June 21, 2011

Weird English, not so weird.

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:54 pm by changisme

When I posed the question whether there should really be a right way to speak, Kevin said that there should be one right set of grammar to speak a language, because otherwise people would not be able to understand each other. It made me think of Feyerabend’s Against Method, which advocates scientific anarchy. Feyerabend claims that all thoughts and ideas expand human knowledge, and therefore, the conservative nature of the scientific enterprise only hinders the progress of our exploration. Similarly, language is also a living organism. Whether or not it’s evolving may be questionable, but at the very least, it’s adaptable. If I agree with Feyerabend, then rules and grammar would only inhibit the expression of language. The problem is, I don’t entirely agree with Feyerabend.

Science, as a paradigm, is structured by one theory relying on another. It is certainly a conservative structure, as research assume the validity of old theories until proven otherwise. Also, the current scientific institutions work by picking the low hanging fruit first, and disproving older theories are assumed to be that sour apple on the very top of the tree. This structure, however, is a natural result of the complexity of science relative to the limitation of human life span and available tools. Prior to the information explosion, calculations took a long time and spread of information was slow. Someone could certainly try to start science from the ground up if they were Vampires. Nowadays, our tools are more sophisticated, but the more I read, the less I know. Information explosion made it even more impossible to ignore all theories.

Moreover, more people are doing science now because social progress in education and technical progression in accessibility. Therefore, people are more likely to converge into camps within the community in order to be heard. When there are camps, there are naturally boundaries, theories and definitions that define the camps. Within camps, there is more collaboration and information/data sharing. Between camps, arguing takes place. Therefore, a paradigmic scientific structure is not only inevitable, but may also be more efficient.

What about within a language? For languages such as French and Chinese, there is a centralized institution mandating the grammar, pronunciations and other rules. These institutions would be like the Vatican of science (note that I don’t like to look at science and religion separately, but that’s a different issue altogether). On the other hand, English does not have such a legal institution. The OED comes closest to it. When there is a monopoly on theory/rule, there is little disagreeing to be speak of, other than within the institution. What if there is an oligopoly? Here is what I think languages differ from science. It appears to me there is less collaboration and data sharing in the world of grammar. I’m not sure how much efficiency is gained from having rules and structure which define “camps”. Interpretability as Kevin mentioned may be an issue but not really solved by grammar, especially not in English. Chinese in its modern form has more flexible grammar, but isn’t less interpretable than English.

All this, is a long winded way to say, I’m still not sure whether grammar is important to a language, other than being cultural by product.


Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation.

If there is room at the end of a line for one or more syllables of a word, but not for the whole word, divide the word, unless this involves cutting off only a single letter, or cutting off only two letters of a long word. No hard and fast rule for all words can be laid down. The principles most frequently applicable are:

a. Divide the word according to its formation:

know-ledge (not knowl-edge); Shake-speare (not Shakes-peare); de-scribe (not des-cribe); atmo-sphere (not atmos-phere);

b. Divide “on the vowel:”

edi-ble (not ed-ible); propo-sition; ordi-nary; espe-cial; reli-gious; oppo-nents; regu-lar; classi-fi-ca-tion (three divisions possible); deco-rative; presi-dent;

c. Divide between double letters, unless they come at the end of the simple form of the word:

Apen-nines; Cincin-nati; refer-ring; but tell-ing.

The treatment of consonants in combination is best shown from examples:

for-tune; pic-ture; presump-tuous; illus-tration; sub-stan-tial (either division); indus-try; instruc-tion; sug-ges-tion; incen-diary.

The student will do well to examine the syllable-division in a number of pages of any carefully printed book.

I assume dividing words between lines is to save paper. It reminds me of an interesting discussion I once had about whether Chinese saves paper compared to English. This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer, because it is hard to compare font sizes. If the height of a Chinese font and an English font are the same, the Chinese font would appear much smaller. If you have bad eye sight, English books are much easier to read, because in a unit area, strokes in Chinese are more packed than those in English.

In Mainland China, 10 years ago, fonts used to be smaller than Taiwan and Hongkong. There are two possible reasons. One was that books were cheaper then and people were poorer. Another was that simplified characters has fewer strokes than traditional fonts which are used in TW and HK. So when I was growing up, imported books were much thicker than locaal translations (my sample size was very small though). Once, someone did an ad hoc comparison for Taiwanese books, and found that the few Taiwanese books were thicker than their English counterparts. However, this comparison was only did on books translated from English to Chinese, so the Chinese version would have much more footnotes by my guess. footnotes do take up a lot of space, but maybe not as much as 100+ pages worth as in the case of Harry Potter. Another interesting question to ask is, whether vertically printed books take more space than horizontal ones (TW/HK vs. Mainland). If I were to guess, horizontal prints would save more space if the books are longer than they are wide.




  1. Mark S. said,

    Thanks for the mention of my old post.

    The books I compared either did not have footnotes or had footnotes that were parallel between the two versions (i.e., the Mandarin versions didn’t have additional footnoted explanations — or at least not enough for me to notice). So footnotes didn’t account for the extra space in the Hanzi versions.

    I agree with you about the matter of horizontal vs. vertical texts.

    • changisme said,

      That’s very interesting! What do you think of the font size? In other words, do you think there are markedly more lines in a page in one language compared to the other?

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