Sunday, September 13, 2015

Cthulhu is living quietly in Encino

A friend of mine once hyperbolized Thomas Kuhn by expressing a wish that grammar would one day undergo a paradigm shift. He didn’t mean that he looked forward to a new version of amo, amas, amat or to English or French or Swahili going from one set of grammatical categories to another—that happens on the time. He dreamed of entirely new tenses, persons, moods, and parts of speech that would transform our thinking thought, indeed what we could think. Ergo, the quest for the fourth person singular.

Well, I’m a little skeptical about that. For all I know some language in Papua New Guinea already has a fourth person singular and, anyhow, the absence of a way of making a distinction in a given language doesn’t keep us from making the distinction. The linguists talk about grammaticalization. For example, in some languages the gender of the speaker is indicated by an ending on the main verb or by some other obligatory marker, but that doesn’t mean you have any trouble referring to whether a boy or a girl is doing the talking in languages like English that don’t have such a feature. Similarly, the problem with achieving the desired weirdness isn’t that English doesn’t have a way to grammaticalize it. 

I’m not saying that treating grammar as a kind of metaphysics can’t be useful as a way of generating certain insights in a fashion not completely dissimilar from the way that a Zen master uses his staff on an acolytes noggin. For example, it occurred to me the other day than when we speak, there’s a certain amount of you involved because unanimity is always a never quite completed negotiation. And I guess that shouldn’t be surprising since when I speak, there’s a certain amount of us in it—it’s not just in the history of Tragedy that the actor emerged from the chorus. Heidegger was right that even the most authentic individual is a modified anonymous collective being—das Man—and never ceases to be such a being, no matter how neurotic she gets about it. So there isn’t a fourth person singular, but there is a first and halfth person plural as well as a first person singular plus. Mathematicians have been talking about fractional dimensions for quite a while now. Maybe the grammarians can learn to live with fractional persons. And maybe we can use such strained terminology to think about the unspeakable oddness that constitutes the human condition, much as we manage to use the bizarre formalisms of quantum mechanics to think about the unspeakable oddness of the physics that governs absolutely everything.

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