Mark Halpern on Language Log

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Yesterday afternoon, Mark Halpern sent me a response to last week's discussion of his book Language and Human Nature in the post "Progess and its enemies", 2/16/2009.  It's presented below as a guest post, after the usual transformation from MS Word to html.  (I take responsibility for any format or font errors that may have crept in — I've found no better way to create posts from Word files than to cut and paste the material as plain text, and then to  restore the formatting of the original as html mark-up.)

[Guest post by Mark Halpern]


On Language Log’s treatment of my Language and Human Nature

On February 16, 2009, and for a few days following, Language Log, a weblog for those interested in linguistics, discussed my new book, Language and Human Nature (Transaction, 2008).   I was not notified that my work was under discussion, much less invited to join the discussion, and it was only by good luck that I learned of my fifteen minutes of fame.  Some time ago I’d created a Google Alert that was supposed to poke me in the ribs whenever my name was mentioned on the web; it did so good a job that I got into the habit of ignoring it. It cried wolf not only every time my name came up, but also at the far more frequent times that the names Mark Halperin (of Time magazine) and Mark Helprin (the novelist) came up, along with those of assorted physicists, genealogists, and hockey players whose name closely resembled mine. So it was just because I happened to have an idle moment when Google alerted me on February 20 that I clicked on the link it provided, and saw to my surprise that it had found something on the web that actually pertained to me. Although no invitation was issued to me by Language Log to participate in its proceedings, I hope that was just an oversight, and that this critique will be posted on its site.

It seems to me that Language Log ought to have issued me such an invitation — not because they are obligated to by any rule or convention, but just because it would have made the discussion more interesting. Many readers feel that the most exciting parts of Paradise Lost are those in which Satan speaks; by the same token, might it not have enlivened the discussion of my work if I had been allowed to speak, and then had been skewered with the incisive, cogent, trenchant comments and questions that other participants would doubtless have come up with? I think that Mark Liberman, the host or proprietor of the site, missed an opportunity to set the stage for some dramatic and possibly enlightening back-and-forth, if nothing else; perhaps with the posting of this note, something of that can yet be realized. Here are my comments on the discussion as it ran between February 16 and 20:

1.   I should not at my age be amazed, but I am still, at the number of people who voice strong views on books that they have not read. Liberman himself clearly has read it, and quotes from it extensively, but none of the others taking part in the discussion seem to have done so. A couple of the contributors have read my old Atlantic article, and thus have some idea of what I stand for; most seem to have no idea what I think or said, but don’t let that stop them from rebutting me forcefully, even violently.

2.  Simon Cauchi goes further: he boasts of not having read the book, and deplores the fact that it is even being discussed. This attitude is especially strange, because in past years Cauchi and I have exchanged civil, even friendly, messages as members of the Wombat (formerly Stumpers) group. He is mildly rebuked by Liberman, who allows that there are some interesting ideas in my book, and by marie-lucie, who remarks gently that it is surely a service to readers to make them aware of the actual contents of the book.

3. The topic that gets most thoroughly discussed is my treatment of the term Progressive and its various forms — Liberman titles the entire discussion thread “Progress and its enemies” — but my point has been missed. What strikes me is not that so many of the people who used to call themselves Liberals now call themselves Progressives — as Liberman remarks, partisans generally choose glowing names for themselves and their policies — but the acceptance by the general public, including many conservatives, of that self-praising name.

4. Liberman puzzles me by counting the number of times I mention various names and terms, but to no purpose that I can see. What is the significance of my mentioning Chomsky on some 30 pages, in a book about language and modern attitudes toward it? What is the significance of my not mentioning participle or phoneme even once? I wasn’t writing a grammar or a textbook for Linguistics 001.  Liberman further puzzles me by quoting an explication of “progressive” by one Nate Silver, as if Silver’s personal usage explains the significance of the switch by so many sometime Liberals to the name “Progressives”, and why even people who strongly disagree with their views accept that name for them.

5. Jamessal, having read my old Atlantic article, says that I (and Bryan Garner) fail to acknowledge “the shoddy state of real world prescriptivism.” I believe he is wrong in thinking that Garner does not disavow, and strongly criticize, the kind of indignant-letter-to-the-editor prescriptivism that I think Jamessal has in mind; I know that he is wrong in thinking that of me. I go to some pains in my book to make it clear that that kind of prescriptivism is something I deplore; so much so that I shy away from calling myself a prescriptivist, and instead call myself, whenever I can, a Linguistic Activist (Bill Safire’s term) — but this is something you learn only by reading the book.  Jamessal also gives us a classic example of begging the question when he says, in response to a rhetorical question of mine, that “this sort of speculating is best done by the people who know most about language and its history—linguists, of course.”  It is a major contention of my book that questions of usage — that is, of how we should use the language today — do not come within the professional purview of linguists.  Jamessal has every right to reject that argument, but he should not speak as if I never made it, and as if everyone “of course” acknowledged that linguists were the best authorities on how we should use language today.

6. James C. believes that in my book I “dump on” and “defame” the discipline of linguistics. In fact my book is strongly critical of the main branch of modern linguistics, and of several particular linguists, but I deny that I have defamed either the discipline or its practitioners. Desktop Assistant says in response to my query about the term defame: “1. To damage the reputation, character, or good name of by slander or libel. See Synonyms at malign.”

7. Liberman and others make a total hash of my rhetorical question, “…what does language, undisturbed, become? What course do we know it would take if only outsiders would cease to meddle with it?” I was thinking, as readers of my book would know, of the claim often made by linguists that prescriptivists are meddling with a natural process, and should cease to interfere. My question is directed to those linguists, asking them how they know what the natural course of language development is, and why the product of that process is to be preferred to one in which prescriptivists have a role. And the extent to which the prescriptive impulse has been instrumental in the development of Sanskrit or any of the other languages mentioned is something no one knows with certainty, but we should have to think only of Pāṇini to remind ourselves that scholars have been codifying and regularizing language since history began.

8. Jamessal considers that when Liberman said “nearly all the world’s languages, for nearly all of the history of the world, have been left to develop without prescriptive guidance,” he rendered my argument “totally bogus.” This is misunderstanding brought to critical mass: first, as I noted above, Liberman doesn’t understand my argument; second, his own dogmatic statement about the development of nearly all languages throughout human history is breathtaking in its assumption of omniscience; and third, even if he were completely right, his ipse dixit declaration would hardly render my argument even partially “bogus” — some contributors to this list seem to have a shaky grasp of the meaning of the words they use, like defame and bogus.

9. Joseph Palmer made me laugh; he throws up his hands in despair and says “God only knows what Halpern is trying to say…” No, Mr Palmer, God is not the only one who knows what I mean; any reasonably fair and attentive reader of my book quickly learns what I mean. Try being such a reader; you may find it enlightening.

