Taylor: Things we never knew we’d learned

I refuse to believe in a God who deliberately causes landslides. But I cannot rid myself of the notion that Something influences my life.

It sounds wrong to speak of “an apple old tree,” or a “cotton blue lovely shirt,” because the adjectives don’t come in the order we expect.

In case your eyes glaze over at any mention of grammatical terms, adjectives are the words we use to describe things: colour, size, shape, age….

As a writer and editor, I know lots of rules about the English language. I’ve also learned that most of those rules really aren’t rules at all. Someone invented them at some point, in a misguided attempt to impose rigidity on a language as fluid as glycerin.

Like a demented vacuum cleaner, English sucks up bits from every other language it encounters. French, German, Latin, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, even the pidgin of the Pacific islands—all have given us words and/or ways of organizing those words.

But one rule I had never even heard of until just recently deals with the order of adjectives. Almost always, apparently, adjectives follow this sequence:

• Determiner (many, a, this, the)

• Opinion (frightening, fine, beautiful)

• Size (large, tiny)

• Age (new, ancient)

• Shape (round, square, bulbous)

• Colour or pattern (blue, green, striped)

• Origin (Chinese, German)

• Material (glass, wooden, silver)

• Purpose (what something is used for, like a sleeping bag, budget statement, garden gloves)

• Noun (the thing that all those adjectives describe).

So you can string together “a lovely little old long brown Italian wooden stirring spoon,” and be understood. But if you mess with that word order, you’ll either confuse people or sound silly.

Like all the other English rules, this one isn’t carved in stone. Little Red Riding Hood’s “big bad wolf,” for example, violates the rule.

So how do English speakers learn to put adjectives in the right order, if they didn’t learn a rule? The same way they learned almost everything else—by absorbing it from their social settings.

No one actually teaches infants how to move their feet for walking. Or how to shape their tongues for talking. Children generally don’t take classes to learn how to play together, how to fall in love, or how peer pressure works. They soak it up unconsciously.

That’s why it’s so difficult to change social attitudes.

Lieutenant Cable was wrong, in South Pacific—what you’re “carefully taught” can be un-taught. But what you’ve absorbed—about the roles of men and women, about racial differences, about authority—settles into the soul like gold-dust into bedrock.

Especially about religion, I suspect. Long ago, I quit believing that God, by whatever name, meddles with the physical world. And I refuse to believe in a God who deliberately causes landslides, typhoons and tsunamis. But I cannot rid myself of the notion that Something influences events in my life.

One understanding, I’ve thought through. The other, I absorbed. Just the way I unconsciously absorbed the order of adjectives in my language.

Other people will have different convictions they can’t get rid of—perhaps about blacks, socialists, gays, women, or governments. It’s hard to un-learn something you never knew you had learned.