Saturday, May 27, 2006

Chesterton about language

An absolutely hilarious, interesting, serious essay by our Uncle Gilbert, posted because Nancy at Flying Stars has brought up some questions about language and grammar.

--Dr. Thursday

Our Note-Book by G. K. Chesterton
from the Illustrated London News for April 8, 1911 CW29:65-70

I love Americans, but I shall never understand them: sometimes I think they are too old-fashioned to be understood. But I know at least enough about their wild virtues, vices, and ignorances to know that it is not quite safe to believe everything that is written in an American interview, even when it is an interview with an American. A great many years ago, I remember being interviewed by a very attractive American. With the loyal simplicity of his people, he sent me the exact text of my remarks before he published them, and asked me to correct them. It was just like asking me to correct a translation of my complete works into Chinese. He had apparently reported my opinions quite fairly, but he had made me talk in a particular manner, for which my family would have locked me up. Suppose I said, for instance, "The greatest artist, in the strict sense of art, that America ever produced was Nathaniel Hawthorne," it came out in the American interview something like this: "For sweet, clean, bright-eyed, man-elevating Art, Hawthorne is your smartest man." Suppose I said, "The most sincere and original force in American literature was Walt Whitman, " it came out in the American paper in this sort of way: "See here, Walt Whitman was your one real red-blooded man, and don't you forget it." It did not very much matter. No one who knows me, no one who knows England, can suppose for a moment that I talk like that. He might as well suppose that I talk Yiddish or Pigeon English. But that is just the amusing thing. If a Chinaman translated me into Pigeon English he would know it was a translation. If a Jew translated me into Yiddish he would know it was Yiddish. But this American seemed honestly unaware that he was changing what I said at all. He actually knew so little of the English language that he thought it was the same as the
American language.

At the outset, I allow for this in criticising any interview by, with, or from an American. I allow for the fact that the subject of the interview may be talking this mysterious tongue; I also allow for the fact that the interviewer may be turning it into a confusion of tongues. But when all these allowances have been made, I do really think that the interview with the celebrated Mr. Edison in Nash's Magazine is a perfect prodigy of the preposterous. As the thing is stated in this interview, the scientist reveals the total collapse of his own science. The essence of science is precision. It may or may not be true that three feet make a yard. It is a point that I have never found it necessary to examine. But I have no doubt that if they do not, the surveying of land will become a very false and fantastic experiment. Now Mr. Edison (in this interview) obviously has not even the faintest notion of what exactitude means. Suppose I say I have measured a tree from the root to the topmost twig just outside my door, and it comes to just 30 feet. Then you might (possibly) believe me. Suppose I then said, "A tree which will shortly grow about two miles from St. Petersburg will also grow to the exact height of 30 feet," you would conclude that I was either an inspired prophet, in the second case, or an extraordinarily reckless witness, in the first. Yet this is exactly what Mr. Edison does. He will use such a number as "30" about things that he does understand and which I do not in the least understand; and if he says that he can provide a sheet of nickel 30 feet long or 30,000 feet long, I am quite willing to believe him, for he speaks with authority. But a little further on I find him saying, "All furniture will soon be made of steel. The steel required for a given piece of furniture costs only one-fifth as much as the wood would cost for the same piece of furniture... The babies of the next generation will sit in steel high chairs and eat from steel tables. They
will not know what wooden furniture is."