10. I note that several of the contributors are angry with prescriptivists (and since they see me as just another one, with me) for attempting to “hand down rules from on high” and so on. There may be such people, but I’m not one of them. I take firm stands in my book on many points of usage, but I nowhere claim that I have a direct line to language heaven; I explicitly state that neither I nor anyone else is an authority on usage, and I always offer reasoned arguments in favor of the usages I recommend. You are free of course to reject my arguments, but if you do so without offering better ones yourself, you are the would-be dictator and dogmatist.

11. I note with regret that no contributor to this discussion actually grapples with any of the arguments I offered in my book. Even Mark Liberman, who thinks that there are some interesting ideas in the book, and says that he may discuss them on another occasion, doesn’t tackle any of them in the postings under discussion. This is a shame; a chance has been missed by linguists and their supporters to expose the ignorance, irrationality, and general no-goodness of someone like me — one who is not even a forthright prescriptivist, but a cowardly camp-follower of prescriptivism who hides behind the name “linguistic activist”! For example, I have had the temerity to attack the highly regarded essay by Language Log’s co-founder, Geoffrey Pullum, in which he destroyed the myth that Eskimo languages have more words for snow than do languages from the temperate zone. Surely some contributors to the Log will want to examine my arguments, expose their hollowness, and vindicate the co-founder? But whether they choose that part of my book or another as the weak point on which to mount an attack, why not grasp this wonderful opportunity to put prescriptivism in its place, along with flat-earthism, phlogiston, and other discredited notions? Of course there is a price to be paid — anyone taking on the task would have to read the book — but in the defense of descriptivism, linguistics, and the American way, it may be worth paying even so heavy a price.


[Guest post by Mark Halpern]

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87 Comments »

  1. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    Off topic, yet perhaps helpful, using Word 12 (2007), Save As html, Filtered. You may be able to keep all the formatting and save a lot of work. Good luck.

    [(myl) Every way I've been able to get Word to save a document as html, it includes pages of complicated markup that interacts badly with WordPress's ideas about how things should be done.]

  2. AJD said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    Sci.lang isn't a web forum; it's a Usenet newsgroup.
    [(myl) OK, but Google Groups (where it now seems to live) kind of blurs the distinction.]

  3. Benjamin Lukoff said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    If I understand USENET correctly, newsgroups don't really "live" anywhere–Google Groups is merely one of the more popular way to access them.

  4. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

    Let me here apologize to Mark Halpern for that foolish and intemperate remark of mine. I write this at once, before even reading the rest of his guest post to LL (which I shall do very soon).

  5. A.S. said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    @Mark Halpern:

    For example, I have had the temerity to attack the highly regarded essay by Language Log’s co-founder, Geoffrey Pullum, in which he destroyed the myth that Eskimo languages have more words for snow than do languages from the temperate zone. Surely some contributors to the Log will want to examine my arguments, expose their hollowness, and vindicate the co-founder?

    I would love to examine your arguments and expose their hollowness. Unfortunately, I could not find a single argument in the relevant chapter of your book. Instead, you make a series of claims for which you provide no evidence or argument whatsoever: first, that Eskimos use all their supposed snow words regularly, while most English speakers don't know most English snow words; second, that it is irrelevant to distinguish between simple and derived words for snow; third, that in counting Eskimo snow words, we should count all words whose referential range includes snow or snow-related things, even if their meaning is much wider; fourth, that believing that Eskimos have many words for snow does not commit one to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which is true, but irrelevant to the question, how many words for snow there are in Eskimo languages); fifth, that it is okay to call Eskimos "Eskimos" (why this is relevant to the number of snow words they have escapes me entirely); and finally, that some people you asked or read about told you that the Eskimos have many words for snow.

    So I am afraid there are no arguments whose hollowness I could expose. Hand over lists of snow words in different Eskimo languages, and we have something to argue about. But simply claim that the Eskimos have many words for snow and you join the ranks of the uninformed replicators of the Eskimo-words-for-snow myth that Geoff Pullums essay was aimed at.

    If the rest of your book is equally superficially argued, I can't say that I am looking forward to any future postings about it here on Language Log.

  6. Andrew Clegg said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    "I was not notified that my work was under discussion, much less invited to join the discussion, and it was only by good luck that I learned of my fifteen minutes of fame."

    "Although no invitation was issued to me by Language Log to participate in its proceedings, I hope that was just an oversight, and that this critique will be posted on its site."

    I like the way he thinks every time someone reviews his book, he should be invited to join in.

  7. James Wimberley said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    Halperin quotes Mark Liberman:“nearly all the world’s languages, for nearly all of the history of the world, have been left to develop without prescriptive guidance”.

    Surely this is no longer true if you weight languages by speakers. English, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, and I dare say Hindi and Russian all, like Latin in its heyday, suffer or enjoy the benefits of a canon and a loud prescriptivist tradition referring to it. They are self-conscious languages. Even highly innovative writers like Shakespeare, Rabelais and Joyce were very aware of the traditions they were transgressing.
    The little-spoken and indigenous languages deserve respect and study, and the goal of a unified science of language requires a complete set of facts. But it's also important to study the imperial languages in the light of their specific traits, including a permanent tension between the forces of conservation and of innovation. An imperial language has to be pretty conservative or it will split like an amoeba into a radiation of new daughters. I suggest that objective linguistics should treat prescriptive pundits as just a part of the subject-matter, like their creative foes in youth culture.

  8. language hat said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 8:33 pm

    Surely this is no longer true if you weight languages by speakers.

    I like that approach. Can't defend an obviously foolish statement about all languages? Define away the ones that don't fit the theory!

  9. Mark F. said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

    I will say one thing in defense of (my take on) Halperin's positions, even though I tend to disagree with his overall attitude — in most linguistic discussions of double negatives, I detect a sense of regret that a rule was successfully imposed on English where none had existed before. It is as if that very real rule of standard English grammar has a stigma attached to it because it arose out of what could be called an error, while words that have changed their meanings through old errors don't have that stigma. I admit, there is a good reason to dislike the double-negative-prohibition, since it basically serves as a class marker, but that's a value judgment.

  10. Craig Daniel said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

    Actually, I'd say the number of people who actually speak the language variety in which I'm writing at the moment is vanishingly tiny. That variety is a standard that has evolved wholly artificially and is used by at least somewhat educated speakers in mildly-formal written communication. It does not include such things as the vast array of discursive uses of "like" which my native language (a natural variety of English not created by prescriptivism) allows, and while I'm not old-fashioned enough to avoid ending sentences with prepositions the workarounds that are normally used to avoid doing so sound rather clumsy in speech. (Also if I were speaking I'd likely have said "clunky" rather than "clumsy.")

