Monday, December 12, 2005

Language is all about what's left unsaid...

Phil wonders about the standardisation (or not) of language. I was going to post this as a comment, but it got big enough to warrant its own blog reply...

"Search engines are a powerful incentive to keep to some kind of standards."

An interesting technical reason (and the same could be said - moreso? - of tagging), but I come at this from a slightly different point of view - does the ability to spell indicate some level of intelligence and if so, is that a cultural bias or a more instinctual, "group seeking" one? I started to think about this before but never came back to it.

I also find that I make the mistake between "they're", "their" and "there" far more than I do with "its/it's" or even "to/too" - maybe theyre's less nit-picking over it, so you look out for it less...

Anyway, my question is - are we right to use spelling and grammar as an indicator of "intellectual validity"? And/or do other factors come into play depending on the arena in which the content is?

For instance, spelling mistakes in an academic paper are considered far more serious than spelling mistakes in a blog entry, due to the air of quality and checking associated with the former. That air of quality is similarly applied to the concepts in the academic paper, which translates into a reputation for the content, regardless of what's actually written. Therefore, their are inherent associations we make between mistakes that we see, and the quality of content that we take in, but those associations are largely a result of the mechanisms that have built up around the publishing methods employed.

That's one aspect, as I see it. The second aspect (which I think I touch on in the "article" linked to above) is that there may also be a more "individual" (i.e. not bound to the infrastructural reputation mechanisms) connection between SPG and intellect that we, as native speakers of some language, make without thinking. That is, understanding and comprehension of a language indicates a certain level of thought, which translates (correctly or not) into a similar level of being able to pick up non-linguistic concepts, etc.

This would be fair if, say, the "model" that underlies any language is similar in comprehension to models for anything else. i.e. Language has rules, just as everything else has rules. Understanding those rules may or may not be the same for both linguistics and non-linguistic subjects, but if you can "get" the rules to the former, their's more chance that you "get" those for the latter too.

Thirdly, language is more than just an agreement. It can also be considered, I think, as an esotericism - a platform that has many non-obvious intricacies that require a thorough grounding in the language to understand - things like allusions, puns, cultural knowledge, and so on. I have noticed over the past year, for instance, that talking to foreigners is profoundly different to talking to English people - that level of tacit understanding - "unspoken implications" - achievable in any language speaks volumes. Unfortunately (but necessarily) this level often gets stripped out under "translation" (global English vs "local" English, say), or when using transfer means such as e-mail. While not completely confined to spelling errors and such like, the same idea that "linguistic knowledge == ability to understand tacit inferences" may prevail.

A last point, related to the first 2 above, is that (as Phil mentions) mistakes indicate "rushed" content. Perhaps the absence of mistakes indicates an ability to check over what you've written, which further indicates a more thoughtful approach to the content - if you've gone back and checked the lexical side, maybe you're brain has had time to process things semantically/logically as well.

In that sense, then, the gatekeeper is in all of us...


phil jones said...

Good discussion.

I suspect there're some basic cognitive capacities which might play a role in the spelling and grammar accuracy thing : for example, number of items in short-term memory, speed and accuracy of retrieval from long-term memory etc.

Probably, the better these capacities are, the less likely you are to make certain mistakes when "rushing" or even at a brisk trot.

On the other hand, I'm less convinced that accuracy of spelling and grammar correlates with any more complex mental ability such as logical reasoning, rich expressive vocabulary, and certainly not with wisdom or intuition.

Something like dyslexia might be a good data-point.

Scribe said...

I think you're right, and I suggest that there's a difference (although links remain) between spelling/grammar, and use of semantics.

At one end of the former, the odd poorly-spelt word may well indicate that a particular piece has been put together in a certain speed, or a certain amount of time. At the other end, repeated mis-spelling of a word/mis-use of grammar reflects more on either a) levels of educational (whether rightly or wrongly), and b) ability to observe other people' use of language, and learn from it (i.e. the more "obvious" the mistake, the more you question someone).

On the other hand completely though, there's a stronger (I would say) link between whether someone uses words correctly (i.e. location, appropriateness, etc rather than how it's spelt etc) and how we assess their ability to grasp the point they're going on about. For instance, if I continually mix up "relativism" and "realism" (cos they both kinda look similar) then perhaps I'm also confused about the point I'm making - which becomes a natural filtering mechanism to decide who to pay attention to and who not to.

I take your point that there may not be any real correlation between the two, in terms of what's actually going on (and indeed, it seems like people who use the biggest words often don't have all that much to say, really), but I wouldn't put it past the brain to use the same rough set of linguistic-filtering rules to equate use of language, range of vocabulary, use of grammar and ability to spell, to gain a rough (initial?) idea of an author's mental facility, and their social capacity/influences. (Esoteric groups have esoteric language, and vice versa.)

While I try not to let such factors dissuade me from determining what point a particular author is making, in a world in which anyone can publish their own material (to get back to your original point ;) it often feels like we need even more filtering mechanisms to avoid going crazy. I suspect, therefore, that I linger more on pages that have a certain decency in spelling than on those that don't. If I read everything (or had to), regardless of first impressions, I wouldn't get much done.

Not that I do anyway ;)