Saturday, October 3, 2009

Loose language

I've already evoked the brilliant books of the Canadian-American psychologist Steven Pinker. He's best tackled, I believe, by The Language Instinct (1994), which explains simply—as its title suggests—that we humans have an instinctive relationship (as if anybody ever doubted it) with the gift of the gab.

From a Pinkerian point of view, my blog title, Loose language, is abominable, since human language is a constantly-evolving process that should never be described as "loose". Lame, lost or lousy, maybe... but never loose, since it remains a mysterious archaic art that experienced human practitioners are constantly perfecting.

This afternoon, I was momentarily surprised to see an exhortation on the cover of a popular French science magazine: Mangez sain. Translated literally into English, that reads: Eat healthy. In grammatical terms, the adjective "healthy" has been placed into a slot that normally receives an adverb such as "healthily". Now, is this a problem that should upset me? No, not at all.

I was vaccinated by the publicity of my favorite computer company:

Apple wasn't suggesting that we should think differently in the same way that you might ask somebody to reply rapidly, to talk calmly or to argue intelligently. The "think different" exhortation simply urged viewers to adjust their thinking to a different context: that of Apple products. That's to say, it was shorthand for: Do your thinking in a different context. So, no major grammatical crime was committed.

The most striking Pinker book, to my mind, is How the Mind Works, which is guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of old-fashioned adepts of Freud. Pinker adopts a totally "mechanistic" explanation of the human mind... where my adjective in inverted commas designates everything that has been happening in computer science and brain research over the last half-century. In a nutshell, everybody knows by now that humans are magnificent machines, neither more nor less. So, why carry on talking as if there were mysterious ghosts in the machines?

As for Freud, he has been thrown out wordlessly and unceremoniously with the slops. Maybe it would have been nicer, more polite, if Pinker had pronounced a wordy eulogy concerning this well-minded Viennese quack doctor who fascinated the Western intellectual world for a century or so... and still does. History has its charms. But time wasted in talking about what we now know to be obsolete nonsense would be better devoted to catching up with the fabulous realities of contemporary science.

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