    The English I speak is not deliberately innovative, and it arose naturally rather than through the actions of prescriptive authorities. The English the average prescriptivist prescribes is a closely related variety – and Panini's Sanskrit and the late classical Latin that competed with vulgar Latin were both equally distinct from what people were actually saying. We've got lots of examples of people blithely ignoring the prescriptivists. The results serve us just fine.

    And I say that as an unapologetic, albeit moderate, prescriptivist. I don't try to police others' usage – but I certainly think there are "correct" ways to say some things and that if you use the "incorrect" ways in what tries to be formal writing you show yourself to not belong to the community of people familiar with the norms of formal written English. My opinion of the intelligence of somebody who writes in a highly colloquial style and is not doing so for artistic effect plummets, because the level of basic education that leads to familiarity with those norms correlates well (although not exceptionally, sadly) with intelligence. I just don't think the establishment of arbitrary norms that differentiates this formality from the everyday English I speak has or even should have dramatically influenced that everyday spoken English, and I recognize my formal language as being a semi-conlang in the same vein as modern Hebrew.

  11. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    As an amateur linguist, but more relevant, as one who has often been judged for his ideas, I appreciated your post defending your position. So often one's critics waste no time and expend considerable energy eviscerating a beast not of one's own making, and do so proudly. We should hope that such drama and fanfare would expose their ignorance and error for all to see, yet it does not. So a spirited self-defense is necessary from time to time.

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:27 am

    Further to the role (if any) for prescriptivists in the development of English, I assure you that, as consumers, listeners establish what is acceptable English. Listeners, especially children, but in fact all listeners, are in the position to unilateraly accept or reject rules or changes to the language. It is the listener who says, I don't understand you. It is the listener who likes a new coinage and repeats it. It is the listener who forgives the awkward or ungrammatical expression and permits it. It is the listener who is in control of the spread of the next version of the language across geography and across time. The prescriptivist who wishes to gain any influence over this process should do so by education, not by edict.

    Anyone who would like English to become as irrelevant as Latin or French has but to stifle it by legislating it. This is not to say the we cannot help others to be perceived as speakers of high quality English, and in this effort prescriptivists can teach.

  13. Peter Seibel said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:33 am

    On the off-topic of Word->sane HTML, I have in the past used Save As … to get Microsoft's goofy idea of HTML and then the excellent utility 'tidy' to strip out a lot of goop. Tidy even has an option specifically for stripping Word 2000 goop. I don't know how that maps to present-day goop. (See http://tidy.sourceforge.net/docs/quickref.html#word-2000)

  14. Picky said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    Andrew Clegg: He specifically denies that he "should be" invited to join in (second par) – just says it would make it all more fun. Which it does, of course.

  15. Stephen Jones said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:16 am

    that I (and Bryan Garner) fail to acknowledge “the shoddy state of real world prescriptivism.” I believe he is wrong in thinking that Garner does not disavow, and strongly criticize, the kind of indignant-letter-to-the-editor prescriptivism that I think Jamessal has in mind;

    I rather suspect it was Garner's own shoddy prescriptivism that he had in mind.

    The trouble with peevologists (a much more accurately descriptive term than 'language activist') is that they are interior decorators who think they are architects. They give the language equivalent of advising you on colors. furnishings and fabrics, and then claim this advice is all about the structure of the language. You may well agree with Garner, as I do, that 'But' is better at the beginning of a sentence than 'However', but it is foolish to pretend this is more than a personal preference.

    It is a major contention of my book that questions of usage — that is, of how we should use the language today — do not come within the professional purview of linguists

    To a linguist, usage is not how you should use the language, but how you do use the language. If you want to say "Oh, we shouldn't use the passive voice; it's just so gay" then that's fine by us. You can even team up with the guy who writes the horoscope and tell us which days to use 'will' and which days 'shall'. What a descriptive linguist will do is say under what circumstances people use the agentless passive and what is the pattern of usage for 'll, will & shall. You can tell us it's the coolest thing to talk about 'five items or fewer', but don't invent some non-existent rule that says 'less' is never used with count nouns.

    My question is directed to those linguists, asking them how they know what the natural course of language development is,

    . They analyse it after it's happened.

    and why the product of that process is to be preferred to one in which prescriptivists have a role.

    The two would be almost indistinguishable since prescriptivists have as much effect on the development of language as pissing in the wind. That's why in English they are still harping on about the same things they were 200 years ago.

    Where prescriptivists have an effect is when there is a situation of diglossia. Then it can set a norm. But even there the norm will only have effect if, as with Sanskrit, the language is not used widely in its spoken form (if classical Sanskrit, as opposed to Vedic or Prakrit ever was a live spoken language anyway). Modern Standard Arabic has a vast corpus of material, both written and spoken, and is widely used between speakers of different dialects. Queen Norma Loquendi rules supreme, even when clad in a burqah.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    —-"but I certainly think there are "correct" ways to say some things and that if you use the "incorrect" ways in what tries to be formal writing you show yourself to not belong to the community of people familiar with the norms of formal written English."——

    But the way to decide what is 'correct' is to give a description of that particular register. It's a judgement call but it's not prescriptivism.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:56 am

    Even highly innovative writers like Shakespeare, Rabelais and Joyce were very aware of the traditions they were transgressing.

    Proof for the cases of Shakespeare or Rabelais, please.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 8:43 am

    I am puzzled that Joyce (presumably in Finnegan's Wake, not in Portrait of the artist as a young man) should be placed together with Shakespeare and Rabelais who used the standards of their time for the speech of characters belonging to various classes and groups and for their own first person or authorial writing. Artistic, felicitous use of the normal possibilities of one's language (including creating some new words) is not the same as "transgressing traditions" which are still in the making. As far as I know, prescriptivisim had not yet reared its head to any large extent at the time of Rabelais and Shakespeare.

    In spite of the fact that there is little explicit evidence that the 18th century English prescriptivists were trying to make English more like Latin (see an earlier post which mentioned this), there is good evidence to the effect that they thought "our language offends against every part of grammar", meaning at that time Latin and Greek grammar, and many of the artificial rules derive from that obsession, which was perhaps due to the long subordinate status of English within England (under Norman domination and later) and its still marginal status in Europe at the time ("our language is of no use outside our island", while many educated people learned French or Italian in order to travel) (sorry, I don't have references for those kinds of quotations at the moment but have read them in reputable works).

    English prescriptivists in both England and America are still obsessed by the same shibboleths even though English is now spoken by millions if not billions of people in every corner of the earth, and no one is making invidious comparisons of the features of the language with those of more prestigious ones.

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Consider Feste's exit line in Twelfth Night (III.1): "Who you are and what you would are out of my welkin — I might say 'element' but the word is overworn." Not prescriptivism exactly but certainly evidence of self-consciousness in word choice and rejection of cliché. (Agreed, Feste is the play's Clown, but so what?)

