Saturday, 25 January 2014

Functional Content

Today, language and education.  

Functional Content

Around ten years ago, I started to do an Open University degree in English and Philosophy. It seemed tailor made for me, modules on Shakespeare and Political Philosophy, all but one of the core texts of which I had already read at least once. To start though you had to do an Introduction to the Humanities course, which ran over three or four months, consisting of three short essays and one longer, final essay.

If I’m honest, my entire effort consisted of no more than about five or six evenings in total. It therefore might not surprise you to learn that I failed the course. However, I didn’t fail because of the standard of my final essay, which was marked as good and excellent. No, I failed because I hadn’t written up an essay plan. Or, rather, I had been too honest in stating that I didn’t find an essay plan to be beneficial or conducive to my way of working.

When I sit down to write, I usually have a rough idea of what I want to say. I might write down some notes, work out a few snags in a blank document, but the challenge always in writing is to translate the thing in my head as accurately as possible onto the page. If I thought about it too much, the quantum state might collapse. Essay plan be dammed.

For me this perfectly demonstrates the problems with the education system. Without wishing to turn into Johnny Rotten, education has little to do with learning, much more about learning to conform to fixed ideas. If one is going to be an engineer or a doctor, then obviously one has a lot to learn in order to qualify. These are useful professions. Yet law, history, the humanities and the like are much more about opinion and so opinions have to be reined in at an early age. Contrary to popular myth, not everyone can be a President or a Prime Minister, there are enough checks and balances in place at each and every level of the hierarchy to weed out anyone who is liable to upset the established order. As Noam Chomsky once remarked, no one tells the editor of the New York Times what to publish, if he had to be told he wouldn’t be editor.

As any smart child knows, you don’t go to school to learn, you go to school to learn how to pass exams. You learn to regurgitate the facts that the state wants you to accept as truth. That’s how you progress. Lately, this has been even more the case with our current Secretary of Education, Michael Gove. I am championing the cause to have Michael Gove be known as Mr Gradgrind by common consent, after the headmaster in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Which sums up the government’s education reforms quite nicely. Better to have children recite the names of Henry VIII’s wives than learn anything about the women themselves, or what their treatment teaches us about the history of misogyny and murder in the state. Why consider anything of the causes or consequences of the First World War, when we have a manmade myth to trot out for each new generation, one of assassinated Archdukes and Belgian neutrality?

History lessons already skip the bits of the First World War that have to do with empire building and the rush to acquire oil to fuel the recently converted British and German Navies. They also miss out the bit about Britain almost certainly being defeated without the late involvement of the Americans. My memory of school history lessons is the Germans of the First World War being portrayed as almost indistinguishable from the Nazis. Yet the Nazis wouldn’t have come to power at all without the humiliations that were visited upon the German people at the end of the war, leading to the Weimar Republic.

History is written by the winners. It also saves them the trouble of having to take responsibility for their own mistakes. And those who fail to learn mistakes of history are doomed forever to repeat them.

Michael Gove and the rest of the Tory party want to muddy the waters even further and portray the war as one big jape, all lads together, bashing the baby killing Boche. Most Tories probably yearn for the days of the First World War, because it was an era before the welfare state, where industrialists and the landed gentry could send millions of the lower classes to their deaths in sacrifice to their gods of profit motive. These days if they want to kill poor people, they have to send them to ATOS rather than the Somme.

American Physicist Richard Feynman describes how his father used to educate him as a boy. How he would point to a bird in a tree and tell his son that he could teach him the name of the bird in English, Chinese and Portuguese, on and on until, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” Which is in stark contrast to our education system. At school we learn all the names for the various parts of speech, noun, verb, adjective and adverb; article, conjunction, preposition and ting (or a pronoun, as its also called). It’s this kind of learning that causes children to correctly exclaim, “When am I going to need to know that?” Probably never. Not unless you go on to do a language degree.

There is a more useful division to the parts of speech that is rarely taught at any level. One that can help people to listen and communicate more effectively and one which only requires the knowledge of two groups of words. I have already alluded to them in the previous paragraph. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are collectively known as content words, whereas your articles, conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns are function words.

A content word is one which, well it provides content. A single word tends to contain a lot of information. For instance, consider the word, ‘man’. What can we say about it? At face value, very little, except that it’s a noun, it’s singular and it’s male. Closer examination however reveals much more information and allows us to make a whole range of assumptions.

Not only is ‘man’ a noun, but it is a concrete noun, describing a real world object, as opposed to an abstract noun like ‘fear’ or ‘opinion’. It also describes an animate object, unlike ‘stone’ or ‘toothbrush’ both of which are inanimate and unlikely to move of their own volition (excepting some kind of dream or fantasy sequence). And a ‘man’ is human, with self awareness, free will and the power of speech, unlike a cat or a dog. He is also likely to forget your birthday or to do the dishes or put the bins out (right ladies).

