Linguistics (fwd)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 5 Apr 1995 10:40:24 -0300
From: Alasdair McKay <aa233@cfn.cs.dal.ca>
To: "Tom Hodges (moderated newsgroup)" <sustag@beta.tricity.wsu.edu>
Subject: Linguistics

> Presumably those folks having trouble with 'foodshed' and even
> 'watershed' have equal trouble comprehending 'software' (Duh, is that
> a fabric treatment or something..?) and 'floppy.'

No very great problem with "foodshed" as an alternative to "store" "barn"
"larder"  "pantry"  or the like, but when you associate it with 
"watershed" - which means different things to different people, the 
intended meaning becomes very obscure.
> The 3 1/2" floppies must cause apoplexy, because they're not very
> bendable.

Some people have no curiosity  -- try dismembering one.

"Watershed" to me (and many others in the English-speaking world) means "a
line on either side of which surface water flows under gravity into
different river systems".  This is a precise concept and I have no
difficulty in understanding it. The use of "shed" in this sense has also
long been used to describe the parting of hair on the head in 
hair-styling circles ( left shed ; middle shed ; right shed ).

I am also very well aware that there are many other people in the English 
speaking world who use the term "watershed" in quite a different way - 
usually to describe what I would call "catchment area", but in arid 
areas, where flow under hydraulic pressure may be more important than 
surface runoff and where no river system develops such that one cannot 
speak of its catchment area, other definitions must be used. I have 
often thought that this second usage of the term "watershed" must have come 
about through sloppy application of the first usage (arising out of a 
mis-understanding of the concept), but I am open to correction on that 
point by anyone who has good linguistic historical evidence on the matter.

After a time, one can get used to this Babel, just as one contends with 
other foreign languages.

> C'mon, people.  I speak several languages, and the ongoing beauty and
> strength of English is its very maleability and adaptability;
> borrowing, adapting, adopting, shaping, modifying words to expand and
> introduce meaning. 

Undoubtedly - but most languages can do this.  If they could not, they 
would never have evolved in the first place. Probably the way in which 
English differs to some extent is in the facility to commute the function 
of a word without altering its structure to fit verbal or other inflection :

	E.g. Shakespeare's use of "spaniel" as a verb.

 - But words which have been hammered out of words whose meaning is 
different to different people do begin to cause problems.
Technical terminology will arise spontaneously when even the rich English 
vocabulary of "words to use when you don't know what to call something" 
prove inadequate for the situation. In very narrow technical fields, only 
a few people need ever understand such terms.
Children, over the generations, have also invented vocabularies for 
themselves. Usually these are left behind as things of childhood, but 
some pickings may survive to enrich the language.

> English has become the language of preference for
> international communication in large measure precisely _because_ its
> speakers can (and do) coin words like 'foodshed' to explain a
> concept.

Come on!  English is now an international language because the two 
dominant Imperial powers of the last three centuries - Britain and the 
United States - both used English. An over-rapid evolution of the English 
language at the present day would threaten its utility as the lingua 
franca of, say, the Orient rather than perpetuate it.
> If you want to stand up and wave the flag for integrated, corporate,
> centralised, and heavily subsidised agriculture, by all means do it,
> and it can be discussed in those terms. 

I have no desire whatsoever to do this.

> Please don't, however, set
> up a term such as 'foodshed' as a straw-man and attack the term
> rather than discussing the concept.

The discussions about food supply are both interesting and important and
should be conducted in a language which as many people as possible can
understand readily. In this particular topic, the invention of a lot of
new technical terms may be unwise unless they are genuinely necessary for
precise and succinct discussion by some very specialised group of people. If
nothing else, the proliferation of new terms makes me suspicious that
someone is trying to "pull the wool" (if you get my drift). I know
"straw-men" in various guises from the West and the Orient, but do not
quite understand the relevance of the term here - although the meaning is
fairly clear from the context. I presume that this particular straw man
comes from some bit of literature with which I am unfamiliar.

Why don't I knock you up tomorrow morning and we'll go out and have a 
look at this food shed of yours and then we'll find somewhere nice where 
you can eat on me?

(Possibly offensive to some, but immediately recognisable by others as
nothing but an indication of willingness to come by at an early
hour for a pre-prandial stroll around the foodshed followed by an
invitation to breakfast a good restaurant.)

Alasdair McKay