The Illogical Nature Of Language Falls
Under The Scrutiny Of Science
Jedidiah Becker for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
When the philosopher and linguist Jeffry Pelletier first handed in his doctoral dissertation in the 1970s, he was unaware his obscure study of a grammatical oddity would eventually open up a new field of research. Now a professor at the University of Alberta, Pelletier argued in his original thesis that natural languages – unlike computer languages or mathematics – do not always accurately or logically describe the world around us. To prove his point, he demonstrated the distinction between many uncountable nouns (also known as ‘mass nouns’) and countable nouns is largely arbitrary and could thus lead to confusions in everyday language usage.
“It’s an obscure technical topic; during the ‘70s some people wrote about it and then stopped. But the topic kept bubbling up here and there. And suddenly, about five years ago, there were all of these people in Europe interested in this topic. So somehow it got interesting once again after all these years,” Pelletier explained.
When he first began his work, Pelletier was one of the only academics exploring this topic, and there was so little literature on it he was able to review and summarize all of the known works on the topic in his dissertation. In recent years, however, this has been changing as a growing number of academics have come to see this as both a fascinating and important field of research.
Specifically, Pelletier is fascinated by the manifold ways in which the languages we speak fail to reflect the nuanced reality of the world around us.
“For 40 years, I’ve been interested in a question on natural languages – the view that natural languages are a bit imprecise, unclear and fuzzy, and that somehow you could sharpen them by representing them in a system of logic,” he says.
As a linguist who also received formal training in philosophy, Pelletier was equipped to take a somewhat unconventional approach in his analysis of some of the irrational features of spoken languages.
“I picked on a few areas of natural languages to show how to represent them in formal logic. I said in the theses that the mass-count distinction is totally arbitrary. I claimed that every noun could be used as either mass or count. And the moral I drew from this was that existing differences might be important but they don’t say anything about the world.”
Countable nouns (or simply ‘count nouns’) include most everyday objects like tomatoes, dogs, cars or spoons, while some common mass or uncountable nouns include things and ideas like bread, courage, oxygen or advice. As the names imply, count nouns can be quantified with numbers whereas mass nouns typically need an amount or mass to specify their quantity.
While the distinction between count and mass nouns may often seem arbitrary and even nonsensical, Pelletier explains the situation can get even more confusing when we encounter two very similar objects where one is countable and the other uncountable.
“Take a word such as onion, which is a count term – one onion, five onions and so on. But garlic is a mass term. In reality, there’s hardly any difference in the world between the two, yet you can count onions but can’t count garlic.”
While several researchers have insisted this problem is specific to the English language, Pelletier claims there are similar examples of built-in irrationality in other languages as well. For instance, the German word for spoon (‘Löffel’) is masculine while the word for fork (‘Gabel’) feminine.
And differences in the same word between different languages can be even more revealing of how illogical these distinctions can be. For instance, Pelletier explains, the German word for ‘bridge’ is feminine while in Spanish it’s masculine. “But no one thinks of bridges like that, and so I said mass and count nouns distinctions were like that distinction – they don’t mean anything about reality,” he explains.
A sign of the growing interest in this field of research is the €250,000 (about $338,000 USD) grant Pelletier was recently awarded from Germany’s prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Pelletier was nominated for the award by the prominent German researcher Tibor Kiss, a professor of theoretical linguistics at Ruhr University Bochum.
Ultimately, Pelletier and a growing number of his scholarly colleagues are interested in the much larger issue of the irrationality of language.
Pelletier will use the money from his research prize to team up with Professor Kiss and explore the various usages of count and mass nouns between German and English. For the past five years, Kiss and a team of his colleagues have laid the groundwork for this study by using newspapers to track and analyze how German speakers use a variety of words.
“Kiss was interested in how common it is for mass nouns to be used as count nouns, for all of the nouns in German. We will investigate how count and mass nouns work in English and do comparisons with German,” explained Pelletier. “This is something that could be useful for translating languages, and perhaps a way to predict more accurately when one language is going to use count and another mass for the same noun.”