Now, consider the function word, ‘I’. What can we say here? Well, again we can see that it’s a pronoun, singular, unlike ‘we’, and takes the nominative form, as opposed to the accusative case, ‘me’. It’s likely to be the first word in a phrase that describes some action that the speaker is performing (‘I went to the shops’, ‘I feel sick’, ‘I noticed you looking at me’ etc.), but not much else. The speaker could be anyone, a man or women, an anthropomorphised cat, dog or toothbrush, even fear itself, depending on the context.

The job of function words is to flesh out sentences and give form to the content words. What’s interesting is that while in English function words account for no more than a few hundred words amongst the hundreds of thousands of content words, they can account for as much as much as half of everything we say. Amongst social groups, text messages or the language of teenagers, there can very little function without any loss of meaning. A text message which says, “Went shops today. Bought a coat.” makes perfect sense, even though it consists of two verbs, three nouns and only a single indefinite article, missing out four function words which would normally be required to make the message make sense (“I went to the shops. I bought a coat.”).

In academic writing, function can exceed fifty percent of the total word count. This is largely because many of those reading or writing such work will speak English as a second language and meaning, context and tone therefore have to be hammered out to a tedious degree. The same is true of legal documentation. It’s why academic papers and legal documents are usually so dry.

This can also be the reason why people can find themselves in trouble posting messages on Twitter. Being restricted to 140 characters, Twitter is essentially a text message that ends up being read by strangers who know nothing about you. Given Twitter’s restrictive nature, function is sacrificed for content, which in turn sacrifices tone and context. Whereas a friend may be able to interpret a sarcastic comment as sarcastic, because they know you and can hear your tone of voice, a stranger is more likely to misunderstand.

It’s The Inverse Law of Twitter Exchange, that the more complex the idea under discussion, the more likely it is to be misunderstood by one or more parties involved. Watch a Twitter Feed for any length of time and you will see at least one celebrity tweeting the words, “It was a joke. #ironyfail/#twitterfail” Twitter is good for promoting oneself, highlighting interesting articles or cat videos, it even allows comedians to hone the brevity of their stand up routines, but as a form of communication it’s slightly worse than saying nothing. These days I mainly use it as a kind of zip file, linking to articles like this, where the function words are allowed to roam free.

In the wider world of 141 characters or more, a greater awareness of function can help us to make sense of the world and weed out the ones who are trying to take advantage of us. Whereas function words tell us very little when taken in isolation, they are highly enlightening when considered in clusters. Take the last two sentences, for example. Notice how I’ve used the word ‘us’ three times. I, the writer, am trying to ingratiate myself to you, the reader, by describing ‘us’ using the same first person plural pronoun. It’s a common political trick. However (and I will leave to judge how much of the following you believe), ‘us’ is the accusative form of the nominative first person plural pronoun, ‘we’. This demonstrates at a stroke that I am using the passive voice, rather than the active voice. I could have said something like, We can make greater sense of the world if we pay closer attention to the use of function words.

My use of the passive voice is indicative of the level within society that I consider myself to be at, and, by extension, the level that I consider you, the reader, to be at. Moreover, ‘us’ is a more inclusive pronoun than ‘we’. Politicians say ‘we’. “We’re all in this together.” is a typical example, which is pretty meaningless when you think about it. It’s like a prison warder saying, “We’re all at the same prison.” Yes, but some of ‘us’ get to go home in the evening. There is also that most famous example from recent years, “Yes we can.” which again is pretty devoid of meaning and, given everything that’s happened since Barrack Obama’s election, is only half the real slogan, which is, “Yes we can; you won’t be allowed to.”

There are many other examples of what function words can tell us about a speaker. People who use too many personal pronouns, ‘my’, ‘mine’ etc are likely to be more selfish. People who speak about themselves in the second person are more likely to be withdrawn or lacking in empathy than others. Someone who says, “You go to the shops and you find it’s the same five companies every twenty yards.” is probably more narrow minded than someone who says, “Every time I go to the shops, it’s the same five companies every twenty yards.” because the latter speaker is recognising that this is only their opinion, while the former is more likely to believe that their opinion is the only valid one. It’s all in the function words.

People who talk about themselves in the third person should be given a wide berth. Robert Maher speaks this and IT IS LAW.

Paying attention to the function in speech is essential to assessing the sincerity of the speaker. Whether someone uses the referential determiner ‘this’ or ‘that’ can speak volumes about whether they feel close to an object or issue or are trying to distance themselves from it. 

If there was any political will to educate children or the public in general, the difference between content and function words would be the first thing about English grammar that we were taught. Yet in a system where subservience and conformity are all, anything of any practical use is kept sealed off in the upper echelons of English language degrees. I’m extremely well read yet I heard about content and function words not from a book on English, but in a New Scientist article. Luckily for the established order, the sciences and humanities have now been kept isolated from each other for a century or more.

That said, the difference between content and function words is something that I’ve always known, I just didn’t know that I knew it. When I speak about this to other people, they say the same. It’s probably something most people know about, they just haven’t been taught what it means.

I end today with Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem, Jabberwocky. Notice however that only the contents words are nonsense, making the poem broadly readable. Without the regulating presence of it function words, the poem really would make no sense.

Education is like everything else. If you want it done properly, you have to do it yourself.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Get it done.

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