Language: March 2005 Archives

Jonathan Ichikawa raises some questions I've been wondering about since this post, but he puts it in a different enough way that I'd like to highlight his argument and then develop it in a different direction. It seems pretty silly to use the kind of rhetoric often found in the religious right over an issue as boring as what a word means in the English language. Linguistic matters really don't have much moral weight, especially given how rapidly natural languages change. That's why a charitable observer will try to find a more charitable interpretation of all the harsh rhetoric about this vast gay conspiracy to redefine the English language. How it could it be that immoral merely to seek for one word to mean something else? It can't just be about language. There must be some real moral issue behind the scenes.

Plural Singulars

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I ran across a sentence a few days ago that sounded jarring. I had the form:

"A number of ... has ..."

I understand what the author was thinking. The word 'number' is singular, so it should have the singular verb 'has'. For some reason this just sounds completely wrong to me, though. There are plenty of words that function this way, singular terms that refer to a collection of things. Yet a number of other terms aren't like this (there we go: I used it the way that sounds right to me, and you probably didn't even notice). As I thought about it more, my thinking turned into outright armchair linguistics, i.e. ordinary language philosophy. Here is how my hearing of the terms like this (that I can think of) lines them up:

I've been struggling with the idea that we have no shorthand for the view that homosexuality is abnormal and morally aberrant. Most who hate such a view call it homophobia, but there's a clear distinction between those who have this view and those who truly don't like people who are gay, are uncomfortable with gay people being involved in their life in any way, etc. Well, now I've seen a term that sounds to me as if it's just simply descriptive of the view in question. Someone who considers heterosexuality normal and/or normative is heteronormative. I think there are already a few ambiguities in the term, but it's better than anything else I've seen so far. The biggest problem is that the people who coined it seem to rule out the possibility that it could be ok to be heteronormative, as evidences by those of the Harvard-Radcliffe Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) who are criticizing Jada Pinkett Smith's comments last week at a Harvard multi-culturalist event, a criticism that itself raises some interesting moral questions.



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