An MIT Linguistics professor was lecturing his class.
“In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. There isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”
In the same way that people can be fascinated by bugs, films or the weather, some people are naturally fascinated by language. I happen to be one of them. If I see a word I don’t know, I have to look it up. If a spelling seems bizarre, I need to know the reason for it. And spoken language is just as intriguing – accents, dialects, sarcasm, humour. Far too often I find myself missing parts of conversations because I’m analysing rather than taking words in. It may sound sad, but there we go.
Lots of people will claim that they have little or no interest in language – they just don’t care. Yes, it does a job. Yes, it serves a purpose. But do they feel the need to know why somebody can be ‘inept’ and not ‘ept’? Why the plural of ‘goose’ is ‘geese’ but the plural of ‘moose’ isn’t ‘meese’? Nope. Not in the slightest.
The thing is, not caring about random snippets of language trivia is not the same thing as not caring about language altogether. In fact, the wonderful thing about language is that everybody does care. They just don’t always realise it.
Many years ago now, I remember sitting in an IT lesson at school both immensely bored and immensely hungry. I turned to my friend next to me and made some casual remark about craving a fruit scone. My friend looked at me, bewildered. ‘Don’t you mean a ‘scone’?’. To clarify, my ‘scone’ rhymed with ‘gone’ and ‘shone’ whilst my friend’s ‘scone’ rhymed with ‘stone’ and ‘bone’. Naturally, we abandoned our IT tasks to address the more pressing matter of who was right. With the words above supporting our cases, the debate soon engaged the whole class. Everybody had a view. And everybody was adamant that their view – and only their view – was right. By the end of the lesson nothing had been resolved, nobody had been swayed and we had one very frustrated teacher (who was, incidentally, on my side).
My point? People do care about language. Whether they realise it or are prepared to openly admit it is another matter. But with a little nudge, people will get really quite fired up. Why? It’s simple. Language is a part of our identity. The way we use it is a part of who we are and it’s personal to each and every one of us. We can’t help but care about it and that is what gives language the clear edge.
PS. Still in doubt? Try slipping scones into your next conversation. Just don’t blame me if things get ugly.
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