And now for something a little different…

Neologism generator
Neologism generator (Photo credit: Peter Forret)

A few days ago, my son introduced me to the word “philosoraptor.” It’s a neologism (a newly-coined word) that refers to a humorous, pseudo-philosophical bit of wordplay such as:

“If pro is the opposite of con, is progress the opposite of congress?”

(Sorry, I don’t know the origin of this example, though it’s unfortunately very apropos at the moment.)

According to my son, “philosoraptor” is an example of an “internet meme“, which is an idea that is propagated on the internet. There is usually an image that accompanies an internet meme and in the case of philosoraptor it’s a charming little picture of a thoughtful-looking Velociraptor. (I had the image here, but when I hit “Publish” I lost the entire post – the second time that’s happened when I tried to include an image in a post. Got to figure that one out.)

I learned all about the origins of the philosoraptor internet meme at:

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/philosoraptor

The image is credited to (and copy-righted by) Sam Smith who designed it to put on T-shirts. The word probably has multiple origins.

I also became interested in the word “meme“, because I was not familiar with it. It turns out to also be a neologism coined about twenty years ago by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He conceived a meme as being somewhat analogous to a gene. The best current working definition of “meme” seems to be “an idea that is passed from person to person through imitation,” although Dawkins usage included the rather bizarre notion that memes were infectious, like viruses. Regardless, “meme” has definitely gone mainstream. There’s a related field called “memetics.”

Neologisms are great examples of a way in which language change happens, in this case through the creation of new words. It’s fun, it’s easy, and best of all, anyone can do it.

You can’t get away from grammar

Grammar police

Lest anyone conclude that I have a general contempt for grammar or grammarians, let me clarify.

Every language has grammar and every speaker/writer uses it.  All the time.  You can’t get away from it.

Grammar is just the structure of a language, as opposed to the words.  It’s a set of patterns you learned before you knew you were learning them, a set of patterns you unconsciously recognize and use. And without them, you would not be able to encode or decode any but the most rudimentary of utterances.

Grammar is all about pattern recognition.  Knowledge of the grammatical patterns of English leads both you and your listener/reader to have certain expectations about where your words are going, and if you violate those expectations too seriously you won’t be understood.  The “rules” of grammar are just an effort on the part of some well-meaning people to save us all from incoherence.

(Actually, I believe that pattern recognition makes up a large part of what we call intelligence.)

Grammar tells us what role a word is playing.  It tells us how the different bits of a sentence are related to each other.  There are two main ways I’m aware of for a language to “do” grammar.  They are:

1) word order

2) word modification

Word order is pretty obvious.  Word modification is all the various forms that are based on a single word-root (such as, write, writes, writer, writing, written, wrote, and so on.)  Most languages, like English, use both approaches.  Latin, I am told, relies so nearly completely on word modification that it virtually doesn’t matter how you order the words.  (Try to wrap your mind around that concept!)

Anyway, I really don’t have a serious quarrel with grammarians in general.  I just get a bit annoyed when I encounter someone who is so fixated on the rules that he or she loses sight of the purpose.

Grammar should be your servant, not your master.

(Grammar Police, photocredit: the_munificent_sasquatch)

My attitude on grammar (and language change)

Not being an expert on English means that I’m not an expert on the official “rules” of, say, grammar – which means that I don’t necessarily always adhere to them. In my view, clarity is what counts and the rules are only useful to the extent that they contribute to clarity. In short, being clear is more important than being correct.

The primary purpose of any language is, after all, communication.

There are times when you have to be as “correct” as possible because you are writing for an audience that expects or demands it, but even then I try not to completely lose sight of the reason for what I am doing.

There’s an important rationale behind my somewhat cavalier attitude. Language changes. The rules therefore also potentially change from time to time, so it doesn’t pay to get too attached to them. A living language – one that has native speakers – is rather like a living organism. No one designed it; it evolved. And English, being very much alive, is continuing to evolve even as we speak. (Literally, as we speak.) English, you see, belongs to its speakers, not to the grammarians. The rule-makers can try to constrain it, to impede the process of language change, but they will ultimately fail.

Language preceded grammarians – by several million years – and it was doing just fine without them.