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January 24, 2009

Linguisic Anarchy!

I'm one of those people who can often get over an inability to settle down to work by going out to a cafe. Since I'm in Berkeley now, naturally the cafe I found this afternoon was no ordinary Seattle's Best, but the Mediterraneum Caffé (Caffé Med) on Telegraph, former haunt of Ginsberg and other Beats, and the place that claims to have invented the latte.

I asked for a small latte. The young server paused and said, "would a medium be ok?" I said ``er, sure..." and she said "because technically if it's in a cup smaller than this one (holding up a cup that would make a perfectly respectable soup bowl) then it's not called a latte. Actually, if it's like a latte but in this cup (holding up a cup that is still generous for a coffee cup) it's called a macchiato."

Having been influenced by old Language Log posts on Starbucks' (you don't say small you say tall) and Microsoft's (Microsoft has no genitive) amateurish attempts to regiment language in various ways, I'm never very impressed by this sort of thing. It's not that I'm opposed to the regimentation of language in general---in fact, I usually follow one of my old teachers in recommending that my logic students refrain from using valid in informal senses (valid point of view, valid claim etc.) and reserve the word for it's technical senses (which are tricky enough as it is, given that many books reserve one technical use of the word for first order logical truths, as well as allowing the more well-known use on which it is a property of arguments or argument schemata in general.) So anyway, that sentence got away from me. It's not that I'm opposed to the regimentation of language in general, but just that I reject the authority of just about everyone in imposing it, including Starbucks, but also including funky historical local coffee shops.

So what's the difference between what they're doing, and what I feel justified in doing in my classes? Well, I think it's just that I have a good justification for the regimentation. Reserving valid for the technical uses aids communication and understanding of the subject at hand. A regimentation that makes it impossible to request a coffee like a medium latte, but smaller, by saying "small latte'' does not. In fact, it seems like a snobbish attempt to wield power for the sake of it. Similarly for the Microsoft and Starbucks examples.

Am I right? I can imagine someone defending the Starbucks example by claiming that the justification for having special names for their coffee sizes is artistic. They want their customers to have the best, most enjoyable most interesting/mysterious/exotic coffee-drinking experience possible, and what better justification could there be for their decision to name their sizes as they have?

But even if that is so, it could only justify their introduction of the new expressions, not the outlawing of the old---and hence not the regimentation.

Anyway, though I wasn't impressed by the no-such-thing-as-a-small-latte claim, neither am I impressed by people who are rude to young service workers, so I tried to make conversation, dredging up some faint memories about what a macchiato actually was: "That's interesting. I thought a macchiato was where you just marked the expresso with foam?" "Oh no,'' she said, "a machiatto is just like a latte but with less milk." And I just shut up and smiled and handed over my 4 bucks.

Maybe Berkeley cafes are going to be more distracting than the ones in St Louis.

Posted by logican at 5:44 PM | TrackBack

And I'm back. Hello!

I’ve been so quiet around here for so long that you’ve probably stopped wondering what's happened to this weblog. But no more. By invoking the magic words pre-tenure sabbatical I have found myself (more or less) settled at the University of California, Berkeley, with no teaching duties. It’s the beginning of the semester, Branden Fitelson and John MacFarlane are both teaching great looking seminars (though I’m going to be a little bit cautious about blogging their contents – not everyone wants what-I-said-in-seminar-today broadcast to the world) and it turns out that Berkeley serves coffee and cookies in the break during their colloquia. So the stars are pretty much all aligned. Stay tuned…

Posted by logican at 5:42 PM | TrackBack