August 23, 2006

Iceballs, revisability, language, and intelligent life in the universe

It's looking bad for Pluto. The International Astronomical Union is facing an upwelling of protest and a new motion that would deny planethood to the tilt-angled weird-orbited iceball from the ragged fringes of the Kuiper belt that was irresponsibly added to the planet roster in 1930. Of course, you may be wondering, why is this an issue of interest to linguists? Why are you reading about it on Language Log, where you normally turn for a brief respite from astronomy, ferret training, farm machinery insurance, whatever? Well, Adrian Morgan wrote to me with these ruminations on the connection:

It occurs to me that there is, to some extent, a parallel between the long-running debate about the planetary status of Pluto and the controversy between certain competing ideas about grammar. One side thinks it all-important that what people were taught in school should remain true forever (hence, Pluto is a planet). The other side thinks that classifications should be based on observable facts about the universe really does, and revised when necessary (hence, Pluto is a Kuiper belt object). Sound familiar? I thought so.

It certainly does sound familiar. I think the parallel is spot on. For people who want to make sure the material they were taught in elementary school and high school stays unchanged forever, the path is clear: stay away from all intellectual activity, avoid contact with anyone who is intellectually curious, live a dull and unexamined life. You'll be fine. But astronomers expect that evidence should be relevant to decisions about how to apply scientific concepts, and that in the light of new discoveries it will sometimes be necessary to revise previous decisions about how to apply them. The thing about linguists is that they take that attitude toward language.

You don't have to, though. Really, you don't. You can just stay away from Language Log and continue to believe that faith is a verb and that split infinitives can and should be avoided, if that's what you'd like. And Pluto can be forever a planet.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 23, 2006 12:58 PM