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Describing language
Describing language

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2.4 Just talking nonsense?

An orange cut in half showing gears and mechanisms inside.
Figure 3 A clockwork orange.

Purely in terms of grammatical structure, it is possible to put almost any adjective in front of any noun. But this could easily produce nonsense: a round square, heavy feathers, jealous parsnips. Squares are, by definition, not round, feathers are proverbially light, and root vegetables don’t have emotions (so far as we know!). But these examples are not ungrammatical – it’s just that the meaning doesn’t match up with the world as we know it. In fact with a bit of imagination we can probably think of a context in which the phrases work. A children’s story about talking (and emotional) vegetables isn’t too hard to imagine, and if someone in a science fiction story was shrunk to the size of a flea they probably would find feathers rather weighty. The round square still poses a challenge, but not necessarily because of grammar.

As you can see, apparent nonsense can challenge us to produce creative interpretations. This is something that has been exploited by writers down the ages. A famous example comes from George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945):

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

If things are equal, they are the same as each other (at least in some way), so how can something be ‘more’ the same? The ironic explanation is that some of the animals in Orwell’s political parable are in fact more privileged than others.

Another example comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Parting is such sweet sorrow

How can something unpleasant (sorrow) also be pleasant (sweet)? It is, of course, all part of the crazy mixed-up experience of young love!

We can find further examples in everyday language: a living death, a deafening silence. These may once have been original and attention-grabbing, but repetition has long since turned them into the clichés.

Activity 4 Famous nonsense

Timing: This activity should take around 10 minutes

This is one of the most famous (and supposedly nonsensical) sentences in modern linguistics:

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

What do you think it might mean? Why do you think it was written?

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Watch the video to find out if you were right.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 The meaning of colourless green ideas
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Video 1 The meaning of colourless green ideas
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The point of colourless green ideas sleep furiously was to create a sentence which was grammatically correct, but which had no possible meaning. However, our understanding of language isn’t as simple as Chomsky suggested. If we try hard enough, we can start to imagine scenarios where this sentence might make some sense even though, at first, it might seem like nonsense. If you came up with any possible meanings for the sentence, you were not alone!