Friday, December 08, 2006

Paying attention to something other than myself for once

A headline from BBC news today:

Left-handers 'think' more quickly

Because we can't honestly call the mental processes of left-handers thinking, can we? So we'll use the word euphemistically and mock them with our scare quotes.

Seriously, though, does anyone have a clue what those quotation marks could possibly be doing in that headline? I know that some people wrongly, horribly, disastrously justifiably and consistently use quote marks for emphasis. And I am not going to be allowed, as a card-carrying linguist, to argue with that. But this headline doesn't even have the need for emphasis as a plausible excuse.

What is its problem?


wolfa said...

I've met some lefties. Calling it "'thinking'" is being extra kind. :P

wolfa said...

In all seriousness, I don't understand how you can be more or less left-handed.

Also, I think that linguists are allowed to have one -prescriptivist obsession-[1] pet peeve. And in any case, punctuation is exempted from the rules.

[1] This would be struck out, but I'm not allowed.

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, I don't understand that either. Unless they mean that some left-handers don't really favour their left hand so much because it was beaten out of them at school. But that shouldn't affect any other coocurring traits, should it? Unless it isn't genetic...

And when you say punctuation doesn't count, do you mean that language change involving punctuation isn't natural? I can see that you could make an argument for that, since written language isn't really 'acquired' but rather taught and learned more artificially.

But I also think that at least some punctuation changes over the centuries show similarities to natural language changes: reanalysis, regularisation, analogy, etc. And influences from language contact.

Hmm... Maybe that's an argument for mechanisms of 'natural' language change being general cognitive principles rather than anything language-specific.

Maybe I should write a paper :)

wolfa said...

Well, if leftieness is on one gene, you can either have one gene for it or two, times however many genes there are. But mostly it didn't make sense to me.

Punctuation in general is not natural -- it's like spelling, it's a developed system to make language more usable. Change in punctuation happens, sure, and I'm not surprised that it happens like it does in language (punctuation being limited to written language), but I think punctuation systems are dissimilar enough from grammatical systems that they are almost by definition entirely prescriptive.

Lucy said...

There's a difference between people who favour their left hand for everything and people who have mixed preferences, I think.
And maybe they just mean that they're using "think" to refer to whatever brain activity they were measuring, which isn't necessarily the same thing.

StyleyGeek said...

Good point, Lucy. I hadn't thought of that.

And Wolfa, I know people TRY to be prescriptive about punctuation, but I think that a lot of pkids acquire it by looking for patterns and generalising their own rules (apostrophes occur before s, no wait, only after vowels; commas go in 'pausey' places, etc).

People like you and me paid attention in school, but a lot of others didn't (judging by my students, anyway). So the main differences that I can see between punctuation rules and 'rules' of spoken language are (1) that you learn punctuation rules at a later age, and (2) maybe if change doesn't affect punctuation as quickly as it does spoken language, then you might have more of an accretion of archaic rules, or maybe more layers of different punctuation 'lects' that people are exposed to.

And it may be that punctuation rules are more arbitrary than 'rules' of spoken language, but I think we'd have to look at the origins of punctuation in various languages to be sure whether that was the case. What motivates people to create certain types of punctuation? How much does this interact with other aspects of language? At the basic level of separating phrases, clauses and maybe in some languages words from each other, how is this different from the development of grammatical phrase boundary or clause boundary markers? I suspect it may only be different in that punctuation probably has to be created more consciously than other markers.

Ooh, now I want to research the origins of punctuation. Does anyone know any studies on this I can read?

Kristen said...

The article didn't mention that left-handed people make great baseball pitchers...I guess that's not the first sport they think of in England. I am left-handed, and I think that we do approach the world differently because lots of things are geared toward right-handed people: numerical keypads on computers, etc.... My one pet peeve is my ice-cream scoop. It has that button that slides along the inside of the scoop to help remove the ice cream, but the button is on the left, which means that you must use the thumb on your right hand. So, I have to use my weaker, non-dominant hand to wrestle the ice cream out of the carton. A minor problem, I know, but its late and I'm rambling. Are any of the rest of you left handed?

wolfa said...

Oh, I agree that people acquire it often by trying to find their own rules based on reading and maybe haphazard teaching. (I never learned about punctuation in school.)

My question first is how many languages even *have* punctuation. The European languages do, but that is probably just one example of it plus spreading. Semitic languages do a bit, but a lot of it is quite recent. Asian languages? Trying to think of languages with long histories of written form.

Change often affects spelling less, so I figure affecting punctuation less makes sense. I keep pushing on punctuation as a semi-artificial addition to language, like spelling, because not all languages have a written system, and of those that do, I don't know if they all have punctuation.

"In some languages words from each other"? Like, say, most languages written in alphabets (and I guess syllaberies?) which have spaces between their words?

I also wonder how much things like texting will change punctuation.

StyleyGeek said...

Yeah, I was including spaces as punctuation. And a lot of languages with writing have spacing. Also, with the internet and texting and so on, some other languages are starting to adapt and use English punctuation.

But even if only a few languages have punctuation (which, as a percentage of the languages of the world, is certainly true), this doesn't necessarily mean it's artificial. Only a very few languages in the world have click phonemes, but they aren't artificial. Only a few languages have noun incorporation, only a few have verb classifiers, but these aren't artificial.

I'm not saying that prescriptive punctuation rules aren't artificial: of course they are. But I wonder whether the original development of punctuation in languages that do have it, and its subsequent change through reanalysis, regularisation, analogical change, etc, might be closer to the processes of change found in e.g. the grammar of spoken language than we generally assume it to be.

And I think you are right, texting and other quick forms of written communication will probably have a huge affect on punctuation. Whether they will develop their own subsystems or whether their norms will spread into mainstream writing will be interesting to see.