Да, да: How to irritate a linguist, Part 3

There are soooo many ways to annoy a linguist–here’s a good one.

bulgarian flag bg_971
Favorite thing that I ever heard anyone say in Bulgarian: “Ani says that our lipstick should be as red as the bottom of the flag.”  Picture source: http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Bulgaria.html

My airport shuttle pulled into a truckstop in Bulgaria, someplace between Sofia and Hissarya, so that we could all get out and stretch our legs.  I paid the nice little old bathroom attendant my 50 stotinki and walked to the stalls, feeling proud of myself because I knew how to recognize the men’s room and the ladies’ room in Bulgarian Cyrillic.  My hand froze as I reached for the door when I heard the nice little old lady scream другата, другата!!!–I spoke just enough Bulgarian to know that that means the other one, the other one!!!  You know what they say: pride comes before a fall.

For your amusement, here is an article with many correct observations, and nothing but incorrect conclusions.  The article is about the English language.  The incorrect conclusions start with the first sentence, where one is stated quite clearly, and then they continue through the body of the piece, becoming increasingly more academic/less clear.  (En clair: “in plain language, in plain English; not scrambled (e.g. a TV show).”)  For my amusement, here are some comments while I wait for the coffee to finish.  Quotes are in italics.

First sentence: English is a difficult language.  What would it even mean for a language to be “difficult?”  That children can’t learn to speak it natively?  No such language exists.  That you had trouble with it in high school?  That’s not exactly a convincing form of evidence.  That you think that people with differently-colored skin/from different parts of the country/from different social classes than you don’t speak it correctly?  Fuck you.

Second sentence: It’s irregular (teachers taught, preachers praught?), single words take on multiple meanings (‘set’ has 464 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary) and its pronunciation is fiendish (cough, though, bough, through, tough, plough).  I love the “teachers taught, preachers praught” thing–super cute–but have no idea why one would think that irregularity was any more difficult than anything else.  From a hearer’s perspective, the discriminative power of irregulars is much higher.  To think about it from a computational perspective: irregulars don’t require any processing–you just consult the equivalent of a mental “dictionary.”  In contrasts, regulars require that you chop things up (e.g. if it were teached, you’d have to separate teach and -ed) and then figure out what they were (the -ed of kissed is not pronounced the same as the -ed of hugged), and then look up what they meant.  You can argue that the claim that I’m making here about increased discriminative power for the hearer means increased memory load for the speaker, and you’d be right–which is why linguists don’t bother talking about this kind of thing very much.  You quickly come back to the question that I raised about the first sentence: what would it even mean to be a “difficult language?”

The author continues:

This isn’t only about our famous English sarcasm. It’s a sign that the words themselves are not as reflective of our thought as, perhaps, they should be. When I say, ‘I beg your pardon’, I can mean ‘I apologise’, ‘I didn’t hear you’, or most probably ‘I’m absolutely fuming at what you said’. No wonder English is famed for being such a tricky language to learn, if what we’re trying to get across is based really on our tone of voice more than anything else.

Does the author really believe that this is something that is unique to English?  As far as I can tell: yes, he does.  But: it isn’t.  Here’s an example from Bulgarian:

Да, да.

What those words are: yes, yes.  What that means: No.  You can tell the difference from the intonation.  Is that kind of thing interesting?  Absolutely.  Is it in any way unique to English?  No.

…single words take on multiple meanings…  From my perspective, that is a confusion about what a “word” is.  If a word is a relationship between a sound and a meaning, then the thing to say here would be that there are multiple words in the language, some of which sound the same as other words.  If that’s the case: big deal.  Do you know of any languages where that’s not the case?  I don’t.

…and that, my friends, is yet another way to irritate a linguist: say dumb shit about how special Language X is because you don’t know anything about any other language, and therefore don’t actually have anything to compare it to.  (The author does mention Mandarin, but what he says about it is too stupid uninformed for me to respond to before I’ve had another cup of coffee.  Back reviewing grant proposals–computational linguistics isn’t all beer and pétanque

5 thoughts on “Да, да: How to irritate a linguist, Part 3”

  1. Yes, but how many languages DO you speak? And which IS the most difficult …. are there any you can’t learn? I am kidding. I learned Russian in school for 6 years but I don’t speak Russian. I lived in Italy for a couple of years but sitting in an Italian restaurant in Briancon on Sunday I understood the frantic passionate discourses between the staff perfectly (and some of them were very funny) but struggled to converse with our serveur in what I would consider to be anything near to fluency. I am a native speaker of English English therefore I find English easy as pie to understand and speak. All its nuances are natural to me. All languages have different nuances and I think it is in the how and why and what circumstances you learn a language in that makes it ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ not in the construction of the language which will always be un-natural unless you learned it by the wondrous osmosis that happens in infancy. I think. And I also thank you again for that wonderful clip you sent me which has been my soundtrack now for a fortnight.

    Liked by 2 people

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