Langauge Learning: How to Spot a Chaos Informant

When you’re learning a language, you should know that some native speakers will feed you misinformation, and they will believe it deep down in their hearts that their misinformation is true, completely oblivious to the fact that they made that shit up on the spot.  I call these people “Chaos Informants;” take their explanations with a grain of salt. This is not a term that professional linguists use, in fact I just made the shit up on the spot.

Sometimes, they will offer you their chaos information unsolicited, but more often the chaos informants come out when I ask a question.  In fact, you can use questions to identify Chaos Informants, so you can take their explanations with a grain of salt. Here’s how.

“What is the difference between much and many?”  If you’re learning English, you can use this question to identify English speaking Chaos Candidates.

The “professional” answer to that question is countables; we use the word “many” for nouns that are in countable units (too many bananas, too many armpits, too many individual liberties).  We use much for things that are not in countable units,  (too much money, too much talking, too much sex).

I call this the “professional” answer because usually it’s only langauge professionals that can answer this question off the top of their head. This answer probably does not occur to someone who learned English as their native language.  Here’s the deal: linguistic knowledge is separate from conscious or academic knowledge. A native speaker can live a hundred years without ever mixing up “many” and “much” and never be able to supply the “professional” answer.

A “chaos answer” is any explanation that is yanked out of the ass region that doesn’t involve countability.  So if someone tries to tell you something like “always use many with objects you can fit in your pocket,” they are a Chaos Informant; grain of salt.  It’s probably not malicious; people are just trying to be helpful.  Some people just have horrible horrible intuitions about language and have a “tin ear” for what their own mouth is doing.  One British lady railed against /r/ insertion and then burst into tears when a researcher pointed out that she was totally an /r/ inserter.  She’s not stupid; it’s common for poeple’s perception of their own langauge to be different from actual acoustic reality.  I used to tell my classes that there was an [m] sound hidden in the sentence “I lived in Paris for a year;” this exercise divided the class and upset people, not kidding.

If you’re not blessed to be a language professional and you don’t want to be a Chaos Informant, here’s a good alternative for you; just say, “I don’t know.”  If that’s too humiliating for you, you can try “I’m not sure.”  It may not be the answer to the person’s question, but at least it’s the truth, and it’s more helpful than making shit up like a jackass.

Here’s a test for Spanish-speaking Chaos Informants:  “When do you use the subjunctive?”  The professional answer is that there are certain clauses and conjunctions that trigger the subjunctive; I can list them all for you if you need me to.  Native Spanish speakers who are not language professionals have no reason to know the professional answer, so don’t bother them with that. Hopefully they’ll tell you “I don’t know, I’ve never had to think about it before,” which doesn’t answer your question, but at least it’s true.  A chaos answer, one that I’ve heard before, is that you have to use the subjunctive whenever you use the word “que.”  Total chaos.

By the way, the students in my Spanish classes often felt confident about making up their own rules for Spanish, you don’t have to be a native speaker to be a Chaos Informant.  I was always stunned at their classmates willingness to believe the explanation as that still smelled like the ass they were yanked out of.  They’d say something like “you can’t have three verbs in a sentence” or “there is no umlaut in Spanish,” and then try to convince me that they were right.

For Tagalog, ask your friends, “What’s the difference between galing mo and galing ka.Both sentences mean something like “you’re sharp.” The professional answer is that “galing mo” is an abbreviated form of the exclamatory “Ang galing mo,” and the focus is on the adjective “galing.”  In the sentence galing ka, the focus is on the pronoun.  Easy.

If the person tells you that the verb “galing” means “to come,” you know that this person is a Chaos Informant; grain of salt.

Do I have one for Chinese?  I don’t remember anymore.  It might have been the difference between modal verbs 必須,必需and 需要.  I think I’m back to being a chaos informant for Chinese.

I have no memory of ever meeting a Chaos Informant of French or Italian, although there are many times where I’d hear someone make a grammatical mistake for fun, and then deny that it exists and forbid me to repeat it.  Also, I discovered last week that I’m making shit up when it comes to French.  Here’s a lamp post sign in Glendale that’s up right now:

img_0952-1

As you’ve probably noticed, they’ve written “Welcome” in several languages.  None of them are Filipino, so I guess Filipinos are not welcome.  Chinese is on there twice. And the French looks like a feminine singular; they’re welcoming a single French woman.  Ho ho ho. Look everyone, a French mistake!

Only my friend Armando pointed out that, “Bienvenue” is the noun, and that’s the appropriate way to write “Welcome” in this context.

So in other words, I’m a Chaos Informant for French; grain of salt.  Don’t trust my judgement!

2 thoughts on “Langauge Learning: How to Spot a Chaos Informant

  1. Re: galing mo / galing ka, I’ve never heard or read ‘galing ka’ used like that, and to my ears it sounds grammatically incorrect 🙂 I think the correct form to use would be ‘galing’ with the ‘ma-‘ prefix, so the comparison should be between ‘Galing mo’ and ‘Magaling ka’.

    Using the form ‘ang + adjective root word’ emphasizes the adjective, like ‘so’ in English.
    eg.
    ‘Ang damot mo!’ = ‘You’re so selfish!’
    ‘Madamot ka’ = ‘You’re selfish.’

    Although it doesn’t work for all adjectives, i.e. irregular adjectives, like ‘gwapo’, ‘pangit’, etc.

    (disclaimer: in no way or form am I a certified linguist or expert, just my 2 cents from my experience. I hope I’m not a chaos informant 🙂

    • Oscar, thank you for reading and commenting! I don’t have good intuitions for Tagalog grammar, and I have zero doubt that “ang galing mo” and “magaling ka” are the proper standard forms!

      On the other hand, I *have* seen and heard “galing mo” and “galing ka” in my life, both with my ears and also texted. So I know that when I hear/heard these forms, it was colloquial/conversational register. It wasn’t standard Tagalog, but linguists can describe non-standard native speech as well.

      And when this question occurred, the chaos informant started explaining about the verb “galing” as in “saan ka galing?” which was just crazypants beside the point.

      Anyway, you are correct and your 2 cents are always welcome. My own example is based on some super colloquial forms… they may not be standard but I have actually witnessed them.

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