Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So, the good people at XKCD.com, in addition to ripping on Computational Linguists, make some very funny comics. Today, I’d like to briefly discuss one of my favorites (Re-Hosted here, as to not steal bandwidth.):

A comic

This is purely magnificent, and it has some analogues in human language. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the joke, here’s a brief explanation.

“sudo” in Unix-based computer systems stands for “Superuser Do”. When you’re using a Unix system, lots of files have complex permissions (so that people can’t do things that they’re not supposed to), and your everyday user account isn’t be able to edit all the files on the computer. If you need to run a command, but don’t have permission, you type sudo , and then enter the computer administrator’s password (if you have it), and then it’ll do the command. This is a double-edged sword, because the computer will let you do ANYTHING, even things that will break, hurt, or destroy your operating system. So, the whole operation will look like this:

$ touch /bin/newcommand
touch: /bin/newcommand: Permission denied
$ sudo touch /bin/newcommand
Password: adminpassword
$

So, sudo is just a way of saying “I have the authority to do whatever I please, so DO IT!”. (See, I told you the comic was funny). However, it’s also a bit closer to human language than one might initially think.

The assertion of authority through speech is a pretty common act, and I’ll bet that several Sociolinguists are quivering with joy at the mere idea of discussing it (and they’re welcome to email me something to post, if they’d like). Just think about how frequently somebody “changes your mind” based simply on intimidation, or a reminder of their authority in your life. Take, for example, this interaction:

Mom: Honey, could you clean your room?
Son: No, I want to play nintendo!
Mom: I’m your mother, do as I say, Jimmy!
Son: (starts cleaning)

If that’s not a sudo clean /rooms/jimmy, what is? However, it can be even more subtle:

BOSS: Carol, would you write up a quick report for me on the Jenkins account?
CAROL: Well, I just clocked out.
BOSS: Oh, alright, but I think that doing this report might be helpful for your end-of-year report.
CAROL:.. Did I say “clocked out”? I meant “admired your hair”

See, sudo write ~/thereport. However, very, very seldom (outside the military or a gun-to-the-head situation) will the authority of one person in an interaction be absolute as in the Unix example. Generally, people retain much more free will and will question obviously bad commands (“Carol, light me on fire or I’ll dismiss you”), so there’s not the same degree of mindless obedience.

Finally, just like in Unix, it’s a bad habit to append “sudo” to everything, even if you are an administrator. In computers, it’s usually unnecessary (the average person won’t need to do this), and it’s very easy to make a typo as a superuser and erase/mess up things you didn’t mean to. If you’re not sudo’ed, the computer will stop you before you do too much damage. As the message says the first time you run sudo, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

In human interaction, “sudo-ing” a conversation is something you never want to do unless it’s unnecessary. Imagine “Carol, give me 3 sheets of copy paper or I’ll fire you right now” as an initial request? Sure, it’d work, but really, pulling rank like that is damaging to your interpersonal relationships, so you should save it for when you really, really need to.

So, I hope you enjoyed this post, and will come back to read again. If that doesn’t work, sudo read -again linguisticmystic.

I knew you’d see things my way.


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