Are words Real?
are Words real?
Čerškėti Veidasknyga Prisijungęs
The conversation below, and many variations of it, regularly take place on social media and in
meatspace real life—anywhere that linguists are to be found.
There is an obvious tension between the friendly and inviting entrée into an understandable discussion of prescriptivism and descriptivism provided by LG and LC and the contentious and highly technical
riot debate that MO and HTTP are attempting to incite. The kind of linguist-friendly civilian who asks, “Is that a word?” should be gently encouraged, even—especially!—if their initial point of contact with linguistics fails to properly acknowledge and honor cutting-edge theory and bickering discussion.
What to do?
The best approach to this question, as with any linguistic question, is to reify several abstractions and generate another layer of
insulation from reality technical jargon, strategically defined in ways that are emotionally and/or intuitively satisfying but still sufficiently vague as to be hard to pin down precisely when the inevitable barrage of unenlightened criticism comes from your troglodyte detractors.
In this case, I would—following the distinctions between langue and parole and little-l language and big-L Language—make a distinction between words and Words. Little-w words are specific to a given language—and potentially to a specific culture using that language. If a speaker says their language has words, then in all likelihood it does. The answer isn’t always clear, of course; whether, for example, Inuktitut or Ubykh have words—is left as an exercise for the
Thus in the exchange above, we can see the disconnect between the
subject object topic of LG & LC and MO & HTTP’s respective comments. LG & LC, along with their actual or hypothetical non-linguist civilian interlocutor, are discussing words in their language (likely English in this case); MO & HTTP are (inappropriately) bringing up the much larger question of whether Words exist in Language. Their comments are bad and they should feel bad.