Do we have lots of DNA junk or not? Many scientists believe that up to 90% of the DNA in our genome has no biological function and is therefore not vital to life. Recent research by the Encode project has challenged this. And now a dispute has broken out.
Were the people who carried out the research ‘scientists‘? Or were they ‘badly trained technicians‘, as claimed by a critical paper published in the Genome Biology and Evolution journal.
Naming is a powerful thing … and there’s a linguistic attack on three levels here …
1. the denotation (dictionary meaning)
SCIENTIST: a person who studies or practises any science
TECHNICIAN: a person skilled in a practical or mechanical art; a person who does the practical work in a laboratory
2. the connotations (associations)
SCIENTIST: associated with intelligence, logic, and the capacity for original thought
TECHNICIAN: practical and skilled, but not necessarily associated with academic learning or breaking new ground with life-changing discoveries
3. the confrontational pre-modification (badly trained)
the past participle trained functions as an adjective pre-modified by the negative adverb of manner badly
We are meant to respond to scientists as a positive label, and to badly trained technicians as a negative label. The names are designed to undermine the new findings and to reinforce the prestige of previous research.
Rafael Benitez is unhappy with his title. In a speech after Chelsea had beaten Middlesbrough 2-0 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Benitez objected to being called “interim manager”. So why is “interim manager” linguistically and semantically so different from “manager”?
In structure, both are noun phrases, but the pre-modifying adjective “interim” alters our response to the head noun. This is the power of pre-modification – it affects the way we interpret the noun that follows.
The meaning of the adjective appears to undermine the authoritative connotations of “manager” in this context. For Benitez, it makes his role seem less important because it suggests that he is only transitional, temporary – a stand-in until someone else (someone better or more suitable?) can be appointed.
On Radio 4’s The Archers, one of the characters was expecting a baby … Someone described her baby as ‘a Down’s Syndrome baby’ and she insisted she was having ‘a baby with Down’s Syndrome’. Can you see the semantic difference?
At a level of language, we can describe the two structures very differently. The first is a pre-modified noun phrase: the head word ‘baby’ is at the end of the phrase and we therefore first register the condition. The second is a post-modified noun phrase: the noun ‘baby’ comes first with the condition as a qualifier (in the form of a prepositional phrase).
The order of information in a phrase is important because it affects the way we respond. In this case, the character was drawing attention to the fact that her baby would not be defined by her condition – that she was a baby first and that her condition was just one element of who she would be.