A poet of language science

I don’t often create posts that involve extensive quotations from other blogs, but I so enjoyed Prof. Pullum’s Language Log entry on vagueness and British weather that I feel compelled to quote it here:

Those many idealistic souls who imagine that we would do better with a language that was free of vagueness and ambiguity, its terms tightly defined so that the meaning of what we said would always be sharp and clear, forget about tasks like trying to summarize British weather in a few seconds before the news headlines. In that context you’re glad of vague hand-waving idioms of generality like by and large, and hedging adverbs like pretty, and sweeping emotion-laden adjectives ranging from human psychology to impressionistic meteorology, like miserable.

The weather as I write (it’s after 9 a.m. now, so already the sky is light here in Scotland) is cool and damp. There is a hint of sunshine from behind the thin cloud cover. Edinburgh castle will look extraordinary as always, a brooding grey mass of damp stone a thousand years old overlooking the Princes Street gardens, with hints of sun catching it from some low angle. It’s extraordinarily beautiful. Yes, there will be rain and wind some time today, and freezing temperatures in some parts of the country. But it’s easier to enjoy than it is to summarize. Humphrys was just enacting the usual British linguistic ritual of weather-grumbling. The weather isn’t literally misery-inducing. I take a certain delight in it.

In a few beautifully-constructed phrases, Prof. Pullum evokes the beauty of Edinburgh, captures the enjoyable misery of British weather, and explains the need for linguistic ambiguity. He shows himself to be a master of language in more than the purely scientific sense.

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