Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Greetings all. I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’m definitely still here. I’m not nearly back to a place where I can have a regular posting schedule (I’m working on an MA thesis and applying to doctoral programs), but I do intend to drop in new posts periodically when I get a chance. So, in that spirit, here’s a quick post both to share a random insight, and to prove that I’m still alive.

There are a great many words that are used all the time in Academia, but seldom outside of a scholastic context. Many of these words aren’t particularly useful outside of their specific academic context. An example of a word of this type from Linguistics might be fricativization, which is the process by which a stop consonant becomes a fricative over time (for instance, /t/ goes /s/). However, there are a few words which are definitely handy even outside of linguistics and academia, but really never seem to fall out of the ivory tower into everyday use.

Sadly, in an everyday social situation when one of these terms would really work best, you’re left with two bad options.

Your first option is to just use the term in whatever context you’re in, even if the people you’re talking to might not be familiar with the term. Unless you do this with an incredible degree of social grace, you’ll seem very much like an elitist, or like you’re trying to thrust your academic background in somebody’s face. Going on to explain the term is helpful, but even then, you’re still going to seem like you’re playing professor, not hanging out with friends. That’s just not cool.

Your other option is to circumlocute, or talk around, the word. Here, you’d just describe what the word means in context, without ever actually using it. So, for instance, rather than saying “I’m a phonologist”, you might say “I study the sounds of language and the rules that go with them”. This is much more socially acceptable and doesn’t have the same air of “look at me, I’m an academic”, but it can get awkward if you want to use the word multiple times in a conversation.

So, today, I’d like to create a new option.

To Posit

One of these academic terms that I think is quite handy in everyday life is the verb “to posit”. This means, roughly, “to assume something for the basis of argument”, or in other situations, “to hypothesize”. In Linguistics, we use this term pretty frequently when trying to justify a certain analysis. Here’s an example of its usage from a recent assignment of mine on the history of Polish:

In order for this jeste _—› _ješcie change to have any sort of naturalness, I must first posit an isolated (at least, based on this data) vowel epenthesis (Epenthesis is the addition of a sound between two other sounds), whereby an /i/ was inserted between the the [t] and the [e] of the 2pl form (jeste —› jestie).

Ignoring the rest of the specialized vocabulary and examples, I’m basically saying that for the rest of my argument to make any sense, I’m going to hypothesize (and to a certain extent, assume) that a vowel pops up between those two sounds at some point. Here, it’s in a very academic context, but there are definitely situations in everyday life where this word could come in handy.

For instance, you’re near campus and your football obsessed school is having a home game. You’re talking with a bunch of friends before heading off to have a tasty burrito, trying to plan your route through the pandemonium:

Friend: What’s gonna be the best route to take? Do you know which streets they’re gonna block off to let the drunken fans crawl home? You: Not a clue, but based on the past few games, we can pretty safely posit roadblocks on Euclid and Regent. Friend: Yeah, good call, let’s try University… or… You know, let’s just order pizza.

Now, for me, “posit” really is the best verb for the job here. If you said “we can bet on roadblocks…”, it would imply a great deal more security in your guess. If you said “Let’s assume roadblocks…”, it would make it sound like there’s no other option. Finally, if you said “well, let’s hypothesize that they’ve set up roadblocks…”, you’d sound like you desperately needed to get off campus more, and further than just the burrito shop.

Let’s posit further usage by readers of this site

As many of you have already figured out, posting these obscure words on your blog isn’t really a better way to use these words in conversation. Unless your friends are all avid readers of your site (and mine aren’t, for the most part), you’ll still have to explain these words or work around them.

However, I have a wonderful dream. First, I’ll talk about “positing” on my site. Then, maybe you will, because it’s much less confrontational when you use an obscure word oline. Then, your friends friend might use it. People will start bumping into it, and more and more, it will enter the collective consciousness of society.

Eventually, this effect will cascade until my final dream is realized, and I can walk into a bar, sidle up next to a very attractive woman, and say that “given the fact that you’re talking to me, that you’re expressing interest, and most importantly, that I find you very attractive, I’m going to posit a wonderful end to this evening”.

Unfortunately, even if I use the perfect verb in the perfect context, in that situation, I still posit a quick, firm slap to the face. It’d SO be worth it.

Program Note: Due to a recent plague of comment spam, all comments are currently set to await my moderation. If you don’t see your comment there immediately, don’t despair, I’ll see it and approve it shortly.

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