The Language Contest
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A parable about all the languages
of the world and which one is truly "best", first
published in Language Monthly, Nottingham,
Fifty contestants enter a large hall. Inside the
hall are fifty desks. Each contestant sits down at
oneof the desks. On each desk is a large weirdly shaped
package. All the packages on all the desks have the
same size and shape. They all jut out and scoop inwards
in strange ways, and they all have a large number
of surfaces at odd angles to each other. Some of the
surfaces are very hard to the touch, some very soft.
All the packages are exactly the same in this regard.
They are in fact identical in every way.
Next to each package is a small pile of wrapping paper,
tape, perhaps some string. None of the piles of wrapping
materials is the same. In some the wrapping paper
comes in one or more sheets of different sizes, in
others it comes in rolls or strips, in yet others
it is nothing more than fragments or badly wrinkled
shreds. The tape too comes in a weird variety of shapes,
sizes, and quantities.
The string, on those desks that have it, may be anything
from a half-full spool of thread to a thickly encrusted
length of clothes line. A pair of scissors is also
provided. In fact, the only uniform property possessed
by these various piles, other than the scissors, is
the known fact, announced to the contestants beforehand,
that no one of the piles of materials is sufficient
to wrap the package completely, regardless of the
ingenuity of the contestants. The best any of them
will be able to achieve is to wrap about 90% of the
package, with about 10% remaining uncovered.
This, the principle rule of the contest, is now formally
announced to the fifty participants. They must use
all their knowledge and skills to wrap the package
as completely as possible, using only the pile of
materials on the desk next to the package. They will
be judged according to their success in this task.
A few informal rules are also believed to be true
by some contestants but not by others. One such rule
alleges that it is possible to cheat by not following
all the contours of the package and letting the wrapping
material stretch from edge to edge over a hollow between
surfaces. Others have heard this rule but believe
they may be penalized if they do not cover all the
surfaces. Others say that the whole game is an enormous
put-on, but one must play along in order to be promoted.
Some have also heard that one is awarded higher points
for the dextrous use of the scissors, others believe
one will be penalized for using the scissors too often.
Contestants employ various strategies in wrapping
their packages. Some try to cover as large a surface
as possible, leaving the unwrapped area as the very
last portion of the package, when their materials
run out. Some try to hide this space in some less
easily visible contour of the package. Others, in
their eagerness to cover space, do not care where
this space ends up. A few, dependent on their supplies
or their use of the scissors, try out a postage stamp
technique, taping small pieces of paper on all surfaces
of the box, with the unfilled space intervening on
The package is reality, with all its odd contours
and escarpments. The piles of wrapping paper, tape
and string are our languages (most certainly including
our computer languages as well) with all their odd,
arbitrary rules and connective structures. The places
where the contestants fail to follow the package's
contours are the places where our language (anyone's
language) lies to us about reality. The scissors are
probably akin to various odd ideas of grammar and
usage that we keep on teaching and tending to believe.
The places which cannot be covered by the tape or
paper are those parts of reality none can escape:
birth, death, hunger, animal passion in its positive
and negative aspects.
It is finally announced that none of the wrapping
procedures is necessarily better than the others.
This message is received amidst much booing, as many
contestants are quite convinced that their method
of wrapping is clearly the best.
Still others complain that hundreds of other possible
contestants were not invited to take part, while some
voice the claim that the contest is too simple-minded
because everyone receives the same reality/package,
contrary to "true" reality, which may differ
from people to people, culture to culture, coordinately
The judges give up and leave. No prizes are awarded.
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