  20. Morten Jonsson said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Shakespeare did give us Polonius as the model of a language critic, when he reads Hamlet's letter to Ophelia:

    "To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia"–That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase, "beautified" is a vile phrase.

  21. bianca steele said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    (If this comment is too long to post, let me know and I will post it at my blog instead.)

    I hope “defame” was not directed at me, for my accusation on the other thread that his writing is "dull."

    I highly recommend taking a look at Halpern’s website, the URL to which Mark Liberman included in his initial post. (I’ve read one of his other essays that had been widely distributed on the web by people apparently pushing a “soi-disant conservative” agenda, and I got a headache trying to figure out why he had written it and what he was trying to say. The Google Books extracts from the chapter on “plagiarism” just left me wondering what this guy was thinking he could get away with, telling Richard Posner he didn’t know the correct legal definition of “copyright infringement," and offering no plausible claim in its place.)

    In Halpern’s essay on postmodernism, we find the following: “politics, broadly conceived, is today not just one more force at work in shaping our language, but by far the strongest such force—so much so that it is practically impossible to discuss any aspect of language usage without finding oneself at least hip-deep in politics.” I’m not sure why Halpern would think this. Maybe it’s true. But he doesn’t tell me even what he means by it. And his arguments are far from airtight. Instead of arguments a linguist could accept, he gives us satirical rhetoric like “the Postmodernists have not yet elected a Pope.” This is all too familiar.

    It does explain where he's coming from, though. He has taken pains to assure his readers that he has sympathy only with the right (as it exists in the US these days), to the extent of expressing seething contempt for those the right continually paints as dangerous (leftwing followers of Foucault and Derrida, for example). The last thing he wants is for anyone to take him for a liberal – indeed, he intends for readers of his books to fear and despise liberals, without thinking about what they might be trying to say. As a liberal, and as a reader who prefers books about science to contain accurate statements about science, I’m very content to return the favor. I take him at his word.

    Moreover, the choice of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish as preeminent proponents of postmodernism is a little bizarre (though hardly original). Rorty was a brilliant, original, and innovative philosopher who had a deep knowledge of the literature that led up to postmodernism as it exists today. He was a synthesizer; the primary texts were written by somebody else, and his final theory was his and his alone. Fish is a literary critic who became interested in those texts for help in theorizing what he and his colleagues were and should have been doing. They are easy targets (and just coincidentally, they are liberals).

  22. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:27 am

    Self-consciousness in word choice on the part of educated speakers and writers is not the same as the kind of prescriptivism which seeks to impose uniformity on all speakers. Similarly, paying elaborate attention to the details of one's wardrobe and criticizing others' tastes or habits in these matters is not the same as requiring everyone to wear the same uniform, as in China during the Maoist period.

  23. Picky said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    AS: "Hand over lists of snow words in different Eskimo languages, and we have something to argue about." A list of Eskimo snow words is appended to Mr Halpern's book.

  24. A.S. said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    @Picky:

    A list of Eskimo snow words is appended to Mr Halpern's book.

    Thanks for pointing me to this list! From the three pages of it that are accessible on Google Books, it seems that Mr Halpern is at least true to his principles that (a) morphologically complex words should all be counted (listed) individually, and (b) that even words whose meaning is only periperally connected to snow should be included; an additional principle seems to be that (c) words for ice should also be included.

    With respect to (a), one doesn't have to be an expert in anything to see that the words on his list are derived from a rather small set of morphemes. The problem here is, as Pullum and many others have pointed out, that including morphologically complex words in the count makes it impossible for any language to say how many words for snow it has, because word-formation processes are open-ended in any language, especially in polysynthetic ones where entire propositions are expressed by "words". Mr Halpern knows this, incidentally: he mentions it in his chapter. He just doesn't think it is relevant to his discussion (for mysterious reasons that he does not share with his readers).

    With respect to (b), this must be by far the least selective and most random list of snow words I have ever seen. It contains expressions meaning "When female polar bear which bears young allows herself to get snowed under", "snowblind", "to cut blocks of hard-packed snow for house", "cornice (of ice, snow, or rock)", "to be damp enough for making snowballs", and similar vocabulary completely irrelevant to the question of how many words for snow there are in Eskimo languages.

    With respect to (c), 27 of the 68 words in the Google Books preview of his list refer to (or are related to) kinds and conditions of ice (but again, these include words meaning "Westwind opening ice at leeward ice of point"), 3 refer to frost (including "to be covered with light frost in early autumn when frost collects indoors"), and one to hail. Apparently, "snow" for Mr Halpern is any kind of frozen water (perhaps a confirmation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis…).

    All in all, Mr Halpern's list, while certainly fun to look at, provides overwhelming evidence for the fact that the Eskimo snow vocabulary falls a long way short of the mythical 50, 100, 200 or 400 words for snow.

    It remains Mr Halpern's secret why this list (or even a list that was not as suffused with silliness) should count as an argument against the ideas in Pullum's essay, which, despite its title, had nothing to do with how many words for snow the Eskimos have.

    (myl) Further relevant background: "Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification"; "88 English words from snow", etc.]

  25. peter said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

    For evidence of Shakespear's self-consciousness of word choice, read his Sonnets. Pretty much every one contains a play or multiple plays on words – puns, acrostics, alliterations, rhymes, meaning-rhymes, consonant clusters, sound repetitions, reversals, etc – you name it, it's there, in one sonnet or another.

  26. Picky said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    AS: Perhaps there may be a connection between

    (1) your assertion that the ideas in Prof Pullum's essay "had nothing to do with how many words for snow the Eskimos have" and

    (2) your assertion that some of Mr Halpern's response "is irrelevant to the question, how many words for snow there are in Eskimo languages".

  27. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Precisely my point earlier. This is virtuoso use of one's language, it has nothing to do with a prescriptivism.

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    For evidence of Shakespear's self-consciousness of word choice, read his Sonnets.

    peter hasn't it ocurred to you that asking English graduates to read Shakespeare's sonnets, might be, well, a little insulting.

    Shakespeare loved playing with words and I'm told invented thousands of them. But how is that 'being aware of the norms he was transgressing'.

  29. Picky said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Oh, perhaps he wasn't asking English graduates … perhaps he was asking me.

  30. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Stephen Jones, not everyone here is an English graduate. I actually do have an undergraduate degree in English but am glad of being pointed again towards poetry I have not read since studying for that degree, my interests having been mostly in linguistics ever since I heard of the discipline.

  31. A.S. said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    @Picky:

    No connection.

    (1) Pullum's essay was not concerned with the size of the Eskimo snow vocabulary, but with the spread of an urban myth through large parts of academia.

