Aside: A little about linguanophiles (4/4)

Monday 5 March 2012, 11.30pm HKT


FROM PART 3

(Updated 06 Mar 2012 for typos and formatting failure)

If you’re a linguist (as per linguistics), translation specialist or a pedagogue (educationist or even a teacher), you are not going like this part. It is cynical, but it is also highly accurate for what it’s worth. As the Italians say, it is what it is.

__________

4. Isolation

If there had to be a fourth reason for the noticeable rigidity and rigidisation of certain academic disciplines, then I reckon this might be it:—

A great need for certainty often comes from not getting out much.

This, I’ve noticed even casually, is more often the case with people who spend some significant portion of their lives in some combination of physical, intellectual or even mental isolation from the people and happenings around them.

Maybe it’s because we don’t consider others to be up to scratch because of education, training, social class, loose coinage in their pockets or something.

But more maybe it’s because different views kind of sets up the need to deal with real-life ambiguity — and most of us find it a chore to learn to shoehorn different views into our neat and tidy, educationally conditioned, mental grids.

Whatever the reason, it’s still isolation all the same.

It’s just like that demotivator poster above — you have everything a townie has, but you’re still just driving around on a small, secluded island. No man is an island, but some people come pretty close.

If you’ve lived long enough, you’ll notice aloof or supercilious people often tend to have great need for certainty in their own needs and wants — likewise, equally great expectations of surety from you in fulfilling those needs and wants of theirs.

I’m reminded of what the Speculative Grammarian once told me in a Facebook thread that linguists often don’t update themselves in their fields or even look at the work of other linguists. That puts it rather well, as Denholm Elliot’s character said in the movie ‘A Bridge Too Far.’

__________

Quo vadis?

Linguists (and translation specialists too) vehemently deny any of this.

  • They say they don’t dig orthodoxy.
  • They say they value new contributions to existing theories and practices.
  • They say the inherent contextuality of their subject matter leaves no room for a great need for certainty — and, incidentally, then they say a need for certainty is a good thing because it makes their disciplines ‘more robust.’
  • They say we’re mistaken and they’re not isolated from real life (which is not what we’re saying anyway) — we’re misjudging them because their “experience of a great many languages” could only come from constant contact with the world at large (as one Sino-blogger once retorted to me in a thread).

The last point above was particularly insulting and insolent. It’s as if the rest of us hoi-polloi don’t measure up merely because we’re unknowledgeable in the morphemes, lexical content or functional grammar or f@#king fricatives of a dozen different languages that they know.

I mean, I’m not having it in for lingos, tarnsies and other assorted academics in liberal arts. The liberal arts have their value and uses. But don’t ‘handle’ others with your field of study as though it were a intellectual shield. That’s just makes you a mean bean jumping bean. Truth is, the average liberal-arts graduate earn only 15% more than a secondary school leaver would.

Your chambermaid down the hall is illiterate but could muster some pleasant phrases in Spanish, Swahili and Turkish, get along just darn fine with her Brazilian, Polish and Ceylonese colleagues, and connect with them without needing to ‘correct’ their semantics or semiological functionality. And she makes more money than you do just from tips.

Argue only with their own kind

Indeed, you can get into raging arguments and lifelong feuds with these people just about everything in this Aside — which somewhat proves my point already. Just about every other linguist my classmates and I ever met turned out to be an argumentative character. The more articulate ones have the added flavour of being sardonically insolent. At least the tarnsies (translators) and educrats argue only with their own kind, and that helps to maintain general harmony.

We all want certainty one way or another. We need to feel certain at some point in our life — to feel like we know what’s going to take place and what’s going to happen. Certainty is comfort; it is one of the six basic human needs for a reason.

But even a casual look at these particular people tell us many of their actions are done under the auspices of their need for certainty. It’s a bit like smoking — it becomes a habit after a while. It isn’t the cigarette itself or the actual smoking that makes the smoker feel certain or comfortable. it is the manner they ‘drag the fag’ that makes them feel relaxed.

Assisted suicide

But after having fully two years of linguistics instruction at university (not by choice, I might add), it surprises me so few of us (the lingos, tarnsies, educrats and non-lingos on lingo courses) actually notice these tendencies. Maybe there is some sort of political/poetic (poelitetical?) message somewhere amidst all of the pretension.

“Ironically, people seem to have an easier time totally reversing their beliefs — going from being certain that X is true to being certain that not-X is true — than accepting ambiguity.” — Claude Fischer (ibid.)

Remember, just as the emperor committed assisted suicide as the mob spilled into the palace in the movie ‘Quo Vadis,’ your greatest handiwork could also be your own undoing if you don’t do what the proverbial mob on the march is expecting for their need for certainty.

It’s not just the soy sauce the mob’s expecting to spill for certain

__________

© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2012. Updated 06 March 2012.

Images: Isolation via eBaumsworld | Supermarket spillage via CTV.

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