Saturday, February 21, 2009

Language, Dialect, Idiolect and Beliefs

Linguists have a set of words to identify variations in speech. These are language, dialect, and idiolect. A language is a set of words and the grammatical rules used to put the words together. A language enables a set of people to communicate. Even when people speak the same language there are often regional or class differences in the pronunciation, word choice, and grammatical structures. These are called dialects. For example, on the East coast of the United States many people put an extra "r" sound at the end of words, so "idea" sounds like "idear". These same people usually have pronunciation that distinguishes the words "Mary", "Marry" and "Merry". In the mid-west, those three words usually sound the same and are distinguished by context. In "standard" english the word "you" can mean either one person or a group of people. In the southern United States these are distinguished. "You" means a single person, "y'all" means a group of people, and "all y'all" means every single individual in a group. Idiolect refers to a particular person's pattern of speech. Each of us has idiosyncratic patterns of words and expressions.

The division of speech into languages, and languages into dialects is not precise and different people will argue for different lines, but there are clearly different languages and different dialects. Even people raised together in the same family differ in word choices and modes of expression.

These same sort of groupings exist in many other areas of human life. For example, Christianity is analogous to a religious belief language, Lutherans have a "dialect" of Christianity. If you question closely you will find that each individual Lutheran has a particular and distinct set of beliefs. The same is true of politics. The industrialized democracies of Western Europe and (to a lesser extent) the United states have similar structures to create and change government officials through elections. This is the political language. The dialects typically have the words "liberal" and "conservative" attached to them, though the meanings of these words is different in different times and places. Finally, there are personal differences. Even the most ardent "conservatives" will differ on basic issues.

With belief structures, it is often true that the most violent disagreements occur between groups that agree on almost everything. For example, Shiite and Sunni muslims. In Christianity there were centuries of violence between Catholics and Protestants. When someone has beliefs that are completely foreign, it seems to be easier to dismiss them as outsiders to be ignored or tolerated. If someone almost agrees with you, then the differences are stark and it is hard to understand how the other person can be so sensible on some issues but so obviously and completely wrong on others.

There is a quote attributed to various people (including Wilde and Shaw) describing the United States and Britain as "Two great nations divided by a common language". In some sense we should treat everyone this way. Be aware that words and phrases, and hence the ideas they represent, have different nuances of meaning for each speaker. It is necessary and desirable in common conversation to gloss over these differences. But, when the stakes are raised and common understanding must be achieved, be very careful about examining these differences.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The hardest social problem I know

As humans, many of our problems are social. I want to share what I consider to be one of the most difficult problems I ever encountered as a parent. If you find a person who has humanely (or even inhumanely) solved this, I think you are in the presence of true social genius. The problem:

Get a junior high or high school girl to ride a bicycle to school wearing a bike helmet.

Many of us have found a way to get the girl on the bike, but I know of no way to get a helmet on that girl. Having perfect hair is just too important.

I also believe that these same girls show us the true limits of human endurance. Go to a cold climate and observe junior high students. Beanpole girls with negative body fat will have bare legs and light jackets at twenty below. They must be part hummingbird to have a metabolism that can heat a body in those conditions.