The Joy of Informal Language

I started out titling this post "The Joy of Simple Language" but, in taking about it with Michele, she pointed out that I was really talking about Informal Language and, infact, what I was looking at as simple is actually complicated. I had it backwards.

I used to be in an men's group. We met every other week for years and we had all sorts of rules on how to be in our group. Among the rules was Anything the we say in the group stays in the group.  When one guy told us he and his wife were expecting a baby, none of us told our significant other. Rules were rules. Eventually, we dropped all the rules except To be in relationship to what we do in the group and to each other. With no rules to slavishly follow, being in the group became much more complicated.

Language is that way.

Intuitively, we all – I – think that the language of primitive people is simple. We all know that cave men said things like Uga or Ugh and not I want to tease out the real meaning in the cave being empty.  And that may be true, but earlier languages are simpler because they are more formal than our language. They have more and harder rules. Latin is almost impossibly complex but it is easy once you memorize the rules.

English – American English – is losing rules every day and it had a lot less to start with.  I think that is so thrilling.

It is easy to follow a rule like Never end a sentence with a preposition, but it results in a sentence like About what are you thinking? rather than What are you thinking about?  As English losses its rules, it becomes more complex as well as less formal. There is more room to play. To understand tease  above, we have to see it in context. We have to be in relationship and that is the Joy. 



3 thoughts on “The Joy of Informal Language

  1. What more can be said after Suzuki Roshi?
    Lots, it turns out (though there might be a different answer to the question “what more of value can be said after S.R.):
    Your insight seems to match modern information theory (at least as viewed by Freeman Dyson and James Glieck):
    An excerpt:
    The central dogma [of information theory] says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message.
    Drum beats need more teasing out.

  2. Thanks, guys. I feel that the blog is really getting classed up with quotes by both Little Suzuki and big Freeman Dyson. I have to say though, I understand the cow quote but I don’t think I understand Dyson’s quote.
    I’ve read the article and I understand almost all of it except the central premise. But, as Eminem said, “I am whatever you say I am; if I wasn’t, then why would you say I am.”

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