students would walk out.

Of course, I, as an academic/practical linguist, appreciate Carlin’s linguistic genius most of all his talents.

Years ago, I was astonished by Lenny Bruce’s boldness.   He was right.  They’re just WORDS.

Regrettably, we have made little progress, and there were always plenty of targets for Carlin’s brilliant wit and laser logic.  Especially about taboo words.

Here’s a great summary of Carlin as linguist:

I could hardly improve on that, but I can elaborate a bit on Carlin’s linguistic genius.  His cleansing truth about words and meanings has done humanity more good than all the politicians in Washington combined (and their sniveling media flacks).  Throw in all the academic linguists too.

Iconoclasts and challengers of the taboo, especially language taboos, are needed now, as they always have been. They’re just WORDS.

I for one would like to see people chill out about fuck and let it, in its many uses, add to the expressiveness of the language.  If you really want to fucking emphasize a word, there’s no better way to do it…or to show your displeasure and disrespect (a “fucking idiot” is worse than a mere “idiot”).

The usage of this word alone, with its taboos (it’s just a WORD), would fill a book and probably has.  It’s a great linguistic resource.  It’s even an infix (“un-fucking-believable!”

The Truth

George Carlin did his share of fun linguistics and weird language questions…but he went WAY beyond that to tell the truth about the way we give people, through words, far too much power over us.

The tide of bullshit continues to rise, but Carlin’s statue will never be washed away.  He told the truth.