Tag Archives: Language

Envisioning Nouns: Science

Elementary grammar teaches us that nouns fall into two groups:  Concrete Nouns vs. Abstract Nouns.  But the line between these categories is not as fixed as we are told.  We divide up the world for practical reasons but our categories are rarely as fixed (concrete) as we imagine.  “Fruit”, for instance, when used in a botanical sense includes: walnuts, tomatoes, avocados and even wheat.  But for many folks, fruit is suppose to be sweet — like sugar cane?  Yet many of today’s cultivated succulently sweet apples come from ancestors that were amazingly  sour.

As another example, here are some “tables”:

 3 legs  2 legs or 4 legs  1 leg / pedestal
 1 leg or 3 legs  Japanese Kotatsu  legs or layers

Who’d guess that table’s definition could be a little fuzzy — I mean, how much more concrete can you get than a table?  Fortunately when we move on to something like “love” or “faith”, people will admit that the definitions get a little fuzzy.  But take a word like “science”, and many folks want to concretize it again.  These folks want that word’s definition locked up in a castle, while others are comfortable realizing it is nebulous and defined variously in different contexts and in different circles of people.


Some folks want to shout out and tell people what a word really means — they are prescriptionists or word-nazis.  And some folks want to wrestle for the meaning hoping that the victor takes all.


Some folks, however, actually work out agreements with other folks so that their words share enough meaning and fit well enough together that they can use the words meaningfully and get things done.  These folks look at words as contracts which, even if temporary, allow groups to form, tools to be made, behaviors to change and all the other things language is used for.  These contractualists aren’t deceived that words live in Plato’s heaven and that we must merely discover their true meaning.  They aren’t deceived to feel words have locked, clearly defined meanings (see: Myth of Definitions).  They understand the nebulous nature of language and that is is our creation which we use to facilitate communication.  Words change, we change with them.  Understanding how words work can help us learn flexibility when trying to share words.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language Faux Pas: Part II

My English Faux Pas

Right from the early days, my life was full of faux pas.  I grew up in a virtually all-white urban town where the biggest prejudices were between the various Europeans (with Poles getting the brunt of it) and various Christian faiths (my father told us to stay away from Catholics).  So there was not much real diversity.

I had never met Jews until my first year of college at Cornell University where half my dorm floor were Jews.  I learned a lot about Jewish customs in the next year — well, New York, non-Hassidic Jewish customs.  And like many of my learnings, they were born of mistakes.

It was Autumn and my new friends (80% were Jewish) and I were all sitting around a noisy cafeteria table talking.  One guy across the table said something about doing something with a “Kike” — which I didn’t understand.  So I  yelled out across the table, “What is a Kike?”  But it ends up he was talking about a “Kite”, not a “Kike” and my comment was met by very stern faces. And quickly someone said, “That ain’t funny.”  Only later did I find out my mistake.

My Chinese Faux Pas

When I lived in Sichuan, China, one of my favorite hobbies was the board game called “WeiQi”.  It wasn’t hard to get a good working ability in basic WeiQi terms and very few people socialized during the game, so it was easy to fit in at the local WeiQi parlor.

Of course learning food terms was more important than WeiQi.  I loved Sichuan food and tried to taste every dish I could find.  I even created several menus to help the Peace Corp volunteers who I was employed to care for.  During my food studies I learned that monosodium glutamate (MSG) was used in much of the local cooking.  So when I became a bit braver with my language skills, I decided to experiment asking cooks to leave the MSG out of my food.   But my first few attempts went very poorly.  The conversations seemed to go like this:

Me: I don’t want MSG.
Cook: We don’t have MSG.

But I knew they used MSG and didn’t know why they did not admit it that they even had it.  And indeed, after my requests, I could always taste the MSG in my food.  After several attempts and failures I decided to look up monosodium glutamate again — and I found my mistake.  First, I had not really understood the importance of tones, next my pronunciation was bad.

monosodium glutamate (MSG) –> 味精 (Wèijīng) here, Wei is a falling tone
The Game of Go –> 圍棋 (Wéiqí) — here, Wei is rising tone

It seemed that I got my two language realms mixed up. To the cooks, the conversation sounded like this:

Me: I don’t want WeiQi.
Cook: We don’t have WeiQi.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Language Faux Pas: Part I

I am going to do few posts sharing some of the many embarrassing mistakes I have made when fumbling around learning a new language.  I love the excitement of being a raw novice, so these mistakes were always good fun for me.

