Wednesday 25 November 2015

“Be Yourself”? Part II

Much as I have enjoyed badmouthing postmodernism in revenge for the years of tedium it inflicted upon me, I have to admit, as I mentioned at the end of Postmodern Shibboleths, I have found discussions of “the subject” to be useful, relevant and meaningful.   Postmodernists will tend to identify challenges to the unity and stability of the ego with Lacan, and the ephemeral nature of the individual self with Derrida’s claim that “the subject is never equivalent to itself”--which is sort of an update of Heraclitus' observation that "you can't step into the same river twice."

It seems pretty obvious that the self, the individual, the person you think of as you is constantly changing.  Every time a new thought enters your head, every time you think a thought about yourself, or you have a new experience, in fact, with every breath you take you are not quite the same person you were an instant ago.  

From a purely physical (and physics) point of view every single molecule of your body is replaced in the space of seven years.  The guy who’s been in jail for eight years is, physically, a completely different person from the criminal convicted of his crime. 

We might roll our eyes at the medieval King Alfred who had a dying subject locked in a lead box so that he could see his subject’s soul rising from his body, but without the fiction of something like a soul or immortal spirit or some individual essence making us each the same person from birth to death our religions, our cultural, social, political and legal systems, our epistemology, all our ways of thinking, knowing and understanding the world could not survive. 

The playwright Pirandello argued that the characters of fiction are more “real” than the people we think of as real because they are more enduring.  Characters remain the same forever but people are constantly changing. 

Tuesday 17 November 2015

“Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear!” Really?

It's a mirror!?

“Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”  Just to be absolutely clear for the Alice-in-Wonderlanders, there are no objects in your mirror. Duhh, it’s a mirror!

Gamers know

Video-gamers familiar with the expression “All your base are belong to us” will immediately recognize “Objects in mirror . . .” as a Japanese translation into English.  This particular example should alert us to the easy, random and illogical fashion in which the English language gets transformed.  

Correct syntax

I can’t perceive any advantage in the erroneous “objects in mirror” claim over the correct if telegraphic English of “Objects are closer than they appear in mirror.”  Yet, we would have to assume that any youngster riding shotgun and looking at an automobile’s side mirror will grow up thinking “objects in mirror” is correct English and, in contrast, the appropriate syntax sounds a little strange.

Cut your teacher some slack!

This is a plea to all students to cut your English teachers a little slack.  If you have found real-life examples that contradict what your teachers have told you, it’s not because your teachers don’t know their business.  The way language is used doesn’t always make sense and, over time, language usage becomes the language period. Whatever rule or definition you have learned, there's a pretty good chance that eventually someone who has unwitting power over English language usage (advertiser, spin doctor, celebrity, rapper, computer guru, etc.) will break the rule or contradict the definition turning the mistake into the latest version of correct English.  

Mistakes and oversights

I am still irked when I hear the vainglorious announcement of a politician being named to head an “oversight committee.”  Doesn’t anyone remember the definition of an “oversight”?  It is “the failure to notice or do something.”  It is synonymous with “a mistake.”  Congratulations Mr. Big Britches, you have just been put in charge of the “mistakes committee.”

Less and fewer

I’m pretty sure, these days, that most TV commentators couldn’t construct a complete sentence using the word “fewer” if their lives depended on it. The distinction between “fewer” and “less” is the same as between “many” and “much,” “”few” and “little,” “number of” and “amount of.”  In other words, the distinction runs throughout the English language.  If it continues to disappear, “The amount of panhandlers has decreased because less people have much coins in their pockets” will eventually become correct English.  Unless, of course, this sentence already sounds okay to you.

Language gets simpler over time.  Does it?

The theoretical argument in linguistics is that the language gets simpler over time.  English used to have “you” and “thou” (like the “vous” and “tu” in French), but now we only use "you." English has a distinction between “there is” and “there are” (French has only “il y a” for both), but “There’s 50 people waiting outside” has become a fairly common form of English usage.  You might have heard the slogan for Labatt 50 beer:  “There’s 50 good reasons to have a 50.” The distinction in English between "there is" and "there are" is on the verge of extinction, if it hasn't already disappeared.

Learning and pattern recognition

You might think that English not having any solid rules will make it easier to learn; in fact, exactly the opposite is the case.  All learning is a matter of pattern recognition.  If the patterns of the language are constantly being broken and reconfigured, the language becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible, to master.

Language learning and the double standard

You might think that if English is a language whose rules are constantly being broken, the second-language learner can relax, knowing that just about anything goes.  Welcome to the double standard!  The typical native speaker of English assumes that whatever feels right is right. If a native speaker detects that you are a second-language learner, there is an immediate assumption that s/he knows more than you do.  The truth is that if you learned some of your English in a classroom, you know more about English grammar than the average native speaker.


Unfortunately, your knowledge of English grammar will probably cause you to make mistakes.  The most typical mistake that language learners make is to over-apply the rules that they have learned.  (Add "ed" to form the past tense, therefore the past of "eat" must be "eated" right?)  Native speakers are constantly breaking the rules and it's alright because they are . . . native speakers. Agreed, life isn't fair.

However, if you have ever been made to feel foolish, inadequate, even stupid because you made a mistake in English; take heart, the language itself is pretty stupid.

Tina Turner heard it through the grapevine.

Former student just posted this on Facebook.  Thanks Max.  Thought this would be a good spot to add it:

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