12 November 2006

Two Linguistic Jokes

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:40 pm

When Chagnon began to gather genealogical data among the Yanomamo, he had to work around their taboo against mentioning the names of prominent people (a bit like the sensibility behind our own forms of address like Sir and Your honor). Chagnon asked his informants to whisper the names of a person and the person’s relatives into his ear, and clumsily repeated it to makee sure he had heard correctly. When the named one glowered at him and the onlookers giggled, Chagnon felt reassured that he had recorded the person’s true name. After months of work he had assembled an elaborate genealogy, and during a visit to a neighboring village he tried to show off by dropping the name of the headmans wife. Chagnon reported the reaction:

A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headmand was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also came out that I was calling the headman “long dong,” his brother “eagle shit,” one of his sons “asshole,” and a daughter “fart breath.” Blood welled in my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort.

Philosophers relish the true story of the theoretician who announced at a scholarly conference that while some languages use a double negative to convey an affirmative, no language uses a double positive to convey a negative. A philosopher standing at the back of the hall shouted in a singsong, ‘Yeah, yeah.”

– from Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works

[Tomorrow: the seventh creation.]


1 Comment »

  1. The last story is the most interesting to me, and it goes to the point that even though we must develop grammatical methods, rules, and interpretive guidelines any such construction is always and forever tentative. Language is fluid. We invent it as we go along.

    Rules such as “there is no language that uses a double positive to convey a negative” are made to be broken….


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 13 November 2006 @ 9:41 pm

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