Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Noble Quest

I had cause, a few years ago, to visit Sweden while I was learning to speak Swedish.

As a quick advertisement for being multilingual, you should know that learning a new language provides endless opportunities for amusement.  Well, it did for me.

Because I was still learning, those I was talking with often had to resort to English to explain something a little more complex than I was capable of understanding (which was a lot).  This had an interesting effect, because there’s a noticeable lag in the human brain – people might be able to change their language of speech quickly, but they often continue to think in the other language for quite a while.  This leads to misuse of cross-language homonyms, mistranslations of common words and absolutely hilarious grammatical errors.

Anyhoo, I was once told that a mutual friend was widely known to “drink like a mushroom”.  When I tried to absorb this new information, I was struck by the image of my friend sitting in the dark on a bed of manure not drinking very much at all.  This didn’t seem to gel particularly well with the rest of the discussion.

The problem was that Swedes are linguistically lazy.  While in English we have the general terms “mushroom”, “toadstool”, “fungus”, “athlete’s foot” and “sponge”, Swedish has just the one: “svamp”.

Wow, I thought, I’d never before thought of sponges as being a type of fungus.  Admittedly, I’d not thought of them as being anything in particular.  But, due to this little exchange, I put sponges on the little metaphorical shelf in my head labelled “various forms of fungus” and thought no more about it.

Until today.

Sponges are animals.  Very simple animals, to be fair, rather like Swedes, but animals nevertheless.  Their young even move around in larval form (again rather like Swedes who do their global travelling in backpacker form).

This is one of the little problems we have with language and labels.  It’s going to be very difficult to convince Swedes that sponges aren’t fungus because in Swedish they are called, rather unhelpfully, “fungus”.  (Plus, Swedes can be frustratingly literal: for example, we don’t “tape” a television show anymore, because we don’t use blank VHS tapes, so we “record” them.  The subtlety of the fact that we have never ever used records to preserve television shows is totally lost on them – along with the fact that we’ve never used preserves for this purpose either.)

Sadly, the problem is not restricted to our Swedish friends.  Think about the confusion that is caused by the reification of truth or, alternatively, listen to this chap thinking aloud about the confusion that is caused by the reification of truth.

(For those who are interested: here are some links for pro-sentences and prosentential theory of truth and deflationary theories of truth in general.)

Now for the magical linking of these apparently divergent lines, a statement that is true does not necessarily have an independent, extractable property of being true – if you think like that, you are reifying the concept of truth.  Similarly, if you call sponge a fungus, you aren’t making it a fungus.  The property of being a fungus is not bestowed on something by virtue of having the label “fungus” attached to it.  You cannot take distilled fungus-ness and sprinkle it on sponges to make “sponges are fungi” a true statement, any more than you can take distilled truth and sprinkle it on the statement “sponges are fungi” to make it true.

Now that we have that sorted, will anyone join me on a noble quest – The Search for Fungus-ness?

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