May 31, 2012

Pinker on language wars

Steven Pinker writes in Slate:
Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. 
If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle. Fifty years ago, the literary critic Dwight Macdonald lambasted the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary for aiming to be “a recording instrument rather than … an authority” and insufficiently censuring such usages as “deprecate” for depreciate, “bored” for disinterested, and “imply” for infer.

Surely, these three examples are presented backward: 

- CPAs don't say, "We'll deprecate that asset over three years" (unless it's a Windows Vista PC, in which case it deserves relentless deprecation).

- Supreme Court Justices don't say, "I'll have to recuse myself in this case because my financial ties to the plaintiff mean I am not bored."

- Historians of science don't say that "From the Michelson-Morley experiment and the problem with the orbit of Mercury, Einstein implied that something must be inadequate about Newton's system." 

The last is the least severe of the three problem pairs, since you can usually turn the sentence around to make either imply or infer work: "To Einstein, the MM experiment and the Mercury problem implied ..." But the other two pairs are apples and oranges. 

I am especially adamant against using "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," since the distinction between a disinterested and an interested party is so crucial to a decent civic life. For example, I've long pointed out that the so called experts quoted in the press on how much Hispanic voters want more Hispanic immigration are "not disinterested" because they make their livings claiming to lead a huge number of Hispanics, so they have an interest in expanding that number by claiming that Republicans are facing ruin at the polls unless they submit on immigration. But, it's ever harder to get across this notion as more people think, "Well, of course they aren't bored with immigration."  

As for the Language Wars in general, I'm not a terribly active participant. I lack the precision of mind to set a good example. I appreciate that my readers don't seem to mind my frequent solecisms. And I appreciate brief comments helpfully pointing out errors. I try to fix them when I have time. 

In general, it's been educational for me over the years to meet heavyweights with extremely precise minds, such as Pinker, Charles Murray, and John Derbyshire. In contrast, I make a lot of mistakes and can't follow instructions well. I suspect I have poor working memory and good long term memory, so I'm able to dredge up lots of examples. This access to examples allows me to have some success at reductionism.

43 comments:

David said...

Reductionism??

Carol said...

The continual misuse "disinterested" bothers me as well. Because do they really mean unbiased, or do they mean indifferent?

It is almost as bad as the ridiculous "give it to whomever answers the door" and "between he and I" errors. Ignorance and pretension on stilts!

And yeah, "reductionism," Steve? How so?

helene edwards said...

Mike Krukow, the Giants' color-man on T.V., mixed up 'benefactor and 'beneficiary' for 20 yrs. Recently, he stopped using both, and I wonder if someone got to him.

Anonymous said...

Linking this item for Steve and the blog commentariat, mainly for the Chinese immigrant angle.

http://consumerist.com/2012/05/us-going-after-unsafe-bus-operators-from-new-york-to-florida.html

The Feds shut down 233 bus routes, most of which originated or terminated in New York's Chinatown.

One can only assume most of these routes will be up and running again shortly, if they aren't already.

The immigration takeaway, IMHO, is that Chinese nationals are fully capable of building a multi-state parallel society without regard for American law.

not a hacker said...

In a country in which 40 million people are privileged to end every utterance with "and shit" and not get ridiculed for it, there can be no language wars.

RSJ said...

Here's a website that I find useful for language controversies:

http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/errors.html

It's mostly unpretentious and I tend to agree with it.

Anonymous said...

The Feds shut down 233 bus routes, most of which originated or terminated in New York's Chinatown.

Those buses have been around for a long time. They have official bus stops in New York and other cities that are recognized by the city governments. It's not underground. It's hard to conceal a fleet of large tour buses traveling regularly between the same locations. They're cheap, low-quality service buses used by lots of college students/young people and poor people.

Anonymous said...

Who the hell is John Derbyshire?

I haven't read one article of his that was anything other than blah, or even worse...downright incorrect and damaging.

Tom Wolfe...I read him and I go "damn, he's smart"

But Derbyshire?

