Take a look at the picture of the whiteboard. Which of the messages is the odd one out?
I came across the whiteboard before Christmas at the hospital where they were taking a blood test to check I was OK for the next round of chemotherapy. Apart from the season’s greeting, all the messages are reminders to nurses taking blood tests of some of the less obvious procedures to be followed when doing some of the rarer tests. It caught my eye because of the sheer strangeness of finding the two radically different uses of languages next to each other, as if they had something to do with each other. Wittgenstein said language was a toolbox with lots of different kinds of tools for different purposes: the whiteboard is then like finding the Space Shuttle launcher next to a teabag squeezer: both tools, but they have little else in common. It leaves me wanting to rejoice – isn’t language wonderful, that we can do all these different things with it! That there are all these different kinds of language, some understood by everyone, others, only by tiny communities with their own abbreviations and conventions, all allowing us to communicate as and when we want to. And as a scientist, it drives my research agenda: how can we talk scientifically about how all these different kinds of uses relate to each other? How can they be compared? Now that we linguists are getting the hang of corpora, we can start to be quantitative about the question as never before.