The Hermemorphic Shift: a Parody

Why'd you pull me into this, huh?

Why’d you pull me into this, huh?

A seldom discussed linguistic principle, the Hermemorphic Shift is named after Hermes, the Greek god of language. The principle states:

In any conversation in which the meaning or pronunciation of a word is contested, a speaker’s religious belief about the word in question trumps all other scientific and conventional usages.

In short, it is an appeal to having access to a god’s knowledge of the word. Thus, for an otherwise competent speaker to change the meaning of a word to suit their purposes they need only say something to the nature of “It is my religious belief that the meaning is otherwise.” Case closed.

When it comes to disputes about pronunciation this is rarely a serious matter. Claiming heavenly or elysianic authority over the pronunciation of atomic weapons as NOO-kyoo-ler, for example, or that the people of our nation are uh-MER-kins, doesn’t tend to produce mutual unintelligibility. (Though if more Americans favoring the latter pronunciation understood the joke, they might work harder at their elocution).

However, when it comes to disputing word meaning, a heremorphic shift is absolutely corrosive to the discourse. Although both speakers may hold the same, or similar, religious beliefs about all other word usages, the first to rely upon this principle for a word in dispute is usually the “winner” of the debate. As an example, consider the following (partially) parodic dialogue inspired by Rep. Tim Murphy:

S1: Is the morning after pill or something like that an abortifacient drug?

S2: This drug is a contraceptive, not an abortifacient. It does not interfere with pregnancy. If the morning pill were taken, and a female were pregnant, the pregnancy is not interrupted. That’s the definition of abortifation.

S1: Ma’am, that is just your interpretation and I appreciate that.

S2: A contraceptive prevents pregnancy before fertilization. So it’s not my interpretation. That’s what the scientists and doctors…

S1: We’re not talking about scientists. Almighty Wotan himself told me that this pill is an abortifacient, using that very word! Ma’am, I’m asking you about a religious belief. This is, therefore, a violation of a religious belief. Wotan himself condemns it.

If by definition a substance is a contraceptive but the speaker’s religious belief declares that it it not, then it is not. Science, definition, and conventional usage (norma loquendi) be damned!

The speakers may be using the same words but now they are decidedly not speaking the same language. The winning strategy by employing a hermemorphic shift is, therefore, through assuring mutual unintelligibility. It dissolves the meaning of the word in mid-discourse and without warning to such an extreme degree that words, in general, no longer have meaning in the conversation. The complete lack of even the appearance of meaning, and the subsequent difficulties in analysis that ensues, is why linguists shun this principle.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin