Pining for the fnords

Not a word is a phrase the volunteer grammar militia like to deploy as if it’s a tactical warhead, a megaton-level delivery of dismissal and shame meant to obliterate whatever invention or mutation is too recent to have been granted what they imagine is legitimacy by appearing in The Dictionary. It’s pretty much a paper tiger, of course, because “not a word” is not an argument, and that’s not what the dictionary is for, but at least when you see it you’re getting fair warning of exactly the kind of insufferable fusspot you’re dealing with.

Meanwhile, for most of us, a “word” is a collection of letters with a recognizable meaning, even if its usage is disreputable or in an informal register. But once in a while, the odd corners and alleys of culture give us an interesting edge case. Take, for example, the wordlike phoneme string fnord, which I’m guessing you likely haven’t stumbled across unless your social or aesthetic pursuits have brought you into the circle of the Discordians.

Discordianism is fascinating all by itself: a phemonenon unique in religious history for its commitment to being both a satire of religion and a practiceable faith in equal measure. That should give you an idea of the territory we’re entering here; as a Discordian of my acquaintance once said, “Nothing a Discordian tells you is either entirely serious or entirely in jest,” and that’s a pretty good rundown of the least you need to know when looking into the fnord question.

“Fnord” is a term without a definition (though it does have a Wikipedia entry) used by Discordians as a shorthand for Erisian weirdness, a marker of irony, and a signal of in-group mutual understanding among the initiated. It’s not quite an interjection, but it serves the function of a wink or a sly aside, like a more abstracted LOL for absurdists and anarchists. It’s a “word” invented to have no direct referent, indeed to resist all attempts at being defined; all connotation and no denotation. And in the circles where it’s used, it’s survived for half a century now, which is pretty impressive staying power for something with a meaning intended to stand as a perpetual question mark.

(Now, I can well imagine a Discordian saying that of course fnord has a definition, it’s just that the un-Illuminated are unable to grasp it. It doesn’t take long among Discordians to understand that this is part of the game. The brilliance of fnord is that it’s a mystery disguising itself as a secret, and the joke’s on anyone who can’t tell the difference between the two.)

Douglas Hofstadter, in his essay “Stuff and Nonsense” in Metamagical Themas (a work I regrettably don’t have in front of me, so I’m writing from memory here), wrote about the compelling quality of nonsense – in verse in particular, but other media as well – to suggest that there’s some key piece of information the reader is missing that would make everything clear if only it were revealed. Invented words can be perfectly compact meaning-delivery units when they’re made up of the intuitively right parts; they can also be distillations of that maddening feeling that well-crafted nonsense has to hover just at the edge of meaning without ever coming into view. And some of them slide back and forth across the slippery border between meaning and meaninglessness in interesting ways. I suppose lots of  people in the language fields find contemplating that ambiguous space disconcerting, but I’m fascinated by it, and if you are too, you should come sit next to me. Hail Eris! Fnord!

Is coding the new literacy?

There’s a conversation going on right now in the tech-industry neighborhoods of the web about the, for want of a better word, evangelistic movement to teach coding to everyone. Indeed, it’s a conversation that’s been going on for years now – but the recent writing I’ve read on it from the folks who are the movement’s most ardent defenders seem to hinge on some odd assertions.

I dipped into this subject a week or so ago when a friend linked to Quincy Larson’s article “Please do learn to code” on Medium.com’s freeCodeCamp site. Here’s what seems to be Larson’s thesis statement: “[P]rogramming is how humans talk to machines. … For computers to succeed at the jobs we’ve assigned them, they need us humans to give them extremely clear instructions. That means coding. Coding isn’t some niche skill. It really is ‘the new literacy.’” He then goes on to more or less restate:

Once a history-shaping new technology comes out of the genie bottle, you can’t put it back. This was true for airplanes, antibiotics, and nuclear warheads. And it’s true for microprocessors, the internet, and machine learning.

Those who adapt to these permanent waves of changes flourish. Those who shrug them off — or fail to even realize they exist — asymptotically approach irrelevance.