This fawning is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

God bless you stevie keep up the good fight for our mother tongue. I don't want to be only man left who speaks it ... and shit

Anonymous said...

>Who the hell is John Derbyshire?

seconded. totally different league.

Anonymous said...

Does the Webster dictionary have 'punkass', 'ho', and 'mofo'?

Anonymous said...

If libs are opposed to nationalism, why are they for Mexican nationalism? mexicans in America support illegal immigration and amnesty ONLY BECAUSE so many violators are Mexican. If most illegals were hindus, Chinese, or Russians, Mexicans in America would oppose illegal immigration. It's all about brown power.

Thus, Jewish libs are not using left vs right, but using brown nationalism against white interests. And it's to serve Jewish nationalist interest by playing divide and rule among diverse goyim.

DIVERSITY: the means by which Jews seek to gain control over goyim via 'divide and rule'.

Anonymous said...

Regarding China, has the gynecide been limited to fetuses or are female infants also killed?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Much of "correctness" in spoken language is mere social signifying. None of us speaks a dialect that similar to formal written English; stray items are held up as being of especial importance.

However, the idea of attempting to preserve a word or sense of a word that deftly communicates a distinction worth keeping is a noble cause, and "disinterested" qualifies.

Anonymous said...

The prescriptivist/descriptivist "conflict" is appropriately described as a bogus war. It's like saying there's a conflict between archeologists and structural engineers.

- A Solid Citizen

Anonymous said...

Much of "correctness" in spoken language is mere social signifying.

What the hell does "social signifying" mean??

Anonymous said...

Here in Canada, we have REAL language wars. I hope America never suffers the same fate.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem to bother liberals that their Ivy-educated genius, Barry, on more than one occasion has mispronounced "corpsman" (Navy corpsman), saying, "corpse-man." It's clear he not only has problems with pronunciation but also that he doesn't have the slightest clue what a Navy corpsman does.


Of course, the major networks and news sources have pretty much ignored his latest gaffe, which occurred the other day when he awarded the Medal of Freedom to Jan Kozielewski, a Polish emissary. He used the term "Polish death camps" instead of referring to them as "Nazi death camps," an error surely his speechwriters should have caught. Making matters worse, the White House was late in apologizing, only did so when it caused a huge stir in Poland, and even then offered only the he "regretted" his error. The Polish people are mighty pissed.

This would have been front page news, the butt of Letterman and Leno jokes, had another Prez done the same.

Anonymous said...

Assisant Village Idiot

used the proscriptive singular subject-verb combo, "None of us speaks...." which was taught when I was in school in the fifties and sixties but which gave way to the descriptive grammar texts which found, upon surveying "educated people," that such people preferred matching some pronouns used as subjects ("none")and followed by a prepositional phrase with the object of the preposition ("us"-plural).

Thus, while "None of the salt was spilled" always made sense, "None of us speaks" was less preferred than "None of us speak."

Aaron in Israel said...

Wait a minute, when did Derbyshire get into the "extremely precise minds" club? As I remember, he was always one of those "I'm not a serious thinker, I just write about my gut feelings" kinds of columnists. He's also a math groupie of course, but his columns were never intellectually rigorous (except for the math puzzles), and he never pretended that they were. Even the egregiously fallacious mathematical reasoning in the column that got him banned was torn apart by sympathetic reviewers (William Saletan and Noah Millman - Google it).

Derbyshire's an interesting and insightful columnist, but a precise mind? No.

Steve Sailer said...

Although I am not a precise thinker, I am using "precise" here to mean "precise."

Sam said...

Just as an aside. The Michelson-Morley experiment did NOT find zero difference in the speed of light perpendicular to the earths travel as opposed to the direction of earths travel. It was a small but not insignificant value. These numbers may be wrong but if remember correctly they were looking for a 25km/s difference and got 8km/s. The numbers are at the end of the paper. These same numbers were verified by other scientists but due to the "genius of Einstein" who said different, they were ignored.

