Wednesday, April 6, 2011
A GRUMPY OLD GUY GETS HIS COMEUPPANCE
Like many other senior citizens with a conservative literary streak [whatever my politics may be], I have become dyspeptic about what I see as the descent of the young into virtual incoherence. But now comes that wonderful NEW YORKER writer, Adam Gopnik, to put me in my place. The occasion is his review article in the latest issue of several books about machine translation, artificial intelligence, and the like. Gopnik makes the familar point that even computers capable of unimaginable zillions of computations a second have difficulty with the subtleties of natural languages. All of this is pretty familiar stuff, and my mind was on automatic pilot as my eyes scanned the review, until I came to this passage, which is, I dare say, one of the most brilliant bits of literary interpretation to come down the pike in quite some time: "Kid-speak, again, is an ideal instance of compression in balance with concision. What sounds to an outsider limited and repetitive is to the knowing listener as nuanced as Henry James. When one eleven-year-old girl says to another eleven-year-old girl, "So, then, like, the teacher got all, like, all of you, I guess, are, like, going to have to do a, like, I don't know, a makeup test. So! Like, yeah ," she means: "The teacher, becoming heated" -- that's why she "got, like" rather than "said, like" -- "announced , in effect, that many of us (I suppose, as a first apprioximation, all) will, at some point in, as it were, the near future, have to take what actually amounts to, when all, is said and done, a secondary makeup test. I have indignant feelings about this -- as who among us would not? -- but I recognize their essential futility." All of this is completely clear to the knowing listener, but it's been impossible, so far, to teach a machine to, you know, like, really, like, get it." I rest my case.