April 25, 2006

Lament for Port and Starboard

Eric Bakovic's comment on my post lamenting the disuse of port and starboard on aircraft suggests that the loss of this terminology results in no loss because it is too unfamiliar and moreover is defined in terms of left and right. This is quite true if the two situations you are comparing are the current one and the current one with instructions to passengers given using port and starboard. However, this is not the correct comparison to make in deciding whether something has been lost. The valid comparison is between the current state of affairs and the hypothetical preceding state of affairs, in which the passengers WERE familiar with the terms port and starboard. On that comparison, something is indeed lost. Although it is true that present-day passengers CAN interpret left and right with respect to the axis of the aircraft rather than relative to the speaker or addressee, nothing forces them to, and we have no evidence that they do. port and starboard have the virtue of being completely unambiguous in this respect.

Before we proceed too far down this path I should point out, in case any of our readers haven't figured it out, that when I, and, I think, other Language Loggers, lament the loss of this or that fine point of language, we are for the most part not being serious: for the most part, we're making fun of language pundits who apparently do think in all seriousness that the sky will fall because people do not adhere to whatever often quite silly idea they have of correct usage. So let me assure you that I don't actually think that flying is significantly more dangerous due to the disuse of port and starboard. Insofar as we're not making fun of the pundits, we're just pointing out some interesting older usages and distinctions.

There is also a point to be made here about dictionary definitions, namely that they are poor evidence regarding psychology, and indeed, much of anything else. Even definitions from good dictionaries are often plainly inadequate if one looks at them closely. One common problem with dictionaries is the circularity of their definitions. In the obvious case, X is defined in terms of Y and Y is defined in terms of X. We often don't notice this in dictionaries of our own native language, but if you have used monolingual dictionaries of languages of which your command is imperfect it soon becomes apparent. In many cases it is less obvious because the chain is longer: X is defined in terms of Y which is defined in terms of Z which is defined in terms of X. Most dictionaries do not define words in terms of a set of primitives, nor are their choices of definition based on any sort of psychological research. The fact that port and starboard are defined in terms of left and right is not a good argument that this is so psychologically. And even if it is true now, it may well not have been in the past, when people may have been more familiar with ships and nautical terminology.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 25, 2006 03:54 PM