Anonymous said...

The war between prescriptivism and descriptivism is kind of a lie to children.

The truth is:

- All humans are prescriptivist. They talk to others about what "good" uses of language are and "good" language rules are. If they didn't, human communication systems wouldn't be as good as they are. Prescriptivism is a normal language behaviour.

- Linguists should not be excluded from this normal language behaviour. Why exclude the people who learn the most about language from this perfectly normal (and essential) language behaviour?

- However, it's also the case that actually trying to understand how other people speak and communicate - descriptivism - is also normal language behaviour, and one vital to linguists, and not practiced as it should be by self-proclaimed grammar experts.

It's a lot like Genes vs Environment arguments:

- the professionals know that both make contributions and are all about trying to find the precise balance
- while the (generally more Liberal) intellectually interested dabblers end up thinking (wrongly) they have to "pick a side" (and both distort the whole debate doing so and end up taking various weird, pointless positions which are "not even wrong")
- while the (generally more Conservative) intellectually disinterested (sorry, uninterested ;) ) mass of people simply have no idea or concern about the whole debate

The Ghost of Xerxes Past said...

In terms of issues around key markers/metrics of sloppy English, which is strongly correlated with membership of the vibrant liberal community/demographic, watch out for:

1. In terms of...
2. Issues around...
3. Key X/Y/Z...
4. Vibrant...
5. Community...
6. Metrics...
7. Demographic...
8. Trailing dots.....

dearieme said...

"Just as an aside. The Michelson-Morley experiment ...": a couple of decades ago I read that the M-M experiment wasn't accurate enough to show its claimed results.

cool news said...

My big takeaway from the piece is that Jacques Barzun is evidently still alive.

Dr. K said...

The New Yorker vs. Slate--it's a real pity they can't both lose

ben tillman said...

What the hell does "social signifying" mean??

It means that a lot of people will look down on you if you pronounce picture "pitcher".

Mr. Anon said...

"Aaron in Israel said...

Even the egregiously fallacious mathematical reasoning in the column that got him banned was torn apart by sympathetic reviewers (William Saletan and Noah Millman - Google it)."

Bullshit. His reasoning was quite right.

And don't tell us to "google it", Rosie.

Mr. Anon said...

Nobody seems to understand the distinction between "refute" and "rebut" anymore. Same with "utilize" and "use".

Dictionaries ought to be prescriptive. When I look up a word, I want to know what educated people understand the word to mean, not what a majority of sloppy-thinking yahoos thinks it means.

Rohan Swee said...

RSJ: Here's a website that I find useful for language controversies:

That looks like a nice little site for students, though lamentably the author does grovel before the "how insensitive of Americans to call themselves Americans" ninnies, grudgingly accepting the usage of "American" only because we're "stuck" with it, and no one's managed to come up with anything better. Good grief.

Anon: Here in Canada, we have REAL language wars. I hope America never suffers the same fate.

Demasiado tarde. La guerra, es aquĆ­.

Aaron B. said...

Derb certainly has a precise knowledge of language, which was the topic at hand. He would no more confuse "disinterested" with "uninterested" than the average American would confuse Britney with Miley.

I was disappointed a while back to read that he's given up on the proper usage of "whom," though.

pat said...

I wouldn't be too hard on yourself about your use of language. I purposely write in an idiosyncratic manner so as to be - idiosyncratic. I could easily write more "correctly" but I prefer to use odd punctuation and sentence fragments.

I once wrote technical papers published by the GPO. Those were rather more correct in a Strunk and White manner than my current blog comments. Of course they were edited by someone else. Very damn boring those papers.

In any case even I am by by modern standards a "long form" and therefor stodgy writer because I generally try to compose real sentences and I capitalize (albeit quixotically).

First Internet Chat created a generation of writers for whom a full sentence or the use of upper case were just too slow. Now with "texting" such niceities are a positive hazard to public safety on the freeways.

Albertosaurus

Anonymous said...

