Aside: A little about linguanophiles (3/4)

Monday 5 March 2012, 9.00pm HKT


(Updated 06 March for typos and formatting failure)

The need for certainty is in every one of us. It enables us to regulate our lives and activities, giving ourselves some measure of control in an otherwise chaotic world. But the need for certainty can sometimes cause us to discount and disregard some of the essential nuances and changeable quality built into life.


3. Need for certainty

The need for orthodoxy (‘orthodoxy attachment’) comes chiefly from a great need for and insistence on certainty.

This is probably the biggest factor fuelling paradigm maintenance.

You don’t honestly need to be a rocket scientist to see this suggests some underlying inferiority complex at play here. Everyone else with a modicum of common sense and a little learning can relate to you that language and learning are at heart changeable and changing things because of their inherent contextual ambiguity in use.

“Those of us who teach undergraduates often encounter a woeful complaint when we’ve presented them with conflicting factual claims, explanations, or theories: ‘But which one is true?’

“In part, this cry may reflect students’ urge to know what answer to give on the exam. But I think that it more reflects a general need for certainty. The teacher may want them to compare and contrast assertions, to appreciate that the science on many topics is still in flux, to understand that there may no ‘right answer’ on many topics, but accepting that level of ambiguity is a hard task for many students – and people in general.” — Claude Fischer, ‘Tolerating Ambiguity,’ Made in America (blog), 18 Oct 2011 | Link

(Boldfacings are my emphasis.)

It’s like asking what’s the actual colour of the chameleon — the only possible answer is the permanent colour of a chameleon is the one when it died. Who knows what colour when it was living?

Linguists and translators (‘tarnsies’) say they have to live with ambiguity and flexibility every day. The physicists say theirs is an exacting science, but they’re also visibly content living with a lot of uncertainty (thanks to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). The lawyers know for certain to a moral certitude that even court judgments can be set aside.

Wherez ur god nao?

Truth is, it’s the lingos and tarnsies who can’t live with ambiguity, which is why their fields are so filled to the brim with rules. They’re all prescriptivists who claim they’re not. (I’m actually a prescriptivist, so it takes one to know one, I suppose.)

Each lingo or tarnsie is vying against one another in trying to come up with ‘the next killer text’ for their discipline — that’s why there are more books published in linguistics than all the physics, biology and chemistry books combined.

To phy-bi-chem people, a standing tome is schleppage. But to the lingos and tarnsies, the book is prestige, something certain to go to if you’re looking for certainty.

That’s why mailing lists like the Linguist List bombards the inbox with roughly 200 messages every week, whereas the Molecular Biology Notebook list could only muster 50 or 60 a month.

I don’t think anyone will be stupid enough to think linguistics is harder than molecular biology (which I did do during my very first job in a London hospital).



© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2012. Updated 06 March 2012.
Image via Made in America | Fistful of languages via Alexander Gross.

One Response to “Aside: A little about linguanophiles (3/4)”

  1. Pingback from […] benefit by accepting change « JRFibonacci’s blog: partnering with reality / Related articles […] at


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