20.409 being of the plain style

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 08:07:26 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 409.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Wed, 24 Jan 2007 07:59:08 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: language vs the plain style

Recently perusing George Miller's The Science of Words (Scientific
American Library, 1991), I was struck by a number of statements he
makes about language. His is a lucid explanation of what a science of
it might be, or perhaps is. As you would expect from the master of
WordNet and a scientist, Miller is noticing regularities, structures,
forms of expression that are a certain way and are not any other way.
In discussing the hierarchical structure of nouns, for example, he
notices that comparatives are bound by a reflexive constraint, i.e.
"a comparative adjective cannot be used between a noun and its
hyponyms (subordinates) or superordinates", e.g. such sentences as "A
monkey can be more active than an animal", or "Fruit tastes better
than grapes do" makes no sense (p. 177). Assent comes easily and
seems unproblematic. But wait....

All of us can easily imagine a poem that begins with either of those
two examples; some among us, perhaps, could write that poem and make
it wonderous to read. Indeed, Miller's statements remind me of others
I have heard, such as John Sowa's (at a New OED conference, in
Waterloo, Ontario, years ago), that while one can say "The man is
eager to eat the food", it makes no sense to say that "The food is
eager to be eaten by the man". In Sowa's case, a major episode in The
Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy concerned food eager to be eaten by
a man. Or, to deepen the question, consider the deep-structure
linguists, who tell us that certain formations are impossible.

I wouldn't like to suggest, and won't, that such distinguished
people, esp Miller, are being silly. Rather I want to ask, how are
they being? How do we make sense of their restrictive statements,
indeed all statements designed to delimit language (or anything else)
in such a fashion as to make a science of it possible?

It does seem to me that Miller's attempt at a science of language
makes sense as a science of language of a particular kind. What goes
unspoken (as far as I have seen in the book) is an opening
conditional: IF we delimit ordinary language that people use in daily
life to make sense in pragmatic situations, then thus-and-such
propositions may be defended. When someone depicts a cow that seems
eager to be eaten by a man in The Restaurant at the End of the
Universe, we know something special is happening -- in a novel. We
know we're not reading a bit of today's news. Were a farmer to find
us in his field, trying to persuade one of his cows to offer itself
up to us for dinner, he'd be right in more than one way to chase us
off, and if we had decided to assist the strangely speechless cow by
killing it, he'd be right to summon the police, and they the folks
with the white jacket that ties in the back. If, in a poem, we read
that some trees, smitten by music, gathered around a musician to hear
his music, we'd not think the poet wrong or linguistically perverse,
and prima facie he or she would not be saying what one cannot say.
We'd know we were reading poetry.

Miller is an intellectually powerful ally of computing, as all who
have used WordNet will know. The stronger a science of language is,
the better we can compute it. My question is, how did it happen that
poetic statements should so often be an afterthought, if thought at
all, in such discussions as Miller's? How is it that propositional
rhetoric so easily seems the right way to talk about language? Ok,
Miller is writing a book clearly labelled The Science of Words, but
why does it not occur to him that such a science is ever so much more
powerful by at least recognizing what it is excluding?

Permit be a sharp swerve in order to get to some related questions.

Recently I came to contemplate why it is that the great chorus of
historians who write about the Late Antique writer Martianus Capella
(5th Century), knowing that he was all the rage among Carolingian
intellectuals (9th Century), line obediently up in back of Joseph
Scaliger to condemn his Latin, why even Martianus' editors cannot
wait to condemn his work in the strongest possible terms without for
one moment wondering about what those Carolingian intellectuals saw
in him, especially why they saw him as they did. Historians, mind
you. The hypothesis I formed is that between Martianus and us falls
something we call "the plain style", the rise of Baconian science and
so the eclipse of figurative language. Can it be said that we are
still the children of the plain style, and that a science of language
is a science in that style?

Are we, in consequence of computing, better able to appreciate
figurative language -- because we run into so much of it as residue
from our computational processes?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Wed Jan 24 2007 - 11:33:33 EST

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