"Here in Canada, we have REAL language wars. I hope America never suffers the same fate."

I wouldn't trade our problems for theirs. In fact, I wouldn't trade our French problem for their Spanish problem.

Cennbeorc

a very knowing American said...

Pinker's article is a very effective takedown of some foolishness about language. He's a great polemicist.

I've noticed though that he tends to cheat. He usually takes the side of the argument that's more likely to be correct, and then makes a case for it. As many people in the social sciences have discovered, it can be even more impressive to make a strong case for a ridiculous theory. It's a version of the "handicap principle," I guess, where you wow conspecifics by dragging around a tail that weighs you down in flight.

Anonymous said...

"In general, it's been educational for me over the years to meet heavyweights with extremely precise minds, such as Pinker, Charles Murray, and John Derbyshire. In contrast, I make a lot of mistakes and can't follow instructions well. I suspect I have poor working memory and good long term memory, so I'm able to dredge up lots of examples. This access to examples allows me to have some success at reductionism."

This statement was really funny to me because I've often admired this aspect of your style. Before reading your stuff regularly, I was once a libertarian, and years ago an admirer of authors like Hayek. Reading you seemed like a breath of fresh air. Their highly verbose writing style and working-memory taxing syllogisms (which incidentally is the only way I know how make an argument) are not nearly as effective as your own approach. You simply recall just the right anecdote from history or politics that, when you stop to think about it, proves the point much more succinctly than a discursive approach ever could. I always assumed that was evidence of high intelligence on your part.

One of the first essays I read of yours was regarding Bolivia and the economic/political contrasts between the white descendents of Conquistadors and the rest of the native population. It's not hard to infer how disastrous to the US it would be for our middle class to evaporate and be replaced by something even approaching the economic disparities in Bolivia. I don't think most libertarians have had that possibility put to their minds so vividly. I remember after reading that wondering how David Friedman might respond (David, who apparently believes in open boarders, has often relied on tautologies to make his case). In everything of his I've ever read I couldn't recall reading a single thing implying that he has grappled with with such obvious distinctions as between between politically cooperative but racially homogenous societies like the USA in the 1950's and the ones that are racially diverse and contentious about even the most basic questions of governance and cultural values. His empirical case for anarcho-capitalism rested entirely upon a paper he wrote about how saga period Iceland (!!) had a political system in which people bought and sold legal services (apparently he doesn't think them being highly intelligent, geographically isolated, and non-diverse is an important factor in their maintaining a society with no wealth-distribution or sensitivity training programs for 150 some odd years).

I've always regarded your argument-from-example approach to be a sign of high intelligence rather than the result of being working-memory challenged.

On a side note, pieces like that, IMHO, are the perfect gateway-drug for libertarians once the intoxication from taking economics 101 and reading Hayek wear off. Your VDare essays are simply the best because all of us libertarians had simple, obvious doubts all along regarding our project, "Why are only white guys interested in this stuff?", etc...

Speaking of which... why no more VDare essays?! I do enjoy your Takimag stuff but I think the shorter word length and the requirement to do movie reviews holds you back from doing your best work.

Harry Baldwin said...

As Anonymous noted, our Harvard-educated president has been known to mispronounce and misuse words more often than his putative brilliance would lead you to expect. I wish I'd been keeping a list of examples. He regularly uses "enormity" when he means "enormousness," but so do a lot of people. Also, with Obama, everything is "unprecedented," just as with Newt everything is "fundamentally." That verbal tic got Obama into trouble recently when he was talking about the SCOTUS overturning his health care bill. Of course, he didn't mean "unprecendented," really, just that it is a big f---ing deal.

Anonymous said...

"I wouldn't trade our French problem for their Spanish problem".

Neither would I. Not least because 'our French' have been around for 400 years and 'their Spanish' have only been around (in any numbers) for about 40 years.

But I was actually referring to LANGUAGE not ethnicity, race or cultural leanings.

