Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Linguistic Ju-Jitsu: Boot to the Head of the English Language

Let's get something clear, right off the bat:

English sux. There's just no way around it. The language is so imperfect that it makes everything we base off of it flawed in some way. Sure, it can be beautiful, manipulated into something artful, but in the end it's infuriatingly imprecise.

Which may say even more for those humans have found a way to make it into a masterpeice, i.e., Shakespear, Dickons, Twain, Stephen Colbert...

But today's lesson in Linguistic Ju-Jitsu focuses on just one aspect of the English language's imperfection. And to be fair, it's more of the user's fault than the medium's:

that of DEFINITIONS vs DESCRIPTIONS.

No, idiotic-kid-in-my-philosophy-class-that-tries-to-look-smart-by-interjecting-into-every-single-comment-that-is-made-with-some-wannabe-intelligent-sounding-input, they are NOT the same. It's a simple question of nouns vs adjectives vs verbs and another not-so-simple question of the word "is."

Firstly, Nouns vs Adjectives vs Verbs:

1. A Noun is an object, enjoyably defined by School House Rock as "a person, place, or thing." Nouns have substance, in that they are a "thing."

2. Adjectives are not "things." An adjective cannot really be anything by itself. For kicks and giggles, though, lets try it:

Huge.

Funny.

Never-changing.

Wet.

Praetertranssubstantiationalistically.

Hmm. Nope. None of those adjectives are "things." They are all just descriptive words that mean nothing without a noun attached somehow. Good try though.

3. Verbs say what something does, not what something is. Verbs don't describe a noun, they tell what it does. However, we often use verbs to describe things:

"Micheal Jordan plays basketball." As if that is what Micheal Jordan is. Sports commentators keep your rebuttals to yourself for now, please.

Secondly: The Absurdity of the word "is"

The second half of the conundrum lies in the word "is." What a ridiculous word. The word "is" envelopes about fifty different ideas, which makes it difficult at times to be clear what we mean when we use it. Other languages, like Spanish, split these ideas up into different words. Lets look at the words "ser" and "estar." Thanks to studyspanish.com for the following, consice explanation.

"Ser and estar can both be translated as "to be." Notice that theses two sentences have different meanings in English:

The apple is green.
(Meaning the apple is not ripe.)

The apple is green.
(Meaning the color of the apple is green.)

In the first case, our example speaks of the condition of the apple. The apple is green because it has not yet ripened. When the condition of the apple changes, that is, when it has ripened, it will no longer e green, it will be ripe.

In the second case, our example speaks of the essential characteristics of the apple. The apple is green in color. This particular apple remains green even after it has ripened.

In English, the verb "to be" can be used to how something is (the condition) and what something is (the essence).

How is the apple?
It is unripe.

What color is the apple?
It is green.

In spanish, a different verb is used to express "to be" depending on whether the speaker intends to address a condition or an essential quality.

La manzana está verde.
The apple is green. (condition)

La manzana es verde.
The apple is green. (essense)

Note how the adjective "verde" actually changes meaning, depending upon whether it is used with ser or estar.

La manzana está verde.
(condition: verde = unripe)

La manzana es verde.
(essential characteristic: verde = color green)

If you are talking about what something is, use ser: if you are talking about how something is, use estar."

Unfortunately, english has no way to distinguish between these two ideas without using a whole lot more breath. That's why when I ask "What is water?" I can get so many different answers vis-a-vis "Wet," "clear," or "one hydrogen atom bonded to two oxygen atoms."

When I (or a philosopher) ask you what something is, I am asking you for the essential characteristics of the object. Definitions deal with essential characteristics (ser) and what a thing is, while adjectives deal with conditions (estar) and how a thing is.

Finally: Put it All Together

Definitions tell you what a thing is. To do that, definitions use nouns. You cannot define something with nothing but adjectives. You can describe something with adjectives, but you have only stated the conditions and/or features of the object without actually saying what it is. Unfortunately, the English language (and colloquial bad-habit-ing) leads us to believe that we can define something with only adjectives, but YOU CAN'T SO GET OVER IT.

Lets try it.
What is water?

Water is wet and clear. Sometimes its hard and cold, and other times its hot and steamy. It's pretty much everywhere. It's in the clouds, in the oceans, and in the rivers and lakes, too. It gives life to nearly everything.
Nice try. I still don't know what water is from this. All I've got are descriptions water, but no definitive answer as to what it is. Notice that there are NO NOUNS associated with water itself, but with how it is, where it is, and what it does.

What is water?

Water is the liquid that descends from the clouds as rain, forms streams, lakes, and seas, and is a major constituent of all living matter and that when pure is an odorless, tasteless, very slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H2O which appears bluish in thick layers, freezes at 0° C and boils at 100° C, has a maximum density at 4° C and a high specific heat, is feebly ionized to hydrogen and hydroxyl ions, and is a poor conductor of electricity and a good solvent. Thanks Webster.
Notice how there are nouns that apply directly to the object in question: "the liquid that...", "a major constituent of...", and "a... slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H2O."

Also note that verbs are used extensively. "Water falls from the sky" does not define water, but "water is the liquid that descends..." is on its way.


It is not the presence or absence of nouns/adjectives/verbs that distinguish a definition from a description, but rather how they are used. Are the nouns referred to the object itself, or to something describing the object?
i.e., "water is a poor conductor of electricity" vs "water is the slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H2O... [which] is a poor conductor of electricity."
Are the adjectives used to describe the object or to describe the noun thats referring to the object
i.e., "water is wet and clear" vs "water is the liquid that is wet and clear and..."
And finally, what is subject of the verb, the word in question or the noun used to define the word?
i.e., "water gives life" vs "water is the very slightly compressible liquid oxide of hydrogen H2O that gives life."

IN CONCLUSION, YOU SCRUBS

If I describe something to you, that DOES NOT, in fact, tell you what it is. Unfortunately, the english language is so messed up that it's easy to think otherwise. But for all you supposed philosophers out there, this is a principle you need to get down before you start spouting metaphysics at me in large quantities.

Not that I have anything against metaphysics, but seriously, how do you expect anyone to understand you when you can't properly wield the prevailing medium of philosophy:

the Word. (chew on that one)



P.S.

Praetertranssubstantiationalistically. (37 letters), used in Mark McShane's Untimely Ripped (1963)

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