August 17, 2018

Horse 2453 - The Most Ethical Parts Of Speech (An Opinion By An Unqualified Ignoramus)

A question posed at the very beginning of last week's The Minefield on ABC Radio National hosted by Scott Stevens and Dr Waleed Aly, was to do with the most ethical parts of speech; specifically the functions of various words. Now I am obviously not a moral philosopher nor an academic ethicist, so that means that any opinions that I might have on the subject are going to be ill-conceived and half-baked at best and hopelessly wrong at worst but being a blogger who realises that words are cheap, I can afford to burn through many of them at little expense of brain power.
Also, because I have a brain that wants to by nature, assign values to things as though this were a competition, I'm going to arrive at which is the most ethical part of speech by assigning ratings out of ten and based on nothing more than capriciousness, whim, and fads and fancies. Thus I will attempt to give solidity to the wind, tie a snowflake down, and break a butterfly upon a wheel.
Or so it goes...

Person, place, or thing. There can't be anything particularly troublesome here, right? Wrong! Right off the bat we can immediately start hitting pop fly shots into the deep deep weeds.
There is absolutely nothing problematic about simple nouns for simple objects. Words like table, chair, car, bus, pencil, ocean, and telephone, are all functional and generally don't carry any moral hazard at all. However, consider the words egg, monkey, ape, cat, dog, goose, and snake. While those words of themselves are innocent enough, it isn't hard to think of contexts where they are made to carry vitriol and acidic harm. Those words can be turned into weapons which are designed to insult someone on the basis of race, intelligence and moral character.

Then there are the ten words which are generally unbroadcastable before the 9pm watershed on television. Of those, nine are nouns and the other is mostly a verb. There are perfectly useful and scientific words to describe these things but it would appear that just the notion of bodily function is enough to put those words into the land of taboo, that and the fact that as a society, we have kind of come to a sort of general agreement that these words are all naughty. I think that we actually like having naughty words because they fulfill a kind of specific function; where being rude is in fact the point.

There are also nouns which are just outright slurs on the basis of race, religion, sexuality, nationality, socioeconomic status etc. I don't need to publish them because you brain can already fill in those gaps but the point to be made here is that nouns are often used to label people and judge people. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the vast majority of words which are used to denigrate and deliberately injure are nouns. When you call someone a name, you are by definition using a noun because the name of a person, place, or thing, is a noun.

As a class of words, nouns aren't all villains though. If there are words that can be used to tear people down, there words and that can build them up as well.
Consider the words champion, legend, star, diamond, lion, trooper, survivor, saint, angel etc. There are nouns which can be used as labels which emphasise the moral goodness and rightness of someone's character. These nouns are in my experience used when someone wants to express virtues like gratitude, congratulations and praise.
When you call someone a thing, then you mean to impart the quality of the thing on that person; that means that nouns end up doing a lot of the moral and ethical lifting work. Nouns are the tools by which language gets most of the job done and just like a hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter can build a house, in the hands of a reckless nine year old child in the fine china and tableware section of a department store they can be used for considerable damage.

I give nouns 5/10.

Let's go back to elementary school and all say together: a verb is a doing word. If a thing wants doing and you need a word to do the doing, then a verb is the thing which does the doing. Verbs are so fundamental to language that in most languages, you can not even build a sentence if it does not contain a verb. There are some arguments across languages about where the verb should go in a sentence and even some disputes about tense, that is when the thing that wants doing is to be done in time, but from Latin's myriad of tenses to Japanese's post positional verbs, to German where the verb might come after a compound noun that takes ages to roll through, no language that I know of gets rid of them altogether.
To tell you the truth, I don't care much about verbing nouns and nouning verbs because if someone is understood then it doesn't really matter. The fact that they've fashioned language to make it do what they want, means that the ends justifies the means. This piece is not going to be a proscriptive diatribe about the degradation of language.
What I will say is that I think that verbs carry little to no moral weight in a sentence; on the face of it, that is shocking.