    (2) Mr Halpern's chapter is irrelevant to the question, how many words for snow there are in Eskimo languages because he deliberately ignores crucial theoretical distinctions (such as that between morphologcially simple vs. complex words, that between words referring to snow and words whose definition includes the word snow, and that between snow and ice) and because he insists on including irrelevant points about whether or not a belief in a large snow vocabulary commits one to a belief in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (which nobody, including Whorf, has ever claimed) and whether it is okay to call Eskimos Eskimos (and even here his discussion is pitifully garbled and incomplete).

    You would know all this if you had actually been interested enough in the issue to read Pullum's essay or Halpern's book chapter (both of them are easy to find online). But, as we both know, you are not really interested.

  32. Picky said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    I won't reply to that, even for a laugh, AS.

  33. Stephen Jones said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    Has anybody actually gone on to Halpern's website and tried to read his articles?

    Seems some kind of bizarre self-publicising crank. He claims his problem with The Turing Test is taking it seriously because it's self-evidently silly. Yea, so people who've been taking it seriously for the last forty years didn't notice it. It's not like Turing knew anything about philsophy; his teacher was some nonentity called Wittgenstein.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

    I don't see anything laughable about what A.S. said.

    See also myl's added links above, after an earlier response from A.S. to Picky, Feb 23 at 12:17.

  35. Wythe said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    There are many threads here worth commenting on, but my overall reaction to Halpern's post is simple and self-contained:

    Halpern states, in his complaint #11, that "no contributor to this discussion actually grapples with any of the arguments I offered in my book. Even Mark Liberman, who thinks that there are some interesting ideas in the book, and says that he may discuss them on another occasion, doesn’t tackle any of them in the postings under discussion."

    Yet, in #3, we read that "The topic that gets most thoroughly discussed is my treatment of the term Progressive and its various forms — Liberman titles the entire discussion thread “Progress and its enemies”…"

    Does anyone else see the problem here? An author is telling a blogger (and, in this instance, critic or reviewer – or, at least, an interested reader) that that blogger should write about the author's whole book. Apparently, the blogger isn't allowed to write a short piece about a single aspect of the book, the use of "progressive." The book is so important or recursive that it must be viewed all at once or not at all.

    I would think that Liberman protects himself nicely from this criticism by stating that he me may discuss Halpern's book again, but Halpern isn't satisfied. This confuses me… Liberman is under no obligation to write about Halpern whatsoever. It seems to me that Halpern benefits from widely-read bloggers discussing his book, even in bits and pieces.

  36. dr pepper said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    Well, Halperin promised us a hard hitting discussion, if only he were participating. But, although he did kick it off, he is not, in fact, participating. Come Halperin, jump in and get some!

  37. dr pepper said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    oops, should have been "come on".

  38. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    And oops again, it should have been Halpern.

  39. Picky said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    marie-lucie: No, it wasn't laughable, you're right. It was abusive. So much of this stuff is abusive; I find it very dispiriting. Of course Mr Halpern, entering the enemy's den as he will have thought of it, came in all truculent and macho. Does the whole debate have to be like that? The heat/light ratio seems a bit out of balance.

    I'm just interested (a) in the subject-matter and (b) in the strength of the arguments. If I address what I see as a logical flaw, that isn't grounds for the sort of stuff AS came out with.

    Hey! I suppose that's the reply to AS I said I wouldn't make. Shame on me!

  40. Robert E. Harris said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    B.A., chemistry. Ph.D., physical chemistry. Not all of us are undergraduate English literature majors. (My wife was one.) I have some trouble following this whole discussion. I read some of Mark Halpern's publications (from his web site) but I could not make out exactly what the point of his arguments is. Are we still in the midst of Dictionaries and That Dictionary? That is pretty old news, at near age 50.

    It seems to me, as a chemist, that when we try to describe something (say, we write, "Sulfur is yellow.") we try to get the facts as we know them down on paper in a way others may be able to understand. Others can tell the world that sulfur should not be yellow, it ought to be green. I say, "Open your eyes near a chunk of the stuff." And similarly with language vocabulary and usage.

  41. Mark Halpern said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

    Responses to some comments by Language Log posters

    In reply to the comments of A.S.:
    A.S. claims that nowhere in my chapter on the Eskimo Snow Vocabulary controversy do I provide any arguments or evidence, only unsupported assertions. His remarks, while completely groundless, nevertheless represent an advance over most of the attacks made on my book by linguists and their supporters: A.S. has read at least a part of my book before assailing it. He has not read enough of the book, and has read badly the part he did read, but he is still head and shoulders above most of my critics.

    He tells me that if I had given him a list of words for snow in Eskimo languages, we’d have something to argue about. Is his copy of my book defective, or was he just in too much of a rush to refute me to notice Appendix B, which offers a 123-item list of Eskimo-language snow words? The reader who has somehow missed noticing that appendix in the table of contents, where it is called “Active Eskimo-Language Terms for Snow and Ice,” is directed to that list by note 103 to the chapter under discussion.

    A.S. says that instead of argument or data, I simply rely on “some people you asked or read about [who] told you that Eskimos have many words for snow.” As my Appendix B shows, I do not rely on the word of anyone, but compiled my own list of Eskimo snow words from a variety of sources, listed at the end of that appendix. But if I had relied on the people whose names I list there, I would still be in a pretty strong position, because those “some people” are among the foremost living experts on Eskimo languages. “Some people” include the director of the Alaska Native Language Center of the University of Alaska (who is also the compiler of one of the great dictionaries of an Eskimo language), several members of his staff, and several Eskimos and other Alaskans who are native speakers of one Eskimo language or another. They did not tell me that Eskimos have many words for snow, they reviewed the list that I had compiled and sent to them, and approved it without a single substantive exception. I would make a bet, incidentally, that my research into Eskimo languages is rather deeper than Geoffrey Pullum’s.

    I’m glad to know that A.S. considers the question of whether “Eskimo” is an acceptable name for Eskimos, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, to be irrelevant to the topic under discussion; so do I. Unfortunately, those two red herrings are forever being dragged in by academic linguists when engaged in controversy about that topic, and I thought it best to deal with them before they could be thrown in my face, as they often have been. The next time a linguist brings up one of these issues, I’ll tell him that A.S. joins me in regarding them as irrelevant.

    In reply to the comments of Andrew Clegg:
    Mr Clegg is sarcastic about my supposed claim that every time someone reviews my book, I should be invited to join in. Did he not read, or not believe, my explicit repudiation of that claim? My words were “It seems to me that Language Log ought to have issued me such an invitation — not because they are obligated to by any rule or convention, but just because it would have made the discussion more interesting.” What Language Log was doing was not reviewing my book — most of the posters hadn’t even read it — but discussing one or two rather minor issues springing from Mark Liberman’s reading of it, and that discussion would indeed have been enlivened by my participation. If anyone announces that he is preparing a full review of the book, I promise Mr Clegg that I will not insist on getting involved in it.

