or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Sometimes, what we think of as essential features of a language turn out to be mere grammatical redundancy, something for which context would do just as well. It's obvious that we need tense, isn't it? We have to clearly indicate whether something takes place in the past, present, or future. But English is laden with adverbs that tell us when something is happening, and we could dispense with verb tense altogether, set everything in the present, and let the adverbs do all the work: "I go to Monaco in three weeks," "I drive to the store yesterday." (In the first instance, we do, in fact, construct sentences like that sometimes.) Chinese works this way, and it seems to get along just fine.

We think of the pronouns "he" and "she" as indispensable, but some languages don't use them at all: Finnish uses one pronoun for them both, and lets context take care of the rest. Turkish goes one step further: it has one pronoun for "he", "she", and "it".

Most of the time, we don't speak as coherently as we think we do: it's always a shock to hear ourselves in a casual recording, because we assume that we speak the way we write, in complete sentences, whereas our everyday speech is larded through with ellipses, omissions, pauses, and circumlocutions. Yet somehow our message usually gets across and the conversation continues, because the listener's brain takes care of the rest.

One of the hardest things for context to supply is the noun; sometimes you can just point, or use one of the language's amusing batch of filler nouns such as "thingie" or "whatchamacallit", but for the most part you need a large supply of nouns to make yourself understood, which is why there are more nouns in English than any other part of speech. But if you know someone really well, you can even dispense with those sometimes.

Last night Jim and I were doing laundry, and the machines are in the basement of our building (only three floors down, so it's not too much of a trial). I was putting on some shoes to head down and get the first batch from the dryer, and the following conversation ensued (all dialogue guaranteed verbatim):

"Oh, could you go get me the...[pause while I try to think of the word for the thing]."

It's not mind-reading, it's simple context. As I continued to put my shoes on, Jim returned with the large mesh bag we use to bring the laundry up in.

After the second load of laundry was brought upstairs, we were putting things away and hanging up shirts and pants while chatting about something or other, and this conversation took place:

"Could you hand me three...[pause while Jim tries to think of the word for the thing]."
"Right here" [as I passed him three hangers].

See? Context is everything.


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