Tag Archives: language

Word herds: are they changing and why?

Get_On_Up_posterRichard Corliss describes Chadwick Boseman’s performance as James Brown in Get On Up as something that “radiates sex, drive, menace and spirit.”

Oh, I thought, that’s kinda new.  Normally, a series like this (“sex, drive, menace and spirit”) would have a little more redundancy.  The “word herd” repeated itself to aid comprehension.  In effect, the terms in the word herd meant roughly the same thing.

Words in the herd might even be near or actual synonyms.  Thus the performance might be said to be “deft, subtle, nuanced.”  The first term sets up the meaning, the last one spikes it.  (To use a volleyball metaphor.)

But these days it is much more likely to see word herds that are diverse, with meanings working not together but happily in opposition.  Each word does it’s own work.  These word herds are heterogeneous.  If terms used to be synonyms, now they are a little closer to antonyms.  And the pleasure of reading comes less from going “Oh, that’s what she means.  Got it.” to having to read the whole thing through, admiring the bumper-car effect of unruly language.  Good writers aim for whip lash.

The methodological question: could we examine a large body of texts and see if indeed word herds are changing?  The tricky part, I’m guessing, picking word herds out of millions of words of text.  If this problem can be solved, then the question is whether there is some technique for judging the semantic distance between terms.  What we are looking for, for the sake of this suspicion, is a “before” with relatively little distance and an “after” with lots of it.

Not to rush things, but I think there probably confirmation is waiting to happen.  And not to really rush things, but my guess is that word herds are more heterogeneous for the same reason that so many things in our culture are more heterogeneous.

If once we were monolithic as a social and a cultural order, now we are various.  And we are learning to live with this variousness.  Homogeneous word herd are really training wheels of a kind.  They were designed help us grasp the meaning of a text.  And now they feel like a tedium tax the author is forcing upon us, as an unreasonable condition of entry.

It does feel like everyone is getting smarter.  Certainly, and against the odds, popular culture is getting smarter and this lifts all boats.  But the reason might be there in the everyday act of thinking.  There was a time when we staggered beneath a weight of unanswered questions.  Yes, we could go to the library and find an encyclopedia, but, Dude, really?  All that indeterminacy created, to shift my metaphor, a film, a gauze.  Meaning was hard to see.  Distinctions hard to make.  So it was left to the author to make everything clear, definite and precise.  Got it?

Got it???  How laborious.  Now that we can answer almost any question almost instantaneously, some of that film is gone.  The world is windexed.  The homogeneous word herd just feels like we are being struck about the head and shoulders by a schoolmaster who resents the fact that we are more interested in stray and playful meanings than his lesson plan.  This is language acting like genre, setting up meaning over and over again to remove all doubt…in the process removing all surprise.  We don’t need training wheels.  Not any more.

This is a question for people with methodological skills I do not have.  Maybe Tom Anderson  might care to have a look.  Or perhaps Russ Bernard might have a student who cares to take this on.   Please, if you have a way of solving this problem, sing out!

Imprecision, culture, and Nick Kroll


I’m reading In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.  My nephew is inventing a language and I’m trying to make myself useful.  (I can tell he’ll be absolutely astonished if I’m any help at all.)

Sometimes the motive for a new language is clarity.  Inventors want to eliminate the uncertainties contained in a sentence like “I spoke to a man on the boat.”  (Was he on the boat?  Was I on the boat?  Were we on the boat?)

It turns out to be tough to make a language that’s perfectly clear, and one of the pleasures of In the Land of Invented Languages is observing the linguistic and other conniptions that result from this quest for clarity.

Finally, though, Okrent wonders whether the quest isn’t wrong-headed.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think.  Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision.  Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.  (p. 258)

This will come as good news to the blogging community.  Personally, I intend to use Okrent’s discovery as license for the several places in this blog where you may be asking yourself ok, what’s he saying that isn’t really all that clear to you the reader as a meaning co-creator in so many different ways?

But the larger “take away” is “don’t look down.”  Our lives depend on architectures of meanings, as those come to us from language and from culture.  And these architectures are sometimes a little underspecified.  They are a little more like the “building concept” drawings than the actual blue prints.

Normally, the seams don’t show.  (Make that the “seems don’t show.”) We take for granted that the architecture of meaning can bear our weight.  Furthermore, a certain kind of story teller, entertainer and brander reassures us that we occupy a deep, resonant, redundant, completely seamless world.  (Other artists like to take us to the edge of the built world and invite us to look over the edge.)

Over the last couple of weeks here, I’ve been looking at the possibility that popular culture is improving, that it’s becoming more like culture.  But this, the imperfections and insecurities of meaning, may be the one place that popular culture will never go.  Well, let’s watch and see.  If and when popular culture does take us to the edge, this can be a measure of how much it has thrown off its “popular” mandate, conditions, and constraints.

And on this note, I’ve been watching The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Shumer on Comedy Central.  There are moments when it’s good (and wicked clever) fun, but there are moments when you are  being asked to stare into the abyss.  (Thanks, Nick!  Thanks, Amy!)  This might be evidence.