‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”

So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.

So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.

When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:

word world pies1And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,word world pies2which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.

Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.

For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.

And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too.  Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.

(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)

And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”

(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)

By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies

word world pies3and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.

Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:

There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively.  But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.

Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?

Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones?  Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?

So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?

UPDATE: See also this post.

41 responses to “‘Word World’ and the problem of plurals

  1. Your blog made me smile(s) If you use both lips should it not be plural and therefore smiles.

  2. I have never thought about plurals and spelling in this manner. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Interesting Insight. Thanks for posting.
    “Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.”
    However, I disagree on this note of abstraction. I think plurality is simply meant to give meaning to “more than one.” It isn’t meant to give the assumption that whatever word is plural is also completely identical.

    • But “one” what? How is “one” being defined? If I have one math book and one poetry book, I do not have two of anything unless I drop the adjectives and then I would have “two books” — but then these two books are, when labeled as “two,” indistinguishable. Maybe the two books aren’t identical, but if all we are told is that there are “two books,” we don’t know anything about each book in particular. The implication of plural is that the things being pluralized are identical in a lowest-common-attribute fashion, i.e., they are “books.” If I want a particular book, say, a poetry book, I’m going to have to ask for “a poetry book” — asking for “a book” is not going to give me very good odds at receiving a poetry book (though, admittedly, those odds would be non-zero).

      • then i suppose what you have discovered is that fundamentally there is truely only one of anything; everything is unique in some way. Whether it be by something as obvious as a different physical characteristic or something not so obvious at the molecular level.

  4. I think there is a “class.” Being in a group influences the behavior of every individual in that group. It’s not a matter of teaching that “average” student and assuming every individual in that class is close enough to benefit from that instruction, but teaching individual students within the context of that dynamic. So, in one class, I may have a very weak student who is also kind of whiny and unlikable. The other students pick on him if I allow it. And no one wants to help him. So I have a problem of how to reach him as well as students well beyond him. That’s a completely different problem than having a similarly weak student in a different class who gets along well with some of the mid-level students or even a strong student and everyone loves to help–so that even if what I am teaching way over his head, he is never lost, because someone else will make sure he understands. That’s what I’m teaching as well as the individuals–I’m teaching to the dynamic of that particular group and the way the individuals typically interact in that group.

    But as for pies. Yes, that really is a problem. I might have to actually watch this show sometime. (I haven’t, despite your helpfully linked clips.)

    • Interesting point about the different behaviors of individuals within different groups. I’m gonna have to think through this for a bit. I too have noticed that particular students act differently in different social settings, among different people, and yes, I do change how I teach to different groups. And yet, I would suggest, I think, that I am still teaching individual students in every class.
      Perhaps it may be useful, at times, to think of one class as having different characteristics than other classes. I guess I would respond that a teacher needs to be careful not to take a particular class’s “character” as being more valuable a way of thinking than one that prioritizes individuals, as it is individuals, after all, who use language and who have careers and who learn. Of course, we might do all of these things in the company of others, so it’d be foolhardy of me to argue that individuals are autonomous entities, that social aspects aren’t real.
      But I am concerned that conceiving of a class as a whole may lead a teacher to make facile over-generalizations, which may lead to instruction that ignores individual perspectives.

      Sorry if that’s a muddy response, but I do appreciate your thought-provoking comment!

      • I quite agree. You are always teaching individual students. You are also teaching the class. I suppose my point was simply that the class is not merely the plural of student in the way that pies are more than one pie. The class is an entity in itself, and I think you are teaching both the class and each student in that class.

      • I agree — and you’ve said very well exactly why teaching can be so challenging!

  5. It makes me surprised that plurals are so difficult to find out….

  6. Very interesting. I wonder what Word World would do with mass nouns that don’t take an s or a number. You can have pies and six pies but you can’t have furnitures or six furnitures. Nor with homework, water, money, rice, etc. The child who follows the plural lesson and then asks Mom for “more foods” is going to be very confused.

    • I’d like to have “more foods”! And isn’t it interesting how there are some errors that native speakers just would not be likely to make, like that one. Your comments reminds me of a wordplay game I’ll do sometimes: I’ll replace a singular article in a pop-song lyric with a number: Instead of “I can’t fight this feeling anymore,” I’ll say, “I can’t fight two feelings anymore.” It’s a simple way to start feeling the weirdness of language.

  7. But what is a book? Is it not, to dig deep into the language’s roots in Old Norse, a manifestation of the power of bookness. In that sense, a description of a book is not of a physical object but of an instance of energy, or perhaps of manifested energy. Two books are thus two instances of manifested energy. The energy is still one. It has just been manifested in two different objects. I’m not arguing for Plato’s forms here. I’m just making an observation about a foundational principle of language to demonstrate how these effects aren’t dependent upon abstraction. To stick to abstract culture, though, the effect you have described is a lot like the form of logic [sic] found in Biblical exegesis. That’s pretty interesting, too. I’m not so sure that children can be taught anything by the method embodied in the cartoon, though, other than a form of literalization that is likely to lead away from literacy into territories of vagueness in which ego asks for its moment on stage with Taylor Swift. In other words, the current state of affair is quite accurately represented and supported by this instructional model. It’s just not representative of human culture in general, that’s all.

    • I like your point about the “current state of affair” — of ego exercise — being represented by the cartoon, and how that’s not representative of human culture.

      I’m not clear about your point about a book being a “manifestation of the power of bookness.” I’m not a Plato expert, but this does start to sound to me a little like Plato’s forms. I’d like you to explain this further, if you can.

