Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Defense of Prescriptivism

This defense by Noam Chomsky of linguistic prescriptivism is actually similar to my view on many fields beyond grammar, such as theology, art, morality, legality. None of the propositions in these fields have any truth value, just as no one linguistic rule is proper, but it is a worthwhile thing, nonetheless, to know the rules. "[T]hey are part of a repository of a very rich cultural heritage."

Q. In College English in 1967, you wrote that “a concern for the literary standard language—prescriptivism in its more sensible manifestations—is as legitimate as an interest in colloquial speech.” Do you still believe that a sensible prescriptivism is preferable to linguistic permissiveness? If so, how would you define a sensible prescriptivism?

A. I think sensible prescriptivism ought to be part of any education. I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on because that’s a real cultural system, and an important cultural system. They should certainly know it and be inside it and be able to use it freely. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. You don’t have to teach people their native language because it grows in their minds, but if you want people to say, “He and I were here” and not “Him and me were here,” then you have to teach them because it’s probably wrong. The nature of English probably is the other way, “Him and me were here,” because the so-called nominative form is typically used only as the subject of the tense sentence; grammarians who misunderstood this fact then assumed that it ought to be, “He and I were here,” but they’re wrong. It should be “Him and me were here,” by that rule. So they teach it because it’s not natural. Or if you want to teach the so-called proper use of shall and will—and I think it’s totally wild—you have to teach it because it doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if you want to teach people how to make passives you just confuse them because they already know, because they already follow these rules. So a good deal of what’s taught in the standard language is just a history of artificialities, and they have to be taught because they’re artificial. But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t know them. They should know them because they’re part of the cultural community in which they play a role and in which they are part of a repository of a very rich cultural heritage. So, of course, you’ve got to know them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Hanah: Charlie has learned that really annoying technique where I ask him to take one bite of his food, so he picks up a nearly invisible molecule of food and eats it.

Scott: Time to put him up for adoption.

Hanah: Fortunately, he's being extra-cute at the same time.

Very clever of him.

Hanah: Yes, it's all part of his plan to take over the world.

He's the Kwisatz Haderach!

the what?

I can't believe you thought you could bring forth the Kwisatz Haderach before his time!


Ah. Apropos of nothing, you should read Dune.

I did once, but I didn't understand it.

It's Dune, not Finnegan's Wake.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Works Cited

This is the one and only passage in the New Testament in which Jesus is called a carpenter. The word used, TEKTŌN, is typically applied in other Greek texts to anyone who makes things with his hands; in later Christian writings, for example, Jesus is said to have made "yokes and gates." ... How could someone with that background be the Son of God?

This was a question that the pagan opponents of Christianity took quite seriously; in fact, they understood the question to be rhetorical. Jesus obviously could not be a son of God if he was a mere TEKTŌN. The pagan critic Celsus particularly mocked Christians on this point, tying the claim that Jesus was a "woodworker" into the fact that he was crucified (on a stake of wood) and the Christian belief in the "tree of life."

And everywhere they speak in their writings of the tree of life... I imagine because their master was nailed to a cross and was a carpenter by trade. So that if he happened to be thrown off a cliff or pushed into a pit or suffocated by strangling, or if he had been a cobbler or stonemason or blacksmith, there would have been a cliff of life above the heavens, or a pit of resurrection, or a rope of immortality, or a blessed stone, or an iron of love, or a holy hide of leather.

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus

Sunday, November 07, 2010

On Flashcards

I happened upon a post arguing against the usefulness of flashcards for language learners. I thought it was wrong, or at least the arguments advanced for the conclusion were wrong: my actual opinion is all this anecdotal evidence is junk.

Nonetheless, you can read the author's original argument here, where he argues flashcards are useless as they 1. create a particularly slow set of associations in the learner's brain inappropriate for actual language use and 2. wrongly reinforce the notion that there is a one to one correspondence between words in different languages. My original comment follows.

Both counts are wrong.

1. The Slowness of the Association

I'm not sure how other people experience it, but when I learn a language it's only at first that my brain goes through the long slog of conjugation charts, etc. For example, let's say a flashcard contains the word "dūcet."

Now when I'm first learning the word, I'll think:

1. dūcere means to lead
2. third conjugation, so the -e infix represents the future tense.
3. -t ending gives third person singular.
4. Now (in my head) I reach the English phrase "he will lead."
5. (then my brain will very quickly decode what is meant by "he will lead" in English. Since I grew up speaking English, this is fast enough to be automatic. I may see a mental picture of a man leading, or just have a wordless sense of what it means.)

This is a slow process. But as the flashcard comes up again and again, the different steps get elided over. Each step becomes as automatic as the last one, the one where an English sentence is decoded. Until, within a short amount of time, when I see dūcet, I simply understand it means (he will lead). Or when I see a -t ending in general I think third person. And really this is all we do when we learn languages--we gather information, learn the patterns from that information and apply them.

