Engineer THIS

Engineers are wonderful.  They make our world, literally.  They find solutions using the extant body of knowledge and a dash of tribal wisdom.  They may do some science along the way, but it’s usually of the most practical sort, and almost never gets published.  But they build our world, from food and farms (food and agricultural engineering) to our mobile phones (electronic, electrical, semiconductor, mechanical, quality, and production engineering) to even our families (parenting! OK, it’s not a formal discipline, but you get the idea).

Now, about our world.  It has lots of stuff in it.  And we’ve tamed just about everything.  Starting with fire, we’ve moved on to clubs, chemicals, and even relativity.  But one of the areas of our world that is still relatively “wild” is our language.  English in particular is a language that changes rapidly, pretty much at the whim of the people.  We’re inventing and corrupting definitions all the time.

It happens, through no fault of my own, that I am both husband and father to linguists.  The latter was newly minted this year, and I’m often asked this question by well-meaning friends; “What are her employment prospects?”

My daughter can teach English, speak multiple languages, and understands much about why we write and speak.  But how does this impact our economy?  And this is where becoming an engineer fits.

Within any company, any society, language is a critical tool.  We take it for granted, but it’s critical.  Like any tool, if you wield it properly it can be a powerful ally in achieving your goals.  Improperly used, it can cause havoc.

Writers, as astute observers of the human condition, know it’s only a matter of time before our society will speak and write with tools that have been carefully crafted.  Until that time, we will have to create language that help us as individuals.  This is where jargon comes from.  The question for today is this; how much longer will it be before schools are turning out not only linguists, but linguistic engineers?  These engineers will help companies create linguistic tools that help the company be more competitive, more efficient, and more responsive to the community.

Have a thought about this?  Please write it down.  And thank a linguist!


Fuzzy words

Last week we talked pictures, literally.  How better to get a picture from my brain into yours than using some words and shared experience?  No need to check out my Fb page (don’t have one!) or flick through a million pictures of funny cats.  Here’s some words, and ABRACADABRA there’s a picture in your head!

Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

What’s great about words, though, is that they are far more powerful than just pictures.  The right combination of words can put not only a picture, but a shared experience that includes all the emotion, the sounds, the smells, and the resulting feelings that all went along.

Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers

If we share that experience, we know the poor reception he got from the stands as he took first base.  We remember the boos he got after his first at bat.  We know the low expectations we had as he picked up the bat again, and the resulting euphoria as he put the ball out of the park.  And then we remember all the years of Jackie helping redefine baseball, not only in terms of skin colors, but professionalism in sport as well.

That’s the power of words.  And with great power comes great responsibility.

Words come equipped with fuzzy edges.  These edges allow us to put them together in many different ways.  At the same time, fuzzy edges can make it difficult to understand what we’re trying to communicate.  Let’s try some examples.

Midnight Glory.

I have no idea what it may mean, and the internet doesn’t have a bead on it either.  Yet, here I am (at midnight) putting these words together.  Did they create an image in your mind?  Perhaps you thought of a close word pair, “morning glory,” a whole family of flowers.  Or something having to do with a military mission, code named Midnight Glory.  Or something else.  But that’s what fuzzy edges allow us to do, put words together in almost any combination we want.  Here’s another, very scary, example.

Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

This phrase was created by Dr. Alan Sokal almost 20 years ago, and it looked very impressive to some journal editors of the time.  What they didn’t know was that Dr. Sokal was playing a joke on them, he knew this was a nonsense phrase.  The problem was that they didn’t know it, and published his “paper” as if it was real.  The joke was that no one could tell the difference!

Words.  Fuzzy edges.  We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, be careful out there.  We don’t want to send the wrong pictures into other people’s brains.