Let's make some verbs our playthings for a while and see where the moral burden is being carried. My first test is going to be those ten words which can not be broadcasted before the media watershed.
Nominally all of them are nouns, with the usual sole exception being a vulgar word for the most intimate of acts. The thing is that it is possible to construct a set of conditions where the most intimate of acts, performed in the most intimate of circumstances, is done gently and within perfectly proper and normal conditions. You can very easily make the case that although the word is still vulgar, it no longer carries the weight of moral turpitude on top of it. This it turns out, is actually quite instructive. What this means is that it is the subjects of the sentence which carries the moral weight of a sentence, rather than the predicates.
Verbs are the play-by-play commentators in the sports broadcast. Verbs faithfully report what is happening and eve though the act might be terrible, it is still the actors doing the act, rather than the actions, which is where the moral work is done in a sentence. If a sentence was a crime scene, then the verbs are the means, but they do not have any motive of themselves and therefore can not be in possession of a guilty mind. If we return to our hammer being wielded by a nine year old in the fine dining section of the department store, it would be utterly stupid to convict the hammer for smashing several thousand dollars worth of Waterford Crystal even though it was very much present in the act.

Consider the word 'kill', the verb to mean ending something's life. It changes in intensity depending on context. I killed the tomato plant. I had twenty minutes to kill. Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. I killed your daughter.
The first two instances of the word 'kill' are pretty benign. The third is a crime against humanity and yet we're kind of removed from it. However, if I was to announce that 'I killed your daughter', that would be quite righteously rage producing. (Don't worry. I have no intention to kill anyone's daughter, ever.) Again it is the actors and the subjects of the sentence, rather than the verbs which carry the moral weight. The verb can only describe the action as though it was a newspaper article; it is nothing like actually being there.

Even if one were to use a verb like 'rape' which is the worst violation of a person that I can think of, the word can still be used for purposes which carry less moral weight than the most intimate violation of a person that is possible. A wordsmith might talk about 'raping the earth' or 'raping the public's wallet' and these are going to carry that same sense of violation but those turns of phrase are supposed to drive us to concern about the subjects. Again, it is the subjects rather than the predicates, the nouns rather than the verbs doing the moral lifting work.

I give verbs 2/10.

Conjunctions are deceptive. They appear to carry no moral weight at all but their function is to be the glue which holds other parts of sentences together. They hold together nouns and verbs and clauses and ideas. They keep on doing their job almost going unnoticed and keep on working and working and working. Sometimes the beginning of a sentence is perfectly reasonable but the second half makes the first half into one big lie.

I give conjunctions 1/10.

Verbs might very well be doing words but adverbs are 'how doing' words. There is a world of difference between an expertly written article about an arcane subject and a poorly written article or badly written article. The first will probably grab your attention, the second will more than likely not, and the third might misinform you. Adverbs are kind of like the derivative of verbs, which although they will not tell you what was being done they will tell you about the shape of what was being done.

Adverbs carry value judgments about the actions which are being done. There could be a moral difference between someone who has been clinically murdered as opposed to brutally murdered. The first might express care and humanity while the second clearly does not; even though the outcome is identical and there's a dead person who no longer has any agency.
Someone working methodically might look from the outside to be identical to someone working slowly, working lazily or obsessively. As the reader of language, we are being directed how to think about a given situation or draw value judgments about a particular person. A writer has absolutely made choices about how to paint the scene with words; so there's no question about whether or not we are being manipulated. Language is so powerful that it is almost impossible not to think about the thing you have just read.

One adjective which has entered the public lexicon recently is the word 'bigly'. At first it appeared during the rants of a madman but it has escaped into the world and has taken a life of its own and that's majorly  weird.
Someone can be grossly negligent, fabulously attired, softly spoken and incredibly lucky - all at the same time; though I struggle to think of what kind of story could fit those adverbs.

I give adverbs 8/10.

This is where the real moral weight lies in a sentence. The concepts of morality, and ethics, both have to do with the expression of values and adjectives which are the descriptions of the qualities of objects, live almost entirely in this realm. There are adjectives which appear not to do very much, such as those which describe things like colour, direction, and number but they very quickdirection  descriptors for more than just simple concepts because humans as very efficient comparison machines, have a tendency to wrap layers of story over all kinds of things.

