March 05, 2007

Adjectives banned in Baltimore

Here's a story that surprised even the most jaded veterans of Language Log Plaza's watch on educated Americans' descent into linguistic asininity. People were hanging around the water cooler still talking about it hours later. It comes from Lydia Joyce. She says:

I was in the Children's Museum in Baltimore when I overheard this conversation between a mother and a young son, concerning a bizarre "fun house" installation, which had sloping ceilings, "wrong" furniture, odd colors, and all sorts of other things meant to delight children with its absurdity:

SON:  I want to go in that silly house again!

MOTHER:  Don't you remember? We do NOT use ADJECTIVES!

SON:  Sorry, mommy!

If I'd been able to scrape my chin off the floor in time, I would have asked, "You don't let you child learn colors?"

What she meant, of course, which wasn't any less ludicrous, was that her child shouldn't "judge" anything because "judging" is bad, and adjectives imply some level of judgment. Not "judging," of course, is not only a ridiculous expectation but would result in a nonfunctional adult. There is no rational point of view in which her position makes any sense.

But, you know, I'm "judging."

Comment is almost superfluous. But yes, the mother clearly meant that adjectives are sometimes used to express evaluative predications — to say that something is naughty or nice, or good or evil, or cheap or expensive . . . and she didn't want her little man growing up to be one of those people who are always making academic judgments or expert evaluations of things. The kid might grow up to be an art dealer or a business ethics specialist or a literature professor or a high court justice or a forensics expert or a minister of religion or a fashion designer or a film director or . . . a senior staff writer at Language Log (where on the door of Geoff Nunberg's office there is a sign saying "If you can't say anything nice — come on in and sit down!"). The child might grow up to have an interesting job.

What can one possibly add? One is tempted to say that some people shouldn't be allowed to raise children. But she was probably a good mother, trying to raise her kids not to be demanding, selfish, hypercritical little monsters who call everything crap all the time. (By the way, crap is not an adjective in the most typical varieties of Standard English, and the same is true of shit — though several readers have pointed out to me that a younger-generation change in progress does convert these two words into adjectives. My point survives: banning adjectives is not going to do the job that Baltimore mother wants done, because you can express your negative and hostile judgments with nouns like junk or dog poop, or nonsense or hogwash, or a dog's breakfast.)

What the story really shows, once again, is that most people have no grasp of syntactic terms like ‘noun’ or ‘verb’ or ‘adjective’ other than three traditional but utterly hazy semantically-driven ideas: that nouns are things that you can touch, and verbs are actions that you undertake, and adjectives are qualities that you can judge. These three ideas are a disaster for assigning words to their correct lexical categories, but they are just about the only ideas about grammar that are firmly ingrained in the consciousness of everyone with a high school education, other than about a dozen woefully inappropriate prescriptive rules for diagnosing stuff that is "wrong". As Mark keeps saying, we have a lot of work to do to get public understanding of elementary linguistic issues up to where it ought to be — to make it so that most educated people know a few things about language that are broadly correct.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 5, 2007 12:20 PM