Freak Out with my Geek Out

I’m going to seriously nerd it up today, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, namely why our language is constructed the way it is.

Still with me? Huzzah! Okay, so I’ve been teaching myself Irish Gaelic for the past few months, and one of the most striking things about this language is that the verb always comes before the subject. So for example, in English, we would say, “The dog ran home.” In Irish Gaelic, the literal translation would be “Ran the dog home.” The English word order is known in linguistics as Subject-Verb-Object (abbreviated SVO); the Irish word order is know as Verb-Subject-Object (abbreviated VSO).

And because I’m not content to just know about the difference in sentence construction, I went about some research to figure out why some languages are constructed SVO and some VSO. In English, the focus is on the subject of the sentence. In other words, the subject (who performs the action) seems to be key (and dare we say most important?). In Irish, the focus seems to be instead on the verb of the sentence. In other words, the verb (the action being performed) seems to be key (and dare we say most important?).

Now before I go all-out geek, I’ll rein myself in to say first, which word order predominates in other world languages, and second, what I think these differences in construction mean.

First, there’s a good bit of linguistic research on all this, but the consensus seems to be that all humans had a common language once upon a long-ass time ago, and the word order of sentences in that language was most likely SOV. Example: “The boy the bear shot” is SOV, as opposed to “Shot the boy the bear” (VSO) or “The boy shot the bear” (SVO). Then eventually, people split off from each other and language evolved, and some languages kept the SOV word order, while some morphed into SVO, others into VSO, and even other constructions which aren’t terribly relevant to this post.

So many years passed and BAM! we have around 6500 languages in the world today. The SVO constructed languages have the most speakers in the world (examples: English, French, Mandarin Chinese, crazy lots of others). The second most common is SOV, and the third most common is VSO. Examples of VSO languages include the Celtic languages like Irish, as well as Classical/Biblical Hebrew and Arabic.

So why do some languages seem most concerned with the action being performed, and some with the person or thing performing that action? Full disclosure: The following conclusions are neither scientific nor scholarly, just some semi-educated guesses by someone who hasn’t fully done all her research yet:

Maybe- just maybe- some societies historically have been more concerned with something being done than with who does it.

Now in light of the recent “Blurred Lines” controversy, I think it’s safe to say that American society today seems inordinately preoccupied with who has done something. Sure, we all want credit when we’re brilliant (I’m no exception myself), but what’s ultimately going to last? Our names and the details of our lives, or our works and the feelings they inspire?

How many people still know anything about Michelangelo (other than that he was a famous artist)? How many people know who wrote the Beowulf epic (hint: no one)? But how many people have seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel since its creation and been inspired, or felt awe, or felt somehow profoundly connected to someone or something greater? And how can we ever fully measure the tremendous impact that Beowulf had on countless subsequent poems, epics, novels, plays, films, etc?

Learning Irish Gaelic has made me think about all this and wonder what our society would be like if English word order was VSO, focused on the verb of each sentence rather than the subject. In what ways might it change our culture, or would it even change at all? Perhaps the glorification of the individual was always inevitable in our society, and not something rooted in our very language. Then again, perhaps not.


Blurred Lines between Inspiration and Infringement

It’s a bad day for artistic creativity and expression.

A jury has found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke guilty of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” in their song “Blurred Lines.” I find this not only appalling, but frightening as well. Copyright is important, let’s not have any confusion about that, but what I would argue is even more important is creativity.

An artwork of any medium (musical, lyrical, visual, written, etc) is utterly interdependent on other artwork. If we take even the briefest of looks at history, it doesn’t take long to figure out that artistic movements occur in reaction to each other. One poetic movement grows out of a previous one, another poetic movement arises as a response to and a reaction against that previous one. The same is true for music and sculpture and visual art.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say there is some similarity between these two songs; whether you want to say that similarity is a bass line, the beat, a mood/tone, whatever, is up to you. Is “Blurred Lines” so similar to “Got to Give it Up” that it should be accused of plagiarism rather than simply artistic inspiration? And it’s not about the money that Williams and Thicke will have to pay up for this supposed infringement; it’s about the bloody principle of the thing. What is the line between inspiration and infringement? Or between sharing and stealing creativity? Of course sometimes people outright steal creative works from other people, and that is beyond terrible. But I think what happens far more– and what should be allowed to continue to happen– is that artists are inspired by other artists. They “take something [they] love and build on it.” That quote is from a TED Radio Hour excerpt, which you can listen to here: 

This is the short version of the TED Radio Hour with Mark Ronson, on “What is Original?” and is pretty much all the proof you need. To put it briefly, Ronson explains how Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di” is a foundational song, from which a number of artists took inspiration, including: Beastie Boys, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, The Notorious B.I.G., Beyoncé, Kanye West, and plenty of others. In other words, to quote Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Velazquez’s Las Meninas

And a Picasso version of Las Meninas, inspired by Velazquez’s work

There are no original ideas. I feel like that’s a pretty well-established fact. There are unique spins, new combinations, etc, but no one’s going to reinvent the wheel. The wheel exists, and we just put our own spins on it (see what I did there?). So when you have a musician like Taylor Swift try to copyright some phrases from her lyrics including “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989,” we run into a real problem.

Manet’s Olympia….

…. Inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino

There are many great things about the primacy of the individual in our society. This court finding, however, is an example of its dark side. We are so concerned with our individual thoughts and ideas and work that first off, we fail to acknowledge how dependent we are on the artists and thinkers who came before us, and how we couldn’t have come up with any of the thoughts and creative works that we have without those who paved the way, and they could not have come up with anything without the work of those generations before them, and so on and on. And secondly, we fail to share in the community of creativity where others can inspire us, and where we can inspire others to pass on this deeply human drive and desire to create.