March 27th, 2006

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Linguistics; one more "even" example....

I fell over a wonderful example of the use of "even" last night, in the February 2006 issue of Discover. The source is an interview by Susan Kruglinski (on pp. 18-19) with physicist/mathematician Peter Woit. On page 19, the interviewer asks Woit why his blog is called "Not Even Wrong." And he responds:

"It's a famous quote from Wolfgang Pauli, a physicist from the earlier part of the last century. ... Pauli supposedly was asked about some paper, and he just described it as 'not even wrong,' meaning that it's just so ill-defined that you can't even tell if it's wrong or not."

I wonder if this is a productive use of "even." That is, would it be meaningful to say of a novel that it's "not even boring" or to say of somebody's house that it's "not even dirty" or to say of someone's behavior that it's "not even wicked" ... that sort of thing? Maybe it's only going to be comprehensible in the rarified world of scholarly papers, in fields where it's possible to say unambiguously that something is either right or wrong, with no middle ground.
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Linguistics; medical language; conscious awareness

In the context of our recent discussion about why the language of linguists is so often almost impossible to understand, I said "Have you ever watched a tv spot where a reporter pleads with an MD to 'explain that to our viewers in ordinary English' and the doctor tries version after version without ever managing to do that? The same thing happens with linguists." And lyonesse commented:

"just to ask, how do you think the english speaker with the md is supposed to be able to know what english is "ordinary" and what is "extraordinary"? do you think markers for this feature exist in every speaker's language, and if so, what causes a word or phrase to be marked thusly? and if marked, do you think this linguistic feature is consciously accessible to the speaker when they're speaking spontaneously? heaven knows that other, far-better-documented features (syntactic class, noun case, verb tense) are often quite opaque to their producers."

The manner of speaking that I've been calling "MDeitySpeak" is called a "register" -- meaning a manner of speaking that is tightly linked to a particular role in an individual's life, and that is typically used by everyone who fills that role. If I am understanding her correctly, lyonesse is asking at least four questions; I'll do my best to answer them below without lapsing into the linguistics register.

1. Do I believe that native speakers of MDeitySpeak are consciously aware of its grammar?

Only in the limited sense that native speakers of English (or any other language/dialect/register acquired natively) are consciously aware of its grammar. They are aware of things they've been taught, the way native speakers of English are aware of things about English they've learned in "language arts" classes. If a medschool prof tells a medical student specifically that "Doctors never say 'I don't know' -- remember that!", the chances are good that the student will retain conscious access to that chunk of information.

2. Do I believe that native speakers of MDeitySpeak can access that grammar deliberately and systematically?

Yes, I do -- although, because they have little conscious awareness of the grammar, they're unlikely to be able to explain how they do that, or to be able to recite or write down the rules they're following. Native speakers of English who are asked to recite or write the rule for constructing an English question that can be answered with "yes" or "no" are ordinarily unable to do that -- but they are able to demonstrate their ability to access that rule deliberately and systematically, because when you ask them to give you an example of such a question they can do it immediately and without hesitation. People learn various registers of their language as they learn various roles in life. The little boy who says "Goodby, Dr. Anderson" to the pediatrician, "Bye, Mom!" to his mother, and "Later, dude!" to a friend is demonstrating the ability to shift deliberately and systematically among three different registers. Adult physicians are capable of the same feat, although there are individual medpros who -- for a variety of reasons -- are unwilling in public to give up the armor that MDeitySpeak provides.

3. Do I believe that the mechanism of access -- that is, the index that the native speaker uses to retrieve information about MDeitySpeak from memory -- is something like a feature [+MDeitySpeak] on items of the register?

I don't believe that it's literally the case; we have no idea, in physiological terms, how to describe the "physical appearance" of items of language in the human mind. But metaphorically, that's a perfectly appropriate way of describing the situation. You could just say that a word like "nephrolithiasis" or a gesture like hand-steepling is marked in the mental grammar with the feature [+MDeitySpeak] so that the speaker can retrieve it efficiently.

4. If the answer to #3 is yes, what do I believe causes that feature to become attached to the items?

The individual is told specifically, during the course of medical training, that a particular item is characteristic of "the way doctors talk" and makes a note of that. The individual notices a particular item of speech or of body language that other doctors use consistently, and learns that item independently. The individual reads an article in a medical journal on "How to Talk to Your Difficult Patient" and learns one or more items that way. The individual greatly admires some other doctor and tries hard to model his or her language behavior on that doctor's language behavior -- perhaps even going so far as to take notes and make lists and memorize their contents. Each time something like this happens, the doctor [metaphorically] identifies the item of MDeitySpeak, attaches the feature [+MDeitySpeak] to the item, and stores it in her or his longterm memory.