The word 'red' can in different circumstances represent the way ideology of free market capitalism enmeshed with authoritarian leanings and a vague whiff of Christian rhetoric, from collective unionism and democratic socialism, to full on soviet communism. Likewise, the word 'blue' can mean a kind of upper class leaning, to capitalist tendencies, to egalitarianism and libertarianism.
The left/right scale in politics as has been used to mean everything from the elite/proletariat divide, to the scale used to differentiate the state owning everything to owning nothing, to a weird authoritarian/libertarian divide as expressed in American politics. The terms 'left' and 'right' are often so poorly understood by the person who is using them that not even they know what they are trying to say. 'The left' as used by Miranda Devine  in the Daily Telegraph is nothing more than a synonym for anyone who she doesn't like on that particular day and is subject to change. The term 'alt-right' appears to be a way of legitimising  what used to be called the 'far right' which is based in nativism, racism, and authoritarian force.

Adjectives do far more than merely indicating political direction though. Words like cruel, dangerous, scary, lovely, wonderful, kind, diligent, comprehensive, loud, cold, hilarious... describe qualities of the world in a myriad of ways. If nouns' function are to describe the 'what' in the world and verbs' function are to describe 'how', then adjectives describe the 'why', 'where' and 'when'. Adjectives are the colour which is applied to the painting made from a thousand words; rather than just the pencil sketches underneath.
Adjectives have a tendency to amplify the reaction to a thing. The greatest event of all, the worst thing to have happened, the easiest examination, the hardest trial - these are all superlatives and they are all adjectives.

These are the words that do most of the work of informing us who is us and who is other. We can describe people's actions and indeed people themselves as evil, illegal, un-Australian, ethnic, and foreign. One of the recurring narratives going on in this country is surrounding the racial and cultural makeup of the country (both adjectives), and sections of the media and increasingly loud groups often use adjectives. People who are in many cases have risked peril to flee their own country for reasons of safety, are described as illegal immigrants despite it not actually being able illegal to seek asylum.
Once people have arrived, it is those adjectival differences which become the elements of the prosecution of trial by media. We hear of 'African' gangs in Melbourne despite there not being any; we have had commentators speak about 'no-go' zones and the apparent loss of culture despite the culture always being in constant flux and change. Blame and derision might use nouns as labels but the colour of the conversation is always adjectival.

On the other side of the coin, when we want to uphold things as good, noble, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy, and virtuous, these are also adjectival in nature. Speech and debate is said to be free, institutions are held up when they are democratic and incorruptible, we like it when goods and services are cheap and good value for money,  we also like it when the trains run on time, when people are respectful and when the country runs in peace, order and calm.
Adjectives are the things that really run the world of ethics and virtue in language because adjectives are the carriers of value. Literally everything in the world that has ever existed has value because people want it and/or have a story about it. Actors and sportspeople are paid many millions of dollarpounds  because we collectively buy into the story which is put up. There isn't really a sensible answer as to why I know about the name of Seb Brown who played for AFC Wimbledon and who saved two penalties against Luton Town to send AFC Wimbledon into the football league, but I don't know the name of the Australian Hockeyroos goalkeeper, except because of the story. There also isn't a good reason as to why a fourth tier English football goalkeeper should be paid more than the Australian national hockey goalkeeper other than to say that the story was valued more. Nouns are the things and verbs are what happens to the things and adverbs give colour and clarity to the verbs but adjectives carry the value of the story of the things.

I give adjectives 9/10.

Because I don't really know what the parameters of the question are, it is easy to give an answer and easy to be completely wrong. I would say though, after having spent the best part of ten hours playing with this, that even if my conclusion is a mess, it is a complete mess. It is better to have a complete mess than a badly thought out and hastily thrown together mess. I hope that through trial by example that I've reached a sensible conclusion.

Of course all of this rests on the functions of the words and not the substance. I absolutely concede that adjectives might be doing the ethical and moral work but that the substance being carried by the nouns and verbs is just flat out lies. The inherent truthiness of a piece of writing is a different subject of inquiry and not in the scope of this blog post.

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