Phlebotomic is a blog experiment that seeks to gather multiple perspectives around a common prompt, which is provided weekly.

Last week's prompt was "Beauty"...

This week's prompt is "Path"...

09 March 2009

Do not Pass Go, Do not Collect $200 - The Language Game

Sorry for the delay in this post

As most of you know, I am a linguist. (yes, I speak several languages, but that is not all a linguist does, I also study language scientifically). One of the seminal moments in my life, in this regard, was a book entitled, "Word Play," by author Peter Farb. It is a book about language, and about how it is like a game, both metaphorically and literally. We, the speakers, are the players, and we subconsciously and sometimes consciously know the rules of our "game." We "play" and the other players "play." This book opened up language, and its study, in a manner that changed my whole perspective.

Thinking of language as a game is an interesting idea. Like Monopoly, certain people add their own twists to the "rules." In my house, we put $500 in the middle, and also from payments of Community Chest and Chance cards. The income tax space funds went there too. To get the cash, all you had to do was land on Free Parking. When I would play at a friend's house, they would always look at me crazily and say,"That's not in the rules!!"

Language is the same way. People hear an accent, or a dialect (variation, NOT SUBSTANDARD), and they want to say, "That's not in the rules!!" Yet, the goal is the same, and we understand what is said, and we understand it completely. So, is it against the rules? If someone says, "I ain't got none." Are they breaking the rules? Do we understand? Do we judge?

I'll show that they are not. In English, we are a SVO language. That means the subject goes first, followed by the verb, and the the object comes last. So, in our sentence, "I" is the subject, and our verb (in this case a verb with a negative marker) is next. Finally, the direct object, that which receives the direct action of the verb, is last. A completely grammatical sentence by the constitutive rules of English.

Wait, you are probably thinking. What about double negatives? What about the word "ain't?" Aren't they wrong?!?!?!? The answer, NO!!!!!!! Shakespeare used both, and we hold him as the pinnacle of English. First off, the idea that double negation is actually positive is ludicrous. Language isn't math (by the way, Bishop Robert Lowth, a mathematician, came up with that rule in the 18th century, and it stuck because of the desire for maintaining social class distinctions) . Many languages use double negation as the standard. Are they not logical? French, Spanish, and hundreds more use such formations as standard, so unless billions of speakers are totally illogical in their speech, that argument falls flat. "Ain't" is a holdover from an older term for negation, so that argument falls too.

Dang, and all those English papers with red ink, and all those arguments with English teachers (I welcome all arguments from the other side).............

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