Really I don't see how this is any different than any other method of learning vocabulary. When I was a child my parents would point to my ears and ask what they were. At first I would have to think about it, just as I had to think about dūcet, but eventually the association became fast enough to be automatic. And now I just think "ears." If I'm in the middle of a Spanish sentence, I think "orejas." Associations between concepts and words have to be formed--it's simply a question of the best way.

The benefit to flashcards, especially the Anki program, is this process is very quick, not to mention the added benefit of it scheduling easy words rarely and hard words often. I don't need to go find my parents and have them point at my body parts. I just click a button, and it takes half a second.

Moreover, I can create a massive amount of flash cards and learn a massive amount of vocabulary in a single day with Anki--something that would be much slower if I had to learn through some alternative way--looking at pictures, or reading Wikipedia articles on the topic, etc. I can't conceive of a faster way.

II. You'll Believe in Word to Word Associations.

Well, yeah, if you believe the cards represent that, then you'll come to believe that one word is a perfect substitute for another. But why would you believe that in the first place, since it's, as you point out, so patently false?

Let's go back to dūcere. On the back side of the card, it says "to lead." Does that mean that I believe "to lead" and "dūcere" are exact translations? Of course not. I realize that the words mean roughly the same thing, but that of course the overlap is not perfect. Perhaps dūcere means several things (it does)--in which case, I simply add other translations to the back of the card. Or perhaps it means one thing in one context, and one thing in another? In that case one card can be "dūcere [referring to time]" and "dūcere [referring to people]."

Again, the only reason that a belief in a one to one correspondence between the term and its translation would get reinforced is if you already believed that in the first place. If instead you're intelligent enough to realize all translations are necessarily somewhat inaccurate (See Quine), then there's no problem. I know that the answers are just rough translations (though I can make them very specific if I like).

Plus you're somewhat caricaturing the flashcard system with the example of three as "три" or "трёх". That's not a problem: it's easy enough to write "three (gen)."

Now the answer is only трёх. The reverse card would be трёх with the answer "three (gen, acc an, prep)" [genitive, accusative animate, prepositional]. You can make your flashcards as precise as you like. One of my Latin cards, for example, reads "large sea [animal], anything ranging from a shark to a whale". Cēta, ae, f.

It's true that this definition will be missing something. But so will any association [got] through any method! If you only learn your words by, e.g., reading articles about that topic, then you will have learned the meaning of the word in that context--but you don't know every context in which the word will show up, either, and so the association you've formed is partial as well.

Dictionaries, however, are specifically designed to collect the meanings of words (in all their contexts). Thus, paired with flashcards, they serve as very direct ways of learning the usage of words, as opposed to other systems not specifically designed to capture and teach the meaning of word. I could, to the contrary, listen to a word in several sentences and take a guess at what it means--but it's much easier to just open a dictionary or ask an English speaker.

In short, flashcards are a great way to learn. They are not sufficient to master a language--if you want to be better at writing, you'll have to practice writing, if you want to be a better speaker, you'll have to practice speaking--but are a very useful tool.

The author replies in the same post linked to above.

Update: I went back to the original post to respond to the criticism of my original comment, but it appears that comment has been deleted (though it still shows up on a Google search). I don't know why, but I suppose it means I was right about something.

My comments at the site in question are now being altered by the site author. For the record, the other comment I left read, before being edited:

It is, of course, your blog, and you're welcome to enforce whatever policy you like, but I think it's a shame that debate on such an interesting and important language issue was shut down.

I've also preserved my comment (I only made one) on my own blog:

Readers are welcome to judge for themselves whether the comment was useful or merely argumentative.

Dvořák Symphonies

I have a collection of the complete Dvořák symphonies, which I usually listen to in order from the beginning. They say the early symphonies are rubbish, but I was still excited to listen to them the first time: they say the same thing about Tchaikovsky's, but of these even the first three are fun works. But Dvořák's really aren't--they're dull affairs, completely missing the evident genius of the latter works.

So now, when I listen straight through, I try to pick out the point where the symphonies go from bad to good. With Tchaikovsky, this is ridiculously easy. The leap in quality between the third and fourth symphonies is plain as day*: fun work gives way to masterpiece. It's even easier with Beethoven or Mahler or Brahms, who didn't write bad symphonies. Mozart did, but that's because he wrote his first one two months before being born.

With Antonin, the matter's fuzzier, but I peg the third movement of the fourth as the first showing something engaging and interesting, and by the first movement of the fifth, we've definitely reached quality.

*We're taught to avoid clichés, but what alternative sounds better than this? "Crystal clear" or "night and day" would be equally bad; "very clear" gives the same meaning, but there's also an admonition against the use of "very" -- and "plain as day" at least has an earthy feel to it that the Latinate "very" lacks, the latter always giving a sense of desperation ("I mean really really clear, here!") -- and "pellucid" would be pretentious, as would working in any foreign language synonym, whereas non-stressed alternatives: "clear," "evident," "obvious" lack the punch needed. "Is as clear as the composer was gay" is rather gangly.

Works Cited

This kind of continuous writing is called scriptuo continua, and it obviously could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand a text. ... what would it mean to say lastnightatdinnerisawabundanceonthetable? Was this a normal or a supernormal event?

Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus