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  • The Diacritics 5:49 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: comparative linguistics, joke, , philosophy of language, Sidney Morgenbesser   

    Linguistics joke 

    Classmate JJ Snidow told me this joke, but it was supposedly an actual exchange between Oxford Philosophy of Language Professor J.L. Austin and Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (who was apparently the man?)

    “In English,” Professor Austin said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”

    A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

    Isn’t linguistics funny?

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    • johnwcowan 6:04 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      The version I heard was simply “Yeah, yeah”, which IMHO is much more of a double positive.

    • Stan 7:41 am on September 14, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      It’s a good joke. Have you seen it in cartoon form?

    • Alex 1:28 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Isn’t this one attributed to Sidney Morgenbesser?

    • Helena Constantine 9:41 pm on October 2, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Actually, I would say that even in English a double negative becomes a positive only via learned hypercorrection.

    • Jristz 12:11 am on December 5, 2013 Permalink | Reply

      In spanish double negatve is strong negative, double poitive is strong positive and sarcasm switch both

      That is so helpful

  • The Diacritics 9:00 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , ,   

    Frenemy, pls refudiate haters 

    Posted by Sandeep

    Around every new year, I have fun looking at different dictionaries’ and publications’ lists of “the new words” of the year. Sociolinguistic commentators always have a field day around every January: Some loudly lament the decline of English, and others marvel at the flexibility of our language. Everyone seems to love a good invective against modern society—but why do we care about change in language so much?

    Natural systems are dynamic; any scientist will argue that. But most things man-made—from buildings to morals—strive to achieve an intrinsic stability. Nature fluctuates, but the concrete and the abstract of man-made creations are designed to be constant. Language, one of the most fundamentally human of characteristics, straddles this dichotomy. It is at once a natural system encoded into society and into the human brain—an ability to process and synthesize communicative gestures of the same species—as well as a synthetic system based on arbitrarily assigning sounds and symbols to the human experience.

    As such, language might be torn between natural drift and conscious shift in ways that no mathematical or historical model will ever be able to describe or predict.

    Amid this complexity, change in language—a perceived or documented shift in semantics, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, or writing—has engaged humanity because it is associated with some of the most important elements of the human condition: culture, identity and the origin of man.

    We know at least some of the why of language change. Cultures attack, conquer and interact with one another. Language academies are created and maintained for the explicit purpose of standardizing written and spoken forms because there’s a historically and geographically universal perception that society in general and language in particular is falling precipitously from a refined past. Certain forms of grammar and vocabulary are stigmatized and others are praised; the same ones might be conversely mocked and admired by different groups. The inherent variability in the human experience, a necessary component for any change, allows that when different cultures interact, there is a productive exchange of ideas and language.

    This is all well and good. We can name what has happened and offer some explanations as to why these changes occurred. I have shown above that language is inconstant: This much every linguistics student knows. But if language is a man-made system, then it was created to be constant. Man works toward homeostasis.

    Language, ostensibly, arose because certain neural pathways more complex than those of our predecessors allowed for abstract thought and the use of symbols. This adaptive development allowed for complex social interactions and communication that made one Homo species more fit than another.

    And yet, as humans, we—by the same or different neural mechanisms—are capable of reflection on our behavior in a way that hasn’t been observed in other animals. So for the entire history of our species, where we are today is as much a product of natural forces as it is deliberate choice. Taken into context, if humans use language to communicate, and if language is useless without facilitating communication, then we ask why vocabulary isn’t finite and syntax isn’t fixed—this would seem to be the most effective way to ensure meaningful interaction. But the point is that it’s not.

    This problem has occupied researchers and still isn’t resolved—but will it ever be?

    It seems to me that change in language might be such a complex, multifaceted, multivariable process that we may never be able to understand how all of the forces work together in one whole, coherent way such that we’ll be able to competently describe or predict past and future change in every respect. Language is natural and synthetic and neither, and it displays trends characteristic of both and none. Human behavior, the human mind and human interactions are all inconceivably complex variables. Linguists might always be consigned to dividing up language change into neat parcels and analyzing the hell out of each. This might not be such a desperate thing to do.

    As long as we recognize that the entirety of language change defies conclusive explanation, we can concern ourselves with functional explanations of certain trends in a way that is useful and productive.

    Even if we don’t fully understand the mechanisms and processes of language change, it would be silly to believe that our language is declining: It’s difficult to objectively characterize any change as degradation. We’re not moving toward some end-goal, no matter what sort of a harbinger the “texting generation” is. The truth is that every generation has always experienced language change and called it decline. Change is just change.

    As far as I’m concerned, the “new words of the year” lists are only useful in reminding me how woefully square (we’re still using that word, right?) I am.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on January 13, 2011.)

     
    • JP 9:57 am on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Like this piece, except, maybe, the third paragraph. It works well rhetorically, but we don’t really know that. Got here via languagehat.com and think I will be a regular..:-) Saudações from Brazil.
      Ricardo.

    • johnwcowan 3:45 pm on September 13, 2011 Permalink | Reply

      Well, we don’t always seek homeostasis. In particular, we know that some language change happens in order to differentiate an in-group: notable cases are the characteristic Martha’s Vineyard phonology, which is actually more common in young people now than it is among their parents (who were trying to assimilate to off-islander English), and the Northern Cities Chain Shift, which seems to be a way of differentiating white Northern Americans from black Americans and Canadians.

      • The Diacritics 11:34 am on September 22, 2011 Permalink | Reply

        Right. There are a few really well-known examples of people consciously changing their speech. What I meant to say was that at any given point, people want stability in their language — it wouldn’t do to have the meaning of, say, “table” change from day to day. We seek homeostasis in describing our world within our communities.

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