Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Noam Chomsky and Lucy the Chimpanzee


So my turn to chime in on the use of words like "whatnot"; "anyways" or "irregardless".

In college I had the "misfortune", to take a linguistics course. :0 I thought this would be cool being an English major and relatively easy. This was one of the hardest courses I ever took!

If you don't believe me, look up linguistics or Noam Chomsky on wikipedia.

My professor back in the day mentioned there was Theory A of grammar and Theory B of grammar. Theory A is Craig's position on grammar. There are distinct rules to language and language in use, and the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is the Truth with a capital "T" of what word is "correct" and which word is not and is less formal or slang. Theory A are words that you can use in a interview.

I remember back in the day. "Got" was not a word to use, "Like" used like this "She was like, I will go to the store"; and my father's pet peeve when I said. "I should have went" when proper grammar is "I should have gone". And of course, "really" the adverb is supposed to have an "ly" at the end, but really who says that anymore. No one. We all say, "Wow, the game was real close".

Theory B, is language in use: that language evolves and forms its own rules as it gets understood and accepted by others. You will see that the words above are probably all used today without any distinction. Meaning you can probably use "got" in an interview and not get tagged for it. I remember newscasters on the air, people we tend to think speak perfect English, even started to use "got".

I subscribe to Theory B. Words are fun. I like using words and phrases in new ways. Like my jimmyjango catch phrase or "like a squirrel to a flame". In college a friend of mine created the word "zow".

No theory is right or wrong. Both are equally valid. In Theory B's defense, it "wins" in that eventually Theory A people will admit a word is "proper" once it hits the OED which supports language in use. And in Theory A's defense, I don't think the following would be heard in an interview if one is smart. Interviewer: "So tell me about your award for academic excellence". Interviewee: "Well, winning that felt real jimmyjango".

Regarding "irregardless" or the use of a double negative. In English it is not considered proper to say "I don't have no money". It is considered to be a double negative as the two negatives "don't" and "no" cancel out to mean you DO have money. But in Spanish "No tengo no denero" means I don't have any money. The two negatives are use for emphasis. This makes sense to me. The same goes for irregardless. I think emphasis in our language is just fine.

So in the end, I subscribe to Theory B. Why? Because logically it allows for Theory A to exist as well as Theory B at the same time. Whereas Theory A does not allow Theory B to exist. And I like language, I am fascinated by things like computers using language and other species using the human language.

On a side note, anyone hear of Lucy the chimpanzee? I just heard a great NPR article on her and her owners, and it reminded me that Lucy dispelled the notion that only humans can use language. Now I do not mean communication. Scientists have known that animals like bees and dolphins communicate, but I think I recall scientists at some point did not think other species used language by forming words to describe its world.

Lucy learned to speak to humans with sign language. Now at first people said, well she is just "copying" signs to communicate to humans like in a Pavlovian kind of way. But she then started to use and combine her signs to express her own meaning including lying, once thought to only be a human trait. For example, and these are my own made up examples, not exact usages that Lucy may have done. Let's say she knew the sign for "dirty" and the sign for "banana". She might have said on her own when given a rotten banana to eat, "dirty banana" to mean she did not want it.

Also I find it interesting and full of human hubris to think, dolphins for example communicate with their sounds but do not use language. Well that is as far as we know. Until we have a universal translator, we may never know that what Dolphins are communicating is not just a "Danger!" noise but really are saying: "Nah, I don't want to go over there due to the tuna nets, lets go play Agricola."

And that is my two cents on language.



  1. Great blog, Raef. I am a journalist but unlike many others in the editorial department at my newspaper, I support Theory B.

  2. Good thoughts Raef. A couple of points:

    - I'm not sure the scientific position is that "Humans are the only animals with language" rather the position is "Humans are the only animals with WRITTEN language." A subtle but important difference. Although I guess it all comes down to how you define language. I'd be more impressed if Lucy had critical thinking skills and could play a decent game of chess.

    - irregardless: The problem with this silly word is that it means the SAME THING as regardless. i.e. It's nothing to do with double negative. I also hate flammable and inflammable. Silly waste of dictionary space.

    - Theory B: I generally play around with theory B in conversation but I don't hold it up as a defense when I don't do something properly.

    In the end I think the key is to use the right word for the audience. If you are sure, go with Theory B, but if you are unsure, the safety of Theory A will serve you well.

    To quote one of the great American writers who
    had no problem playing with language:

    "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." - Mark Twain