A talent for snot

Wednesday 7 March 2012, 1.00am HKT

THIS IS A SIDEBAR to Part 5 of “What’s it been?” feature.

You’d be glad to know I hate and detest writing angry stuff like this.

Forgive and burn.

* * *

Some have a talent for snot

I’m not naming names (for now), but one Sino-bloggeur draws my particular ire for his highly unpleasant snooty demeanour that’s hard to miss throughout his writings.

It’s not that I’m writing this because he treated me that way. He treated everyone that way.

The apparent worldwide popularity of his linguistics-related blogsite in many ways also highlight the questionable reading abilities of his blog’s readers because his demeanour has manifestly been one long piss-stream of veiled putdowns at the Chinese, the people he professes to live and like in that land ‘over thar.’

Talk about deteriorating reading fluency in our day and age.

Nonetheless, I’m sure his blog will improve over time and his readers will then be able to get the message that blogger is trying to put across.


‘A great many languages’

Urovan urine bag, extra super quality penhole type,
with 17.5mm Bhor extra soft cloth and
standard 1-metre heavy tube length, from Interlabs

To cut a long story short, that foreign-shat brat living in The Long Graveyard (i.e. China) had been making derogatory insinuations that I was being racist in one particular thread.

Coming from someone who chose to live in a urine bag of a xenophobic country like China — ranking 77th place in the world economy* vs. 5th-ranking Hong Kong where I live — I don’t know whether to call you congenitally stupid or just congenitally thick-skinned.

* Jumped from 175th to 77th overnight on absorbing Hong Kong on 1st July 1997.

With regard to the bloggeur’s knowledge and abilities in his ‘discipline’ (i.e. field of study), I pass no judgment. I am sure enough to say that the bloggeur certainly knows his linguistics.

Then again, he specialises in a field that few of us would (or could) understand, so naturally I would defer to anyone who has ‘experience in a great many languages.’

Myself, I’ve merely had two mere years of merely formal instruction merely in linguistics (and not even out of mere choice).

And I can count to 100 if I’m not rattled.

But, of course, I did take a course in good manners.


“Stay not too long in my country.”
— Octavian to Germanicus in the run-up to the (Second) Battle of Actium


© The Naked Listener’s Weblog, 2012. Image via Interlabs.

Aside: A little about linguanophiles (4/4)

Monday 5 March 2012, 11.30pm HKT


(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.

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.

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