Coding is the new literacy. Like reading was in the 12th century, writing was in the 16th century, arithmetic was in the 18th century, and driving a car was in the 20th century.

It’s a bold assertion (and bolded in the original as well), and it feels compelling. But is it the right analogy? Is coding actually the new literacy? Well, not the way I understand the word.

Continue reading

A little light from the Sun

I was humbled and honored this morning to find that I and this wee upstart linguablog were the subject of a You Don’t Say column by John McIntyre, my fair city’s preeminent voice on matters of language and author of The Old Editor Says, the Dao De Jing of the editorial craft. And I’m elated, and more than a bit gobsmacked, that this site should be the subject of such esteemed attention so early in its life.

Which is to say: Welcome, new readers, who have found your way here by Mr. McIntyre’s referral! I hope you find something to entertain and intrigue you here, and I encourage you to comment if you feel so moved. And I promise you I’ve only gotten started here; there’s lots in the pipeline, and those of you who would like to stay tuned have much to look forward to, including an assault on logic, some further nattering on heraldry, a bit about squids, and the reason I’m not the audience for extended jokes involving Shakespeare. So stick around, true believers!

Nerds, passive peeving, and fantasy diction

Stan Carey has a post up that’s yetanother much-needed rant about passive voice peevery, and how self-styled grammarians who advise against its use (in the fine tradition of Messrs. Strunk and White) can invariably be relied on to not know what the heck they’re talking about. You should go read it. I’ll wait.

The term passive voice as a grammatical concept has a specific meaning. The mechanics of it are a little arcane for the layperson; Geoff Pullum, explaining it in linguistic terms as simply as he can manage in his Language Log essay “The passive in English,” admits up-front to needing about 2500 words to do the subject justice. But in practice, it’s (mostly) fairly easy to identify – my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but *Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive, no matter how much E.B. White and Mrs. Badcrumble were keen to convince you it is.

Also, as Pullum and other language writers (Carey among them; he’s had cause to write on this subject before) point out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the passive voice. It’s a useful tool in the toolbox of English speech and composition, and you can do things with it that you can’t really achieve by any other means. Depriving yourself of it because some blowhard wants to shame your prose with words like “weak” and “weaselly” and “flabby” and “flat” is giving in to that prime fallacy of the peeververein (and indeed, of grayfaced puritans everywhere), that if people might possibly do something too much they should be told not to do it at all.

(On the flip side, the good news about most people not being able to identify passives even if they’ve been bitten by them is that you can often get away with using them when you need to even if you’ve been told not to. I confess that I have, on multiple occasions, turned in work containing passive constructions at places that had misguided No Passive Voice Ever rules in their stylebooks, confident that their appearance in context was so utterly natural that it would never occur to anyone to call them out, and I was right and they didn’t.)

Anyway, seeing Carey’s rant gave me cause to remember one of my own recent experiences of spotting misidentified passive peeving in the wild, and reflect on the deleterious effect it has on a demographic I’m more than a little invested in. And so to delve deeper into this particular instance of not-actually-passive-griping, we’re going to have to talk a bit about nerds.

Continue reading

“Grammar, Stanley.”

Sometime last summer[1], I became a dedicated fan of the Disney XD animated series Gravity Falls – a show that seems to produce dedicated fans almost to the exclusion of any other kind. If your sensibilities are anything like mine, it’s easy to see why; GF is a real delight, a sort of X-files-meets-Twin Peaks-by-way-of-The Simpsons (all acknowledged influences on creator Alex Hirsch) that’s both a satire of and homage to the canon of supernatural mysteries, conspiracy thrillers, and coming-of-age stories. It’s all played for laughs, but that doesn’t stop it from having some genuinely creepy moments along the way, in the mold of the best remember-this-is-a-cartoon-for-children shows of the last two decades or so.[2] Indeed, the show’s genius in balancing those and other elements is a big part of its enduring appeal.