  42. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    REH, you think like this because you have a scientific attitude, the same as linguists. Some other people are not content with observing and making sense of what actually exists but think that there should be an aesthetic if not ethical dimension about how things "should be", hence the lack of understanding and the communication problems, because while there can be debate and (one hopes) ultimately consensus about how things are, it is more difficult to determine on what basis things "should be" other than they are.

  43. Ryan said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Halpern, you might consider getting up to date on the discussion before posting. Also, your objection to AS's post has been been addressed, and his position has been expanded upon. Maybe you'd do yourself better if you managed to make it through the whole discussion before firing off your knee-jerk polemic.

  44. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    Mark Halpern,

    Congratulations on taking the trouble of getting extensive documentation about the Eskimo words from the experts at the Alaska Native Language Centre. Nevertheless, if the description above is correct, listing every word and expression even remotely concerned with snow is not the same as listing words for snow itself.

    For instance, take the word air in English: would it be OK to list under "English words for air", words and expressions such as blow, inhale, respiration, wind, windpipe, trachea, breeze, gale, gust, storm, to air (a program), air gun, air brush (noun and verb), air bag, air conditioning, air quality, airplane, airline, hot-air balloon, to be full of air and a host of others? Perhaps that is not what you were doing with snow but the description of your list sounds similar.

  45. Bloix said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    No linguist I, but IIRC correctly Inuktitut ("Eskimo") is what is called an "agglutinative" language. It's not unique in this, as many geographically dispersed languages (Turkish, Finnish) are agglutinative. These languages string together chains of morphemes with many prefixes and suffixes to form words of many syllables. So, to make up some examples, which perhaps could be affirmed or corrected by any actual linguists here, what in English would be a phrase like "light, blowing snow" or "compacted snow that can be cut into blocks" would in Inuktitut be one word.

    English has some ability to make agglutinative combinations with prefixes and suffixes. "Ungovernable," for example – any English speaker understands that this is one word with three parts. But Inuktitut does this more often and with longer strings.

    One might say that these strings are not "words" in the sense of an English word, because any Inuktitut speaker can create them afresh in the way that English speakers create phrases but do not create words. But they are "words" in the sense that their component parts cannot stand alone.

    So, when talking about snow, as about anything else, an Inuit does not put together a phrase with adjectives or other modifiers, and instead uses a "word" that includes multiple morphemes. The speaker may have used the "word" many times before – in the same way that we carry around stock phrases, like "corn snow" or "new-fallen snow" – or the "word" may be newly created. Either way, to say that Inuktitut has 100 or 500 or whatever "words" for snow is really a statement about the agglutinative structure of the language and not a statement about the relationship of the language to the external reality of Inuit life.

    At least, that's my understanding. I'm sure that there is someone about who will promptly put me in my place if I'm wrong.

  46. Bloix said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    PS- Prof Liberman wrote a post a couple of years ago on a related topic involving American Indian names. American Indian languages tend to be synthetic (similar to agglutinative except that the morphemes undergo regular changes when strung together). Single words or names in such languages become phrases or sentences in English.

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005174.html

  47. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    Bloix, "American Indian languages" are many and varied in structure. It is true that many are synthetic, but by no means all. There is a lot more variety among them than most people assume. A lot of the better-known names come from only a few language families.

  48. marie-lucie said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    p.s. Inuktitut, spoken in Canada, is only one of the Eskimo languages or perhaps dialects. Others in Alaska are Inupiak and Yupik (the latter also in Siberia). This is why the word Eskimo or Eskimoan is still used in linguistics.

  49. Mark Halpern said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    Responses to some comments by Language Log posters—2

    Stephen Jones’ comments: Jamessal wrote: “Both [Halpern’s Atlantic article and Garner’s Modern American Usage] are well written, even well reasoned; both also fail to acknowledge the shoddy state of real world prescriptivism…” Reading this, Jones “rather suspect[s]” that what Jamessal had in mind was “Garner’s own shoddy prescriptivism.” So what Jamessal was saying, if Jones’s suspicions are valid, is that Garner failed to acknowledge his own shoddy prescriptivism. I would like to encourage Jones to keep offering interpretations like this; they make the job of his critics very easy.

    Having delivered himself of this classic bit of misreading, Jones launches into a long, bad-tempered expression of contempt for prescriptivists, in the course of which he explains to all of us, using bold type to make his meaning clear, that linguists are concerned not with how people SHOULD use the language, but how they DO use it. (I use bold caps to show that I have finally understood this subtle distinction.) Yes, Mr Jones, I was aware of this; it is a truth, in fact, that explains why prescriptivists are needed. You see, we all need to know not only how people do use the language, but how they should use it — "should" not because some Authority says so, but because we all want to understand each other, and enjoy each other’s respect as well, and some uses of language help us to achieve this, and others do not. Let linguists continue to compile their corpora and databases to their heart’s content, and to try to find linguistic laws that explain their data; prescriptivists, along with their camp-followers the Linguistic Activists, will likewise continue to do their thing, which is to encourage certain usages and discourage others, in the interest of keeping the language useful as a tool for communication.

    What exposes everything Jones is saying as utter nonsense, if further exposure were needed, is his remark, toward the end of his posting, that “That’s why in English they [the prescriptivists] are still harping on [sic] about the same things they were 200 years ago.” No, Mr Jones, people like Bryan Garner and me are not saying the same thing prescriptivists were saying 200 years ago; that’s an error that could only be committed by one who had read little of what prescriptivists were saying either then or now.

    Bianca Steele’s comment: Among the several faults revealed by her comments is her reliance on the Google Books extracts from my writings; sometimes you have to read a bit more than that to fully understand a fairly complex matter. Another fault is that Ms Steele, for all her strong views and strong language, is a slave to Authority: she is indignant that I would dare to differ with a judge — an appellate judge, at that! — on a legal term like “copyright infringement.” She doesn’t say that Posner was right, she just seems to think that his official position should make his views sacrosanct. Ms Steele seems to have bits and pieces of several of my essays, and she attacks me at so many points that it would be impractical to defend myself on each of them, especially here where language is supposed to be the main theme. I will content myself with warning her not to let Stanley Fish learn that she has called him a liberal; his reaction would be terrifying.

