Sunday, October 3, 2010

My First Update in Slovakia

I would like to discuss a phenomenon whose depth of complexity is almost always overlooked, even written off as being not simply mundane, but 'improper'.

Consider a three year old child (a girl, for the sake of pronouns) who says “he beed sad”. On the surface, it looks like the utterance of a girl who hasn't yet come to grasp English verb conjugations, or the subtleties of empathy; but, let's break this utterance into its constituent parts, before we assess it for its merits.

“He”: the decision to use a pronoun instead of a concrete referent like “Michael” or “a boy from my school” reveals that the girl has identified the ideas of established referent and linguistic economy: she knows that the person she is talking about is already clear to the listener, and that to reiterate would be redundant; thus that she can save the effort and monotony of repeating the subject's name or description by way of the phonetically simpler alternative. What is remarkable is that she has navigated her way through the mine-field of ambiguity that leads to using a pronoun, employing it at just the right time, striking the balance between economy of speech with clarity of listening.

“Sad”: to come to the understanding that a person other than herself is sad, the child must first realise that emotional responses are present in others in much the same way as in herself – difficult, if you consider that she has no way of directly experiencing the emotions of others, but must infer the probable feelings of others by way of outward cues only, and, by assessing a combination of face- and body-expressions and the feelings that she would be experiencing in that situation. To identify that another person experiences the world from a different emotional perspective, and then to evaluate and label what that perspective is takes far more insight than we realise.

I left beed until the end because I think that is the most interesting part of the utterance.

“Beed”: one's first reaction to this is to declare it a mistake – an error perpetrated by someone who hasn't yet come to terms with the inner complexities of the English language, when, in fact, it demonstrates the exact opposite. In order to come to the conclusion to use beed, the child first identified that, in order to ascribe a property to a thing (after realising that “sad” and “He” are a property and a thing), they must be linked by a largely meaningless word, “be”, in no other order than thing, be, property. She then realised, by a process of data-crunching thousands of example sentences, that, to describe an event that occurred in the past (to say nothing of the understanding that time progresses unidirectionally, and that the event described happened in a recallable, but inaccessible and unalterable time prior to that of speaking) a “past marker” of -ed is attached to the infinitive form of the verb of the sentence (again, to say nothing of the understanding that, following different sounds, -ed can be pronounced /t/, /d/, or even /Id/, but that these three forms represent the same underlying form and concept). After data-crunching another few thousand sentences, the child has identified where to find infinitive verb forms (following modal verbs such as would, might and could, and the preposition to, and not following other auxiliary verbs such as have, nouns or adverbs), and, therefore, be is the infinitive form of this particular verb, from which all other forms of the verb are derived. The only oversight that this girl committed was not to realise that, this one verb, out of all the verbs in English, completely changes its outward form – from beed to was – in the past form.

We know that the child worked through all of the stages outlined in the above paragraph, because she has never once heard anyone say the word beed, and so couldn't be parroting the adults around her. The only way that beed could have arisen in the child's speech is by complex induction and linguistic analysis.

To quantify the success of this sentence, the girl has used two of the three words perfectly, and one very close to accurately, when all things are considered: 2.5 out of 3, or 83%.

If you are still underwhelmed with the accuracy of “He beed sad”, compare it to “Ground Zero Mosque”:

It's not a Mosque: it's a community centre, aimed at the local Muslim community, but open to all members of the public.

It's not at Ground Zero, it's two city blocks away, on the site of an old coat factory. There is a strip-club closer to Ground Zero than the Coat Factory Community Centre is.

The phrase “Ground Zero Mosque” is, literally, completely wrong. Not one word in that phrase maps onto the real world. 0 out of 3, or 0%.

A three-year-old child is eighty-three percent better at describing the world than anyone who says “Ground Zero Mosque”.


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