November 17, 2006

I can't even spell "linguification"

Over at Watch Me Sleep, my good friend Ed Keer decided to make public our little disagreement this past weekend over whether the snowclone "can't even spell X" is an example of linguification. Ed's characterization of the argument makes it seem as if my position was just "Because Geoff Pullum said so!", and so I feel I must clarify.

(In fact, I had had enough to drink by that point that I couldn't remember anything that Geoff ever wrote except "Turkish exhibits a classic counterbleeding relationship between epenthesis and deletion" -- which, of course, is just plain wrong. But that's neither here nor there.)

Also, I want to add some more examples to the linguification mix.

Ed's position, in his own words, is that "the 'Can't even spell X' snowclone is a comment on the extent of a person's knowledge about a particular subject, so it does not qualify as a linguification". My position is that Ed's conclusion doesn't follow from his (inarguably correct) premise. In fact, most if not all linguifications that Geoff has discussed here on Language Log are (meant to be) comments on the extent of something; Geoff's point is that linguifications make rather curious comments of that sort, in particular because they fail as good examples of metaphor or hyperbole.

Now that I'm sober, I know better than to try to reconstruct Geoff's arguments from scratch; I'll start by quoting what Geoff writes about the distinction between linguification on the one hand and metaphor or hyperbole on the other hand.

Pullum on linguification

To linguify a claim about things in the world is to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate.

Pullum on metaphor (a.o.t. linguification)

[E]ven if some linguifications can indeed be said to fall within the domain of metaphorical usage, that misses my point. In general, for most kinds of metaphors, it is easy to understand why people use them. They get the point across briefly and vividly. To say that the new office manager is a pussycat establishes instantly just as a good caricature might that the man's general demeanor and behavior suggests a cute, cuddly, playful, non-serious, easy-to-deal-with, tractable, non-fearsome nature that otherwise might take a considerable amount of time-wasting careful description to get across.

But I simply do not understand why people use linguification. If it gets the point across at all, it does it only indirectly and clumsily: we have to infer from [a] statement about [e.g.] word distributions, usually one that is false, some underlying statement that is only very imperfectly connected to it.

Pullum on hyperbole (a.o.t. linguification)

Hyperbole takes a claim and exaggerates it, so that if the hyperbolic version were true, the original claim would be true a fortiori. I do know about humorous uses of hyperbole. I believe I used it in the first line of this post ["About a million people have written to me ..."]; wouldn't you say so? Take that as an example. My underlying claim is that lots of people wrote to me. If my exaggeration in calling it millions were really true, the underlying claim would be all the truer. [...]

As I have tried to explain, patiently but fruitlessly, [...] Gilbert's figure of speech is very different. Take his underlying (broadly true) claim that parents don't get to go to the theater much after the kids are born. If he had said that parents forget what going to the theater is like, that would be hyperbole (they don't forget, it just becomes a tiny bit unfamiliar as far as recent experience is concerned). And if the hyperbolic claim were true if they completely forgot what happens in theaters then the underlying claim would be all the truer. However, he says instead that parents actually forget how to pronounce words like "theater". If they did, that would not make the underlying claim true. The loss of this snippet of pronunciation information would not mean that they had forgotten their experiences of theater. Nor would it mean they couldn't go: they get in a taxi, take it to Broadway, and point; or they could tell people they wanted to go to the big building downtown with the lights and the curtain and the actors.

Now take one of Ed's examples: "Accountability? They Can't Even Spell it!" The idea is clear: the "they" referred to here are not (held) accountable for something. But it's not hyperbole: if it were true that "they" could not spell "accountability", it wouldn't be all the truer that they aren't (held) accountable for something. It's also not a good example of a metaphor, unless you make the very improbable assumption that the first (or somehow primary) step in being (held) accountable is to be able to spell "accountability". (This could also be the first stop in not being (held) accountable, though, so the metaphor fails anyway.)

Ed closes his post with "You see what I'm sayin? Or do I have to spell it out for you?" Now in this case, I think "spell it out for X" is a great metaphor. Typically, you spell a word out for someone when you know or suspect that they don't know how to spell it; likewise, you painstakingly explain something to someone when you know or suspect that they don't understand it. It's a good metaphor, then, to say that painstaking explanation of something is like spelling out a word. Nothing linguificational about it, really.

Another example came up yesterday while I was talking to some friends. One of them was noting that he didn't have any cash, and I remembered that he had just spent some money at Guitar Center (a.k.a. "the Evil Empire" -- no link for you!), so I added: "... because you've just been to Guitar Center." Another friend said: "Those two statements often follow each other", by which I assume he meant that the Guitar-Center statement often follows the lack-of-cash statement. That's another example of linguification, similar to the kind Geoff describes here.

Finally, I'd like to suggest that my puzzlement over the "that's why they call it X" snowclone (follow-up here) is because this is also an example of linguification, though perhaps of a different kind than those that Geoff has identified. Certainly the number of comments and e-mail responses I've gotten to those posts (see also here), with completely unhelpful analyses of and excuses for this puzzling snowclone, are very much like the millions of unhelpful responses that Geoff has gotten to his various attempts to explain the difference between linguification and metaphor/hyperbole.

And so, on that hopeful note ...

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at November 17, 2006 03:57 PM