Language I

by zenquaker

Technically, my bachelor’s degree is in Cognitive Science with a minor in Religion. However, it sort of got overwhelmed when I had the chance to take a fifth year tuition free to study (more) linguistics. So it would really be more accurate to say I have a bachelor’s degree in Linguistics, with minors in Philosophy, Artificial Intelligence, and Religion. But no one ever accused my undergraduate university of accuracy.

Why do I mention this? This evening there was a post on Slashdot about an analysis of communication on online forum for hackers. One of the (inevitable) comments was that they were misusing the word “hacker.” A “hacker” (according to Slashdotters) is not a criminal programmer, he is a good programmer (I would use a more neutral pronoun, but the Slashdotters would use “he”). The correct word for a criminal programmer (according to Slashdotters) is “cracker.” That is, someone who cracks into systems. The Slashdotters would claim that their usage of “hacker” is more true to the original usage of the word. My understanding is that the original use of “hacker” was a bad programmer (someone who hacks away at a program until it works), but that is beside the point.

As a linguist, my response to the Slashdotters would be “stop whining about not having complete control of the English language and move on.” We are raised to think of English as an ordered construct with precise rules handed down by learned authorities. I like to call this the Intelligent Design Theory of Language. I prefer the linguistic view, where language is a living thing that evolves in the minds of what linguists call native speakers of the language (a native speaker learned the language naturally as they were growing up, rather than in something similar to a classroom setting).

This is why I loathe grammarians. They are the ultimate control freaks of the language world. We have one at work (codename Chemical Pencil) who has imposed her view on the reports we write. Some of the stuff Chemical Pencil comes up with drives me nuts. At least once during every report they render one of my sentences unintelligible. But that is also beside the point.

The point is that at some time maybe “hacker” meant a good programmer, but that’s just not what it means any more. Sitting there and yelling at people for using the word “wrong” is pointless, because you don’t get to decide how the word gets used. All you are demonstrating is the inability to grasp reality.

I don’t mean to pick on the Slashdotters. This sort of thing happens all over the place. It’s huge in Western Buddhism. The word “enlightenment” has a lot of meaning embedded in it, and other common Buddhist terms like “mindfulness” have had their meaning warped by certain practitioners. So people come up with terms like “stream entry” to replace “enlightenment,” or refuse to mention the word “mindfulness” even when they’re talking about mindfulness. Now the classic metaphor for words in Buddhism is that they are (at best) a finger pointing to the moon. If you pay too much attention to the finger, you will never see how beautiful the moon is. I wish teachers of Buddhism would just explain what they mean by the words at the beginning, and then move on. Sure, someone will misunderstand you. Under Ichabod’s Theory of Language (I’ll explain later), it’s pretty much guaranteed that any time you open your mouth there will be someone who misunderstands you. But when you start using utterly meaningless terms like “stream entry” no one is going to understand you, and your finger isn’t pointing anywhere. I figure fingers have two purposes: point at the moon and poking people who are looking in the wrong direction.

Neither do I mean to say that I am immune to it. I really like Chess960, and for a long time strongly felt that it should be called by it’s original name of Fischer Random Chess. It was, after all, the invention of Bobby Fischer. The thing is, a lot of Chess players don’t like Bobby Fischer, and they’re the ones who came up with the new name of Chess960. I am full willing to admit that he ended his life as a antisemitic misogynist, which is a pretty asinine way to go. But he was a brilliant Chess player and he did invent the game. And no, the existence of a similar but not equivalent game previous to his invention does not invalidate it. Sorry, but that’s a common argument of people who hate Bobby Fischer but don’t want to admit they hate an antisemitic misogynist so they have to come up with lame arguments to support their position. One day while I was arguing about this online, I realized I was doing exactly what I ridiculed in others: trying to claim control of the language. So these days I just let it ride. I still slip up. Right after I started this blog I had to go back and change all the instances of Fischer Random Chess to Chess960.