Had French-Canadians switched to English in 1770, 1800, 1850, 1900, etc, we would have no problem today. Just as we have no problem with Italian-Canadians in Toronto or Ukrainian-Canadians out west. Coversely the US has no problem with its Acadians, who they call Cajuns, in Louisiana or the 900,000 French-Canadians who moved to New England from 1840-1924. Likewise America would have no problem if we were talking about real Spanish people from Spain itself. Anymore then people from Italy, Poland or Greece were a problem for America in the Ellis island era. America's real "Spanish' problem, of course, is the consequences of the demographic changes wrought by millions of lower I.Q. mestizios arriving in unprecedented numbers. It doesn't help that Mexico has irredentist views on the US and interferes in American politics either.

But my main point was language. I hope that America can avoid the terrible issue of "bilingualism" and all that goes with that. Americans, in my view, are a bit naive about language and its power to wreak havoc on a country.

Anonymous said...

But my main point was language. I hope that America can avoid the terrible issue of "bilingualism" and all that goes with that.

What is the terrible issue about bilingualism and what is it that goes with it?

NOTA said...

Harry Baldwin:

Our previous Yale/Harvard educated president was even more famous for his mispronunciations and odd gramatical constructions. Our elites kinda aren't very elite, when you get right down to it.

Anonymous said...

To Anon at 2:39 pm;

"What is the terrible issue about bilingualism and what is it that goes with it?"

Well for starters, language is to Canada what race is to America. Historically Canada has been divided into two hostile language and cultural blocs. The French-Canadians & English-Canadians (and all other European groups, Italians, Poles, etc, who assimilated into the latter group).
The two communities disagreed about everything and never integrated (they are known as "the two solitudes"). In Canada because of language realities and official bilingualism, you can not seek high political office unless you speak both languages and speak them fluently. Only about 12% of Canadians are bilingual, (although the Canadian government lies and says the figure is 17%) and only a tiny portion of these are accentless in both languages. Even fewer still are bicultural. This means that about 85-90% of Canadians can never attain high office and people get picked simply because of language rather then ability. Brian Mulroney (prime minister from 1984-1993) had never been elected to ANYTHING when he took over the Conservative party and then soon became the country's leader, but he spoke flawless Quebec French - Joual - and that was all that counted. When Peter Brimelow met Joe Clark, the Conservative leader in 1975, he told him he didn't know anything about economics. He said he had had to choose between learning about economics or learning French and he chose to learn French. Bilingualism also puts disproportionate power in Francophone hands. Most bilinguals are French. For every French-Canadian who is bilingual, two can speak only French. For every Anglo who is bilingual, fifteen can speak only English. Most Canadians and almost all Anglos are effectively disenfranshised from political life. Its hard at age 45 or so to learn a new language which is what you have to do if you want to enter political life in Canada. Imagine if you had to speak Spanish and English to have a political career in Washington. How many Americans would be disadvantaged by such a policy and how more powerful would Cubans, Peurto Ricans and other groups become.

Official bilingualism works as a defacto A.A. program for French-Canadians and seriously disadvantages Anglos. And Canada has pervasive big government too. Please Google HOW MANY IKES HAS BILINGUALISM COST US? Peter Brimelow's writings on Canada are very informative too. See his book THE PATRIOT GAME.

Official bilingualism is also very expensive. Direct and indirect costs of the program are very high. Estimates say it costs Canadians between 3 and 15 billion dollars annualy. You can times those figures by ten for America's population base.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I think that having to learn a new language at 45 would actually be an excellent test for potential leaders-provided that they _all_ had to do it, which means Quebecois don't but Canadians do.

Make the Canadians learn Latin and the Quebecois learn Attic Greek-that would be a fair test.

Anonymous said...

Reply to Anon at 2:46 pm;

The assinine nature of your response notwithstanding, I wouldn't be too smug if I were you. Already they are suggesting the senate races in Texas should be debated by the contestants in Spanish. Just the beginning of America's language problems believe me sir.