Question to Readers:  Please share a language mistake you have made.

My German Embarrassment

One weekend, while studying German in Bavaria,  I  went for a hike in the mountains and happened upon  a small shop for hikers.  My German was  barely functional at that time, but I was fairly comfortable asking for food and drink.  So I decided to buy some milk.  But the milk was only sold in  sterile vacuum packets and I didn’t know how to say “packet” so I  figured  asking for a  cup of milk would do the trick.

Me: May I have a cup of milk.
Shopkeeper: We don’t have a cup of milk.
Me: But I see the milk there [pointing behind the  counter].
Shopkeeper: Oh, sure but that is not a cup of  milk.

So I figure the shop keeper is just being stubborn  and mean to the foreigner.  But when I went home I  looked up the word for cup and whoops, I was  wrong:

cup = “Tasse”
pocket = “Tasche”

So the conversation the shop keeper heard was:

Me: May I have a pocket full of milk.
Shopkeeper: We don’t have pockets of milk.
Me: But I see the milk there [pointing behind the  counter].
Shopkeeper: Oh, sure but that is not a pocket of  milk.


My Pakistan Embarrassment

When I was studied Urdu in Pakistan, our language institute was in a big house.  The institute had a cook that prepared both a morning snack and lunch for us.  In the evenings we would eat dinner with our home-stay families.  Like my German, my Urdu was also very bad when I first arrived in Pakistan.

One morning I walked into the kitchen to chat with the cook before class began.  That day I noticed that the cook didn’t have his shoes on and I decided to ask if shoes were OK to wear in the kitchen. Here is how our conversation went.

Me: Are we allowed shoes in the kitchen?
Cook:  Shoes aren’t allowed anywhere in the house.
Me: People have shoes in the classrooms and the living room.
Cook: They shouldn’t have shoes in the classroom, living room or anywhere.

Puzzled by the conversation, I asked a teacher about the conversation.  She had a big laugh at my faux pas.  You see, Urdu, unlike English, has aspirated forms of many consonants (J,G,T,D,R).  Thus not only do they have a regular J but they also have an aspirated J (Jh).   These aspirated consonants are difficult for foreigners to get right.  So my mistake was:

“Juta” = shoe (جوتے)

“Jhoot” = lie ( جھوٹ –as in, to tell a lie)

So the conversation the cook heard was:

Me: Are we allowed to tell lies in the kitchen?
Cook:  Telling lies isn’t allowed anywhere in the house.
Me: People tell lies in the classrooms and the living room.
Cook: They shouldn’t tell lies in the classrooms, living room or anywhere!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Invisibility Cloaks: “Faith”, “Mindfulness” and “Research”

Harry Potter's Invisibility Cloak

Faith” is a word that Christians throw around to cover all sorts of different situations — they must have 7 different uses of that word.  It is a comfort word for Christians — it is a holy signal.  Likewise, many Buddhists use the word “mindfulness” similarly.  Both words have a sanctimonious sense that allows the believer to use the word to say whatever they want.  Sly little words.  These cloaks of invisibility allow people to hide from scrutiny.

“Research” has a bit of this quality among people who value science.  ‘Believers’  say “research shows us” ….. but offer no references.  They assume that once the holy word “research” is said, that all heads will bow and eyes will close (Christian allusion) or, if put in Buddhist terms,  all spines will straighten and eyes will lower to a downward gaze. 🙂

We should challenge sanctimonious language.  Nothing is sacred in that it is closed to discussion or to approach.  Do not let the cloak of sanctity stop dialogue and escape scrutiny.  Using loaded words to sanctify thought and close down conversation should not be tolerated and all of us should try to avoid such practices.  Sure it feels great as an in-crowd rallying word — it builds a sense of security and strength, but such security is deceptive.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The Myth of Definitions

I am writing this post  because I see many debates centered on differences in definitions.  Some people approach their word-impasses  by mistakenly trying to debate the “real” definition of the word.  But words don’t have “real” definitions.  It is in this sense that “definitions” are a myth.  It is surprising how a misunderstanding of the nature of words and language unnecessarily fuels many heated debates.

Words don’t possess definitions–particular people give words definitions.  Sure, you can grab a dictionary, and say “Look, here are the definitions”.  OK, you are right.  In that sense, words have definitions but using the same method we can also show that Santa has a big white beard by opening a book and pointing at the chap’s face. Continue reading


Filed under Philosophy & Religion