Monday, March 5, 2007

Blue Skies

I was reading a magazine the other day and found the phrase, "beautiful skies over Berlin." We say "beautiful skies" or "blue skies," but how can we pluralize the word "sky"? In my understanding of this universe, there is only one sky. How do you count skies?

I mentioned this in one of my earlier posts, but I feel that the English language is inconsistent when it comes to what can be counted and what cannot be counted (countable and uncountable nouns). For example, the word "advice" is uncountable, but the word "suggestion" is countable.

That's good advice!
That's a good suggestion!

Is there a logic behind this categorization? To me, if "advice" is uncountable, "suggestion" should also be uncountable.


Ryan said...

I'm not sure if any language has a clean, internal logic. They have grammars, semantic relationships, etc. I mean, why is the Latin word for uterus a masculine noun? That seems even more ludicrous than vacilating singular and plurals.
In other words, step into madness.
No wonder Pat said that most copyeditors are a little odd. The field of language is odd by nature.

Takashi said...

I agree, Ryan. The field of language isn’t necessarily logical, just as we, who use language, aren’t.

But if we find something to be illogical in our language, why not make it logical? A mathematician wouldn’t hesitate to correct an illogical math equation. If someone ever finds the Pythagorean theorem to be illogical, wouldn’t it benefit everyone to modify it? Why should language be any different? Why can’t we make sense out of it?

You may say I'm a dreamer, I the only one?

Ryan said...

Well, Francis Bacon, John Locke, and a host of other Enlightenment philosophers, as well as logical positivists at the turn of the 19th century attempted to purify language. It also seems THE goal of formal logic. But how much do we gain from sanitizing language? How much do we lose. So much of what we would call poetic effects arise from ill-logic or leaps of logic. If everything lined up neatly, would we see the great paradigm shifts in thought? Would we have argument, discussion, the need to test? How much of human existence depends on ill or fuzzy logic?

Pat said...

I'm enjoying the exchange between you two; please allow me to contribute a relatively pedestrian thought.

It seems to me that what we perceive as the sky is just one section of the atmosphere. If we were able to see this sky in its entirety, we would see that it differs, from place to place, in color and other qualities. I therefore think that skies has meaning and application in our daily lives.

Regarding advice and suggestion: notice, Takashi, that in your example, the latter has an article. Perhaps advice is a categorical term and suggestion one of the terms in that category?

Rebecca said...

Hi guys! Mind if I jump in? I like this discussion. I think what is important to remember is that language is first and foremost about communication, not logic, not grammar, not writing. Those things are just facilitators, not the reasons language exists. What helps me most when faced with dilemmas like sky vs. skies is to ask myself how each word changes the communicative value of the statement. Does it matter if a uterus is "masculine" or "feminine"? Maybe it matters a lot, maybe not at all. It depends what the intended communication is. In the end, that is the only thing that really matters. The other thing I like to remind myself of when grammar and logic seem to bog me down is the fact that language is fluid, always changing, always evolving. Sure, one can say this or that is not grammatically correct, but according to who and when? And, is it still relevent within the context you are working? Don't get me wrong, I think the rules and structures behind languages are very important to know. I just believe that the communicated/transmitted thought itself is more important than the means by which it is carried out. I say, don't be afraid to change the rules...but be prepared to defend your case ;)

Ritchie Mae said...

Wow, I really like this discussion too!

Megan said...

What about quirky phrases we use in American English? I used the phrase "quite a few" while talking with a non-native english speaker yesterday, and he looked at me kind of funny when I said it. I thought about it: the phrase make no logical sense. We might save ourselves some time and confusion with formalizing our logic, but these little nuances make our language special. I feel a little ashamed to not try and live up to the Elightenment philosophers' goal, but so be it I suppose.

Takashi said...

Thank you for your inputs, everyone. Your comments help me to think this topic through.

I guess I was coming from a more practical standpoint than I might have portrayed the issue to you. I just think it would be a lot easier to learn and use language if everything was controlled systematically, with no exception, unless there is an uncompromising factor that requires such exception.

Maybe my insistence on consistency in language comes from the fact that I grew up with Japanese-speaking parents who had to deal with English as a second language. They often complain about how frustrating it is to memorize all the exceptions and (seemingly) illogical, irregular elements in the English grammar that the native speakers take for granted—not that Japanese is any more logical than English.

But like Ryan wrote, pure logic may cause more harm than good, by ridding us of abstract, transcending thoughts and expressions…

So I have no conclusion. But I still think “uterus” should be feminine…

Pat said...

If we think of language as a form of music, I think we can see that there are many levels of complexity and that at the lower levels consistency and logic do indeed reign.

Idioms like Megan's "quite a few" are native to each language, and these of course are hard to learn. That is why you don't find idioms in elementary-school readers.

Jill said...

My first reaction to Takashi's post was "I just use my instinct," which I know is wrong; but, yeah, I like what Pat said; and what Rebecca said. I can also see the idea of Sky (with a capital S) and skies (with a small s) being some, like, big modern vs. postmodern discussion...hmm. Yeah, anyway, here's what I think Takashi, there is only ONE sky, but there are many skies in that one sky.

As far as advice and suggestion, advice, I think sounds funny with an "s" and so people back in the day were like, nah, we'll just say advice even if it's pretty much like suggestion. So yeah, because it sounded weird, "advices" (sounds too much add vices and people thought the irony was too much) wasn't really used as often as "advice;" thus, coming to the musical element of communication!

About uterus, it's probably masculine because man dominates all and owns everything that is within the female body. Women back then were seriously owned. So yeah, the MAN decided what and when things were going to get created. In fact, didn't a masculine being create life? :-) In Italian, the word zucchini changes from masculine to feminine after it is cooked. Figures!

Ritchie Mae said...

Yeah, like how menstruation and menopause all start with men.

Ryan said...

In terms of masculine-feminine-neuter noun forms in Romance languages--we would necessarily need to consider them arbitrary since these are words commenting on words and so on and so on . . . This is why Derrida's trace model works better than de Saussure's differential linguistics.
But, one thing that de Saussure seemed to hit squarely on the head is the notion of langage as langue and parole. The langue is diachronic. Parole syncronic. In other words, there is a language that someone is born into, then there is the language of use. The language of use shoud be seen as cutting across tradition--and when I say cut, I do intend its violent connotations.
Another thing to remember, grammar rules and logic are epiphenomenal to language. People use language first, then come up with rules. Okay, maybe Chomsky would disagree, but I stick to that point.

Jill said...

Yah, Ritchie, I think it's fun to play with language that way. That's a part of Language that attracts me to poetry. Because we are confined (defined) by the way we are able to describe the world through the language(s) available to us and yet how we resist! Whether it's an origin word traced back to patriarchy or whether it's just an "accident," part of "mastering" language is playing with it (not to be mistaken with "playing" in the postmodern sense, which would be for no purpose, but rather in a very direct and clear way) and learning the way it both controls/limits a person as well as "frees."

PS I heard you're writing some good poetry in Susan's class!

Regarding Ryan's comment. "In the beginning there was the word." :-)