Another thing that’s appealing about Gravity Falls (especially to late adopters like me) is that it was always conceived as a finite story – it takes place over the course of a single summer, giving it a chance to build a genuinely sequential through-line and a story arc with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. When the show’s final episodes – the multi-part “Weirdmageddon” storyline – aired this past winter, it was the payoff to a cluster of plot seeds that had been planted early and nurtured slowly over the years of the series’ run time.

As well as being a solidly entertaining hour-plus of television (and bear with me, I promise I’m building to something language-related here), the series finale had some great moments of subverting the expectations of the type of story GF is modeled on. One of these takes place during what looks like it’s about to be the great climactic moment of victory for the heroes – the reveal of a prophecy that’s been mysteriously hinted at since the early episodes, and which is the key to defeating the series’ omnipotent, diabolical arch-villain Bill Cipher. And the sideways turn that scene takes hinges on a moment of decidedly linguistic interest.

(Hereafter be SPOILERS, obviously – not just for the series ending, but for a major reveal of one of the show’s key mysteries that happens two-thirds of the way through the second season. If you haven’t seen Gravity Falls and would rather discover its secrets in the order its creator and writers intended, this is your last chance to turn away.)

Continue reading

Bo shuda

It’s Star Wars Day, and if you’re a fan of both Star Wars and language (especially conlangs, or constructed languages), you might enjoy spending some time with The Complete Wermo’s Guide to Huttese, which opens up with some of the real-world origins of the alien language spoken in the films:

According to the Behind the Magic CD-Rom, Ben Burtt derived the Huttese language from the ancient Incan dialect, Quechua. He based many phrases on samples from a language exercise tape. I have found a site that gives lessons on Quechua and have found a few Quechua words used in the Star Wars saga. The first word is ‘tuta.’ In Episode I the phrase “Sebulba tuta Pixelito” is used meaning “Sebulba from Pixelito.” The Quechua ‘tuta’ however used in this phrase: “Imarayku kunan tuta,” means “For this night past.” Another word is ‘chawa.’ “Neek me chawa wermo,” said Sebulba: “Next time we race,” but in Quechua, ‘chawa’ means ‘uncooked.’ And although ‘tullpa’ which means “cooking spot in a kitchen” is not an exact spelling of ‘tolpa’ (Tolpa da bunky dunko=Then you can go home) the pronunciation is identical. Thus we can gather that Quechua is not Huttese itself but it is a model Ben Burtt used for the style and sound of Huttese. According to some sources, the scene where Greedo encounters Han Solo at the cantina, Greedo actually says something akin to, “I love your big blue eyes.”

There’s another handy Huttese phrasebook at Nerd Girl Army, and if you just want a brief rundown, this video will give you some basic phrases, as well as pointing out that the Huttese numbering system is base-8.

 

If this kind of thing fascinates you, then U kulle rah doe kankee kung.

The editor’s role

On Friday, I was talking with a long-time colleague – my mentor in the world of instructional design, which is the other professional hat I wear – over a postmortem lunch for the project whose conclusion has now put us both back, as it were, On The Market.

As part of his we-were-so-lucky-to-have-you speech (which, believe me, the editor or writer on your workforce appreciates beyond rubies, even if it does make them a little embarassed), I got to hear some war stories about my predecessor on this team: an Oxford-educated editor of the Mrs. Badcrumble or Miss Thistlebottom school, who once gathered everyone for an emergency meeting so she could berate them on their grammatical shortcomings – a list that (of course) included a bunch of the old superstitions of grammar nitpickery. A veteran which-hunter, in other words.

This sort of thing is quite bad enough, even though I’ve grown used to being unwillingly represented by the most myopic practitioners of my craft, but it gets even better. The thing that really floored me was when my colleague told me about his efforts trying to submit a draft to this editor. He’s a natural collaborator; we share, among other things, an ethos of pride in the work but not ego, so he makes liberal use of the comments feature to tag his drafts with notes asking if such-and-such wording makes sense or has the right tone or is sufficiently supported in the rest of the piece. You know – all the things a writer’s supposed to do.

The response he got was, “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just the editor.”

Folks, gentlebeings, let us explore the ways in which this is Wrong Wrong Wrongity Wrong.

Continue reading