    A.S. again: I note with amusement that A.S. shows not the slightest sign of embarrassment at having raked me over the coals for failing to provide a list of Eskimo-language words, while himself failing to note that just such a list was provided in my book. Without breaking stride for a moment, A.S. returns to attacking my chapter on Pullum’s great myth-busting essay, in the course of which he shows himself to be so bad a reader, and so arrogant, that one gives up any hope of having a civil and enlightening exchange with him. The fact that some of the greatest experts in the world on Eskimo languages have vetted my list and found it valid means nothing to him, nor do my observations on why the entries in my list deserve to be there. And I think Geoffrey Pullum would be surprised to learn that his essay on how many words the Eskimos have for snow has “nothing to do with how many words for snow the Eskimos have.” As Pullum and I agreed during our private correspondence some years ago, both of us want to use the Eskimo Snow Vocabulary controversy as a springboard for further observations on public gullibility, racial feelings, the propagation of myths, the lowering of academic standards, and other such lofty subjects. But before the ESV controversy can be used as such a springboard, it must itself be settled; the number of Eskimo-language snow words as compared with those in temperate-zone languages must be determined, at least to an order-of-magnitude degree of precision; before you can build upon a myth, you have to determine whether it is indeed a myth. That is what I have done. I have examined (and presented in my book) the evidence, and determined that what is mythical is the claim made by Pullum. And until someone who knows more about Eskimo languages than I or the experts I’ve consulted do shows me — shows me, not tells me — that I’m wrong, I regard the matter as settled: Eskimo languages, just as one would expect, have many more words that are specifically for snow and ice in their many shapes and conditions than do languages from the temperate zone.

    Stephen Jones, again: Apparently feeling that he had not sufficiently embarrassed himself with his ridiculous comments on purely linguistic matters, Jones now tackles my paper on the Turing Test and on AI generally, and does it to himself again. No, I did not say that my problem with the Turing Test was that it seems silly to me; what I said is that because it seems silly to me, I may not be as effective a critic of it as would someone who took it more seriously. I do have a problem with the TT and the attitude toward intelligence it embodies: it is that I find it false and dangerous. And Turing did not know or care much about philosophy — he was a mathematician and logician of genius, but not a philosopher at all. Nor was Wittgenstein his teacher — not that it would be any guarantee that Turing was right about machine intelligence even if Wittgenstein had taught him everything he knew.

    Picky’s comments: Thank you, Picky, for calling the list of snow words to the attention of A.S., and for calling Andrew Clegg’s attention to my explanation of why it would have been a good idea to bring me into this discussion at the outset. It’s good to know that one member of Language Log, at least, can and does read. You do as much as any one person can to redeem the Log, and prevent me from feeling simply depressed when regarding it.

    A summary: since this will be my last posting to Language Log, at least my last to the present discussion thread, let me make a few farewell comments. I end as I began: shocked at the readiness of scholars and students of an intellectual discipline to comment on a book without having read it. I’m shocked at the assumption made by several posters that one who has written a lengthy book on a complex subject doesn’t know the most elementary facts about that subject. I’m shocked that unsupported assertions make by some contributors are taken as factual, and regarded as refuting the carefully argued and documented claims of others. I’m shocked by the nastiness of tone of several of the posters, and by the sloppiness in logic and writing style that is to be seen in many postings. Although I won’t be rejoining the present discussion thread, I’m not at all averse to carrying on private discussions on the topics that have been touched on here, or any related to them. If you want to have such a discussion with me, write to me at markhalpern@iname.com. I especially welcome correspondence with those who have read my book, because it saves me from having to re-create the book piecemeal during the course of our discussions. Ave atque vale.

  50. Aelfric said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 10:36 pm

    Is it just me (and I might be genuinely incorrect about this, but I don't believe so), or was Mr. Halpern a generally peevish and poorly behaved guest? I would especially be interested to hear from those in the linguistic Ivory Tower, as it were, as I have lived too long in the real world and don't know about the etiquette there.

  51. Fiona Hanington said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:35 am

    I enjoyed his participation; I'm glad he chimed in. It certainly enriched the discussion of his ideas.

  52. dr pepper said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    But he didn't defend his list.

    If it is ture (that's right, i haven't read the book) that his list is not, in fact, a list of words for "snow", but rather a list of words for "snowy things", then i say, he's cheating. I'd like to see him address that criticism.

  53. dr pepper said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    oops: "true". Auuuuuugh!

  54. Stephen Jones said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    Mr. Halpern. Many of us have gone to your web site and read the articles you have posted there. Having done so we see no reason whatsoever to want to read your book.

    And we're not discussing your book. We're discussing your postings here or those on your web site. And they're pretty well an idea-free zone.

    As far as we can tell you have a template; there are goodies and baddies. The goodies are right wing thinkers who believe in authority as being necessary for humans to get along; the baddies are left wing progressive post modernists who deny any kind of linguistic, intellectual or political authority. You then apply this template to any number of random rants. That prescriptivists are often died-in-the-wool, card-carrying, latte-drinking liberal progressives doesn't fit in so you ignore it. That the academic linguists you maintain populate these boards have indulged in vicious attacks on the post-modernists you take to be their bosom buddies you also ignore.

    A couple of minor points. Turing did study under Wittgenstein. And it was a don at Wittgenstein's college, Trinity, that maintained progress was regress in the wrong direction, and another who suggested we got rid of the whole pointless argument by simply using the word 'gress'.

  55. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:30 am

    @Stephen Jones: "And it was a don at Wittgenstein's college, Trinity, that maintained progress was regress in the wrong direction, and another who suggested we got rid of the whole pointless argument by simply using the word 'gress'."
    What a lovely story! Please tell us more. Like, who were the people who said these things, and what were the circumstances or occasions?

  56. A.S. said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 2:27 am

    @Mark Halpern:

    I note with amusement that A.S. shows not the slightest sign of embarrassment at having raked me over the coals for failing to provide a list of Eskimo-language words, while himself failing to note that just such a list was provided in my book.

    So, unlike you, I don't mind being corrected. What's your point?

    Without breaking stride for a moment, A.S. returns to attacking my chapter on Pullum’s great myth-busting essay,

    I said in my first comment that I would be willing to argue about your list of Eskimo words for snow. So when "Picky" pointed out the list, I argued about it.

    in the course of which he shows himself to be so bad a reader, and so arrogant, that one gives up any hope of having a civil and enlightening exchange with him.

    Says the man whose (self-published) book is a string of unfounded verbal attacks on individual linguists and on the profession as a whole. There is no hope of having any kind of discussion with you, because (a) you are very strident in your criticism of others, but rather thin-skinned when others criticize you, and (b) you don't respond to arguments of any kind.

    The fact that some of the greatest experts in the world on Eskimo languages have vetted my list and found it valid means nothing to him, nor do my observations on why the entries in my list deserve to be there.

    You're right, your "experts" mean nothing to me (I'm surprised that you are willing to rely on their authority — are they not evil linguists?). I have looked at the list and drawn my own conclusions, and I've found nothing in your observations that would justify this laughably unsystematic collection of things that you mistake for "words". Incidentally, you have not responded to the substance of any of my criticism.