All this fanaticism is so remote from real life that, when I first read it, I was not even quite sure what "eat from steel tables" meant. For a moment I fancied that the exact mind of Mr. Edison had really discovered that one could eat a steel table. This is improbable; but it is not really more improbable that one should admire a steel table. Mr. Edison, as I understood him, went on to argue that one should pass from brick to steel in building because it was cheaper, and to pass from steel to concrete because it is cheaper still. It did not seem to occur to him, as it has occurred to the philosophers from the beginning of the world, that it is cheaper still not to build at all. If you can do without the house you want, do without it. Live in a tent, or workhouse, or a social settlement. But if you want a wooden house, there is no conceivable argument in the whole range of human thought to induce you to accept a steel one. If Mr. Edison merely says, "Why have wooden chairs when steel ones are cheaper?" the very simple answer is, that clear-headed people look at what they are buying, as well as what they are paying for it. You might just as well say, "Why have wooden violins when you can have tin whistles so much cheaper?" I know no reply calculated to penetrate an exact mind like Mr. Edison's, except the reply that some people want violins.

All that, however, is not what I originally wished to point out about this Edisonian philosophy. I wish to point out that this scientific precision, even when it is right, is utterly invalidated by the fact that it is also used when it is clearly wrong. Men like Mr. Edison are not exact. They have no sense of accuracy. He will, as I have said, claim to make a sheet of nickel thirty feet long. I have no doubt he is right. But a few paragraphs further on I find him saying, with exactly the same arithmetical certainty: "Within thirty years all construction will be of reinforced concrete, from the finest mansions to the tallest office buildings. " Within thirty years! Might not our inexact minds even ask for thirty-one years, or for thirty-one and a half years? All construction! The next temple in China will be built of reinforced concrete. The next mud cabin in Ireland will be built of reinforced concrete. No cathedral will remain, no country house will continue, that is not made of concrete instead of stone, and lined (I suppose) with steel instead of oak. Now, when a man uses the simple arithmetical term "30" with this profligate degree of nonsense, I merely begin to doubt his original statement about the 30 or 300 feet of nickel. That is the only effect he has had on my mind; I perceive him to be vitally incapable of exact thought. For let it be remembered that it is only in scientific truth that Mr. Edison fails. In a sort of hazy romantic instinct he may be more or less right. If he had simply said that steel being cheaper than wood would make a good many people buy more steel, he would be sensible enough. It is when he suggests that the oak panels in an English college or country house must become steel, that he obviously has no notion of the meaning of words. If he had said that within the next century or so we shall probably see a great use of concrete, he would have been talking like a sensible man. When he prefers to say that within thirty years everyone will build with concrete, he talks like a maniac out of Hanwell; and his exactitude is strictly the exactitude of the maniac. Mr. Edison is an eminent electrician: I know no more about electricity than he knows about history and literature. The only difference is that I know what I don't know. But when he tries to be exact about anything else except electricity, he talks such raving nonsense that I am almost inclined to think that a training in history and literature may be the broader of the two. Mr. Edison further prophesies that poverty will also disappear within a quite specified number of years. I doubt this love of arithmetic which is so obviously a love of false arithmetic. When people speak so wildly of the things I do know, I have some doubt of their precision about the things that I don't know. But, then, again, I have some doubt about the interview and the interviewer.

It is by no means impossible, if men of science go on talking like this, that a popular reaction may set in some day against the sober and solid things that they have really established. I do not doubt that the ears of the African elephant are larger than those of the Indian elephant, as the naturalist has always told me. But if the naturalist begins to tell me that his own great-grandchild will have ears a yard long, or that his great-grandnephew will certainly have no ears at all - then I begin to think that he is a very poor aurist, as the doctors say. It is he that has, on this occasion, the long ears: it is I that have no ears at all. I had ears and heard when he was precise about something I could not know: but I begin to doubt it when he is equally precise about something that nobody can know. Scientists must not risk their past victories with these vain and visionary raids into the future. I believe that the earth goes round the sun; but I shall not believe it if Mr. Edison positively affirms that steel and concrete will very soon go round the earth. If you deny what men do know in the light of what they don't, they will simply resist science altogether; and the really great work of the nineteenth century will be lost for centuries.

PS: If you want to know more, technical and philosophical implications of the highly important topic of words and precision and meaning can be found in Fr. Jaki's Numbers Decide and Means to Message.
--Dr. Thursday.


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