      To my perspective, using terms like “manifestation of the power” and “an instance of energy” sound very abstract. I agree that the idea of “book” is not in the object itself, but I don’t know that “bookness” exists as an idea separate from the thinker or language-user. I don’t find that thinking of “bookness” as an entity or Form is useful. I think of the term and the definition of “book” as being ideas we share, perhaps problematically, from person to person, without that idea having any existence apart from the minds that are using it. Clearly, others may find it useful to think differently, but I want to grant reality, objective existence, only to those things that I don’t want to hit myself in the head with. I may really feel sad at times, and I may think about the idea of sadness, but these to me are only subjectively real.

      • Harold Rhenisch

        By bookness, I meant a capacity in the English language, developed from pre-rational traditions in Nordic England, and the roots of these terms in old shamanic and wiccan practices. These potentialities live on within the language we are using for this discussion, English, and form part of its processes. To reiterate: in this old, foundational level of the language a book is a manifestation of energy, as are all things. On top of that is laid Anglo Saxon talismanic magic, the list of words within the language for physical things. These words and the objects they conjure up are capable of carrying the Norse potentiality independently within objects. On top of that is laid a French (latin/frankish) form of abstraction. The essence of English (which is an Englishness) lies in the common ground that has absorbed all of these over time and bound them together. We speak through our ancestors and their accommodations. The objects of which you speak are defined by these old words. If you believe that this deep reading of the language is subjective, remember this: subjective, emotional and aesthetic effects are largely the embodied signs of lost terms.

      • I haven’t heard this description of the wiccan and talismanic development of the English language before. Could you point me to some resources that detail this idea?

  8. Word World is a good idea in itself, but I agree that the details/layout of the program leave plenty to be desired. It always bothered me the most that, as you say, letters are backward if objects/characters turn around. Now that my son is a bit older, we much prefer shows like Word Girl, lol. He learns straight-up definitions on that program and can repeat the words and their meanings. I’m not sure Word World ever had much of an impact on his learning…

    • I don’t have kids myself (I watched the show a few times just because it was so terrifically strange), so it’s interesting to hear that your son wasn’t much educated by it. As I mentioned in the post, I always wondered how the co-mingling of words/ideas and physical things would help or hamper language-learners.

  9. I have not yet had the pleasure of this television show! I’m not sure I’m going to go out of my way to watch it, though 😉

    I loved this. Not only the language quibbles — oh, how I relate! — but also the remarks about the testing. When we enrolled our oldest child in school a couple of years ago, my parents asked if I’d checked out the NAPLAN (Australia’s standardised test) score for the school. But I really felt that what was more important was that the gardens at the entrance were inviting, the staff were friendly and down-to-earth, and there were numerous examples of the students’ work everywhere I looked. This was a school which was proud of its students. That’s where I want my child to attend school. I can keep an eye on the literacy and numeracy (after all, I know how to read and write and count). The school could produce the best results in the state, but if it’s not centred on creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment, it’s missed the point.

    • Very cool — well-said! I like the idea of judging a school by how welcoming it is, how pleasing the environment. I agree that that’s a huge aspect of a quality school — or, at least, it signifies a set of attitudes that seem focused on those things that are more important than test scores.

  10. Food for thought: Do I like to eat pie? Or do I like to eat pies? Or maybe this: Do I like to drink coffee? Or do I like to drink coffees? Just think about it. Actually, now that I have thought about it, I really would like some of both, or would I say some of each?

    • I know this comment has me wanting some of both! I say this to my wife sometimes — “Let’s go get coffees,” and it does feel strange to shift away from such a commonplace. To “eat pie” sounds almost like eating the abstraction itself, no? Whereas “let’s eat pies” sounds particular, if gluttonous. I love how much there can be to think about in even these common language uses!

  11. In some languages (Bahasa Indonesia, for example), the plural is formed by repeating the noun. “one tiger…two tiger tiger.” This has always seemed so practical to me, and much closer to using language to represent the physical reality of perceiving the presence of more than one like-kind object.

  12. What about historical anomalies for example, a pair of trousers. How do they become singular? I think they started out as two legs laced together, hence the need for a pair. These days things have moved on and our trousers remain in one piece. Interesting read, thanks,

    Jim

  13. I love words as it seems you all do. I read recently in a piece about educational standards that ‘the government ARE taking steps to improve them’. I see ‘the government as a unit – therefore the ARE should be IS. Still, maybe, now we have a coalition should be use ARE?

    • I’m really glad you pointed this out — I should maybe have added this into the original post. I wonder if the example you cite is from British English, rather than an American English; I’ve noticed before that British English speakers will use certain nouns designating groups as plural (“the crowd are going wild” is, if memory holds, used in the Monty Python sketch about philosopher-footballers) whereas an American would say “The crowd is going wild.” Implicit in this difference are two different ideas of grouping — the team as a group of individuals, or as a collective whole.

  14. I love this post (despite all of its depth, smile) – all about words, and the beautiful inconsistencies of the English language. I also have to confess that WordWorld gave me gripe – I couldn’t understand the words, and I agree with you, why wasn’t everything spelt out, and could we only view from one side? Despite all of that, I have long found that children see things differently – my six year old had no difficulties at all with the figurines or the concept.

  15. Anh remember this is only one everything!

  16. Jackson Davies at Blogprefect

    You’ve thought too much about this. Your brain will leak out of your ears. I better not mention the word Sheep lest we have the same situation as above. 🙂 Calm down, have a warm cup of cocoa, and breathe deeply!

  17. Taking deep breaths! I guess we all should welcome differences in language and anything else which enriches our ability to communicate with other people world-wide.

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