[Smt-talk] One thought on Language Use (was: Two thoughts on Normal Form)

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Tue Sep 11 15:50:02 PDT 2012

Before we wander too far off the music theory base-line, and get tagged out by the moderator…a couple of thoughts:

1. Check what you think you know against real data, of course, but don't forget to bring along your critical faculties. Finding a progression a few times in the Mozart Piano Sonatas (to use Dmitri's favourite corpus) is a more useful corrective to intuitions than is finding it repeatedly in the other 95%. (I'm invoking Dizzy Gillespie's great and useful principle that 95% of everything is [unworthy]…he used a word that the New York Times won't print.)

2. Language changes, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Though old buddy-duddies like me might protest, but there isn't much we can do to stop the process. It will go wherever it wants…

3. On the other hand, there's nothing inherently improper or illogical about using a noun as a verb or a verb as an adjective or…. How could there be? It's a process that has been going on for millennia. and folks who care about precision and elegance in language take part in it along with those who don't. Such a change is especially hard to fault when it proves useful—filling a linguistic gap and enabling us to say something that was more difficult without it.

4. The real evil that lurks beneath this issue, however, is the increasingly common use of language by politicians, administrators, salespeople, or technocrats to obscure thought or to mislead. (I'm not accusing any members of the Princeton Music faculty of doing this, by the way!) If you don't know it, please read George Orwell's brilliant essay "Politics and the English Language", from around 1946, I believe. Perhaps the best thing in it is the translation of a passage from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

into modern techno-speak, as:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

When people get into such fights about language, I suspect that they are struggling to allow language to change, according to its lights, while avoiding this kind of [unworthy stuff]. (One almost hates to dignify it with the label "language".) Some err too much on the conservative side, some get more progressive and experimental than others are comfortable with…but whatever your preferences in this debate, could anyone who is not a scoundrel seriously defend Orwell's techno-translation?

It may contain too many abstractions, it may contain too many words of Latinate origin; those are both true, but neither is the real problem. Language like this is designed to conceal thought, not reveal it. It is sent up as a smokescreen, to keep people from finding out what you really mean. (Think political platforms, or ballot initiatives, or mortgage commitment papers…) In Orwell's perfectly chosen image, these words settle over thought like soft snow, obscuring the outlines and ultimately making everything look the same. You may not like the sentiments of the Ecclesiastes passage, but you don't have to read it ten times to figure out what it is saying.

Our dual impulses to push at the constraints of language in order to say exactly what we mean to say, and to resist some experiments as unnecessary or unclear, are BOTH laudable—as long as everyone is on the same page about fighting back against this insidious stuff. [insert Gillespie epithet here]

Charles Smith

> On Sep 7, 2012, at 10:38 AM, art samplaski wrote:
>> "Transition" is a NOUN, ladies and gentlemen. 
> I have two things to say about this, one frivolous and one serious.
> 1. (Frivolous)  For those who are interested in issues of prescriptivism and language change, I heartily recommend the blog "Language Log," run by my friend Mark Liberman (with the help of many very smart contributors).  Mark recently wrote the latest in a long series of posts on "verbing." (The name originates with Calvin's memorable remark to Hobbes: "verbing weirds language").  
> http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4161
> It's interesting how these complaints from 1917 echo Art's complaints about the verb "transition" (which sounds fine to me), though with respect to words which have now been completely assimilated (e.g. the noun "urge").  
> Mark was kind enough to send me examples of verbal "transition" from Science magazine, a recent presidential speech, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, which I will happily provide (off list) to anyone who is curious.  The usage originates around 1975, which means it is just shy of the 50 years generally needed for full acceptance (according to Mark).  "Younger" people (like, I suppose, me) will have been hearing it all our lives, while older folks may still find it unfamiliar.
> Also of interest is his recent post on "chord" vs. "cord," which have actually switched meanings -- "cord" comes from "accord" while "chord" comes from "chorda" yet we now use "cord" to mean "rope" and "chord" to mean "accord"!
> 2. (Serious) We all have intuitions about what is and is not acceptable in language.  Mostly these are reliable, but not always.  The same is true in music.  Some people find "I-ii-I6" to be a standard common-practice progression, others don't.  The goal of corpus-based approaches, in both linguistics and music, is to actually *check* these intuitions against real data.  The results can often be surprising.
> DT
> Dmitri Tymoczko
> Professor of Music
> 310 Woolworth Center
> Princeton, NJ 08544-1007
> (609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)
> http://dmitri.tymoczko.com
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Prof. Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Director of Graduate Studies
Music Department, 220 Baird Hall, University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Office Phone: 716-645-0639
Department Fax: 716-645-3824

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