Journey to the PIE Heartland—T. Traveller SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 3 Contents The Noises of Belchburper von Chufflenuffle—Noise #37: ‘Aaaaaaaaah’

Are words Real? are Words real?

dOes caPitALIzATiON EveN maTteR?

Lynn Guist, Professor of Sociomediolinguistics
Čerškėti Veidasknyga Prisijungęs Universitetas, Vilnius

The conversation below, and many variations of it, regularly take place on social media and in meatspace real lifeanywhere that linguists are to be found.

Lynn Guist.
Today at 9:47 am.
Did you know that if you ask a linguist, “Is that a word?”, they are likely to excitedly reply, It is now!

[thumbs up emoji][crying laughing emoji][winking tongue out emoji][skull and crossbones emoji][alien head emoji][vulcan salute emoji][anatomical heart emoji][brain emoji]. Noam and 74 others.

Lexxy Colojist: Lynn that is so true. It is an occupational hazard.
[thumbs up emoji 22].
9:49 am.

—M. O’Rfeem: Not true, Lexxy... a real linguist will tell you there is no such thing as a word.
     [thumbs up emoji 3].
     10:04 am.

—Henry Tavid Thorough, Père: words aren’t real.
     [thumbs up emoji 1].
     10:06 am.

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, evenespecially!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 wouldfollowing the distinctions between langue and parole and little-l language and big-L Languagemake a distinction between words and Words. Little-w words are specific to a given languageand 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 wordsis left as an exercise for the reader speaker.

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.

Journey to the PIE HeartlandT. Traveller
The Noises of Belchburper von ChufflenuffleNoise #37: ‘Aaaaaaaaah’
SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 3 Contents