    And I think Geoffrey Pullum would be surprised to learn that his essay on how many words the Eskimos have for snow has “nothing to do with how many words for snow the Eskimos have.”

    I can't imagine that his surprise would be too great. If his essay was concerned with the exact number of snow words in Eskimo languages, he would not have relegated that issue to an Appendix to the actual essay. In this Appendix, incidentally, he talks extensively about the kinds of problems one encounters in drawing up a list of words for snow (or anything else) — problems, that you manage to ignore completely.

    before you can build upon a myth, you have to determine whether it is indeed a myth. That is what I have done. I have examined (and presented in my book) the evidence, and determined that what is mythical is the claim made by Pullum.

    I must have missed that evidence completely. Where do I find it? Certainly not in your chapter on snow words or your list of "snow" words. Is there another Appendix that I've overlooked?

    And until someone who knows more about Eskimo languages than I or the experts I’ve consulted do shows me — shows me, not tells me — that I’m wrong, I regard the matter as settled: Eskimo languages, just as one would expect, have many more words that are specifically for snow and ice in their many shapes and conditions than do languages from the temperate zone.

    And if you don't understand the problems involved in defining what should count as a "word" (esp. in polysynthetic languages), if you don't understand that words whose definition includes the word snow or whose referential range includes snow among other materials cannot automatically be classified as "words for snow", if you don't understand the difference between snow and ice, I regard the matter as settled, too: You are a prescriptivist crank, who, just as one would expect, does not know the first thing about language structure or language use and who will go out of his way to avoid learning anything about either.

  57. Stephen Jones said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    Like, who were the people who said these things, and what were the circumstances or occasions?

    Didn't hear the comments direct; had them reported to me over dinner by another Trinity don.

  58. Stephen Jones said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 4:07 am

    Halpern's truly beyond parody. Here's what he has to say about the Turing Test.
    Since Turing, a scientific genius, was not speaking ex tempore but presenting, in print, a well-considered opinion, something more specific than general human fallibility seems called for as an explanation for his adoption of a view that seems nothing less than absurd 2. My explanation is that Turing was lonely; first because it is in the nature of things that a genius must be lonely, but also and more particularly because he was a homosexual in a society that strongly rejected homosexuality. In seeing the computer as a potential friend he was by no means alone—many of the strange beliefs I will be discussing are at bottom searches for a buddy—and the computer is not the most unlikely entity in which lonely man has attempted to find a friend.

  59. peter said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    Mark Halpern: "shocked at the readiness of scholars and students of an intellectual discipline to comment on a book without having read it. I’m shocked at the assumption made by several posters that one who has written a lengthy book on a complex subject doesn’t know the most elementary facts about that subject. I’m shocked that unsupported assertions make by some contributors are taken as factual, and regarded as refuting the carefully argued and documented claims of others. I’m shocked by the nastiness of tone of several of the posters, and by the sloppiness in logic and writing style that is to be seen in many postings."

    Goodness gracious! Where have you been these last two decades? What a sheltered life you must have had, certainly not reading anything on the Web!

    I am shocked by your evident sense of self-righteous entitlement, that somehow you, alone of any author, should be exempt from the criticism which is the means by which claims in our democratic society are tested and decided. I haven't read your book either, but why would I, when you respond in such a petulant fashion, rejecting the very idea that your ideas should be subject to open criticism.

  60. jamessal said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    I'm sorry to be jumping in so late; I was out of town. I just hope Mark Halpern is still checking the thread, because everywhere he mentions me he also misrepresents my points.

    Point 1: Halpern writes: "I believe he is wrong in thinking that Garner does not disavow, and strongly criticize, the kind of indignant-letter-to-the-editor prescriptivism that I think Jamessal has in mind; I know that he is wrong in thinking that of me."

    But I'm not thinking of "indignant-letter-to-the-editor prescriptivism"; I'm thinking of precisely the sort of prescriptivist writer Halpern defends in his article: John Simon, William Safire (the two he mentions explicitly), Theodore Bernstein, Edwin Newman, Jean Stafford, et al. In his article, Halpern writes that when linguists point out that the rules that fill prescriptivist usage guides have no scientific basis, "the reply" (presumably from the authors of such books) is this:

    "Yes, we know this; we do not contend that the rules we propose for the sake of clarity and richness of communication were handed down from on high. They are ordinary man-made rules, not divine commandments or scientific laws (although many have support from historical scholarship), and we agree that they, like all man-made things, will need continual review and revision. But these facts are no more arguments against laws governing language usage than they are against laws governing vehicular traffic. Arbitrary laws — conventions — are just the ones that need enforcement, not the natural laws. The law of gravity can take care of itself; the law that you go on green and stop on red needs all the help it can get."

    If that were true, though — if the John Simons and Theodore Bernsteins of the world really thought that way — then they wouldn't appeal so often to etymologies (often false ones) and what they understand to be the principles of grammar to support their rules; they would simply argue for their utility. The position of these writers, and their understanding of language, isn't nearly as sophisticated as Halpern makes it out to be. That's what I meant when I said he doesn't account for the shoddy state of real-world prescriptivism. (There's also the point that in all the analogies Halpern offers the prescriptivists are necessarily doing good work — constructing traffic lights, prettifying gardens — when in fact much of their advice is just bad.)

    Point 2: Halpern writes:

    Jamessal also gives us a classic example of begging the question when he says, in response to a rhetorical question of mine, that “this sort of speculating is best done by the people who know most about language and its history—linguists, of course.” It is a major contention of my book that questions of usage — that is, of how we should use the language today — do not come within the professional purview of linguists. Jamessal has every right to reject that argument, but he should not speak as if I never made it, and as if everyone “of course” acknowledged that linguists were the best authorities on how we should use language today.

    First of all, it's interesting to note that he erased my modest qualifier: "My immediate reaction, as a lay person, is that this sort of speculating…." Since that very much changes the tone of what I wrote, I'd say that's something Halpern "shouldn't" do. But whatever. More substantively, I didn't write that sentence to mean that linguists were of course "the best authorities on how we should use language today." That's not the kind of speculating I, or Halpern, was talking about. In his article, Halpern writes: "Descriptive grammarians suppose that language is an entity with its own laws of development, or natural destiny, and that prescriptive grammarians [read: Simon, Newman, Safire, et al.] are trying to interfere with the course of that natural destiny." (This itself is a bad distortion of the thought of linguists, but again, whatever.) He then writes: "But what does language, undisturbed [presumably by the prescriptivist writers listed above], become? What course do we know it would take if only outsiders would cease to meddle with it? No one has ever shown that language has such a natural course, let alone that there would be anything wrong, if such a course did exist, in altering it." Admittedly he gives himself some wiggle room by repeatedly employing such vague, tendentious language ("natural course"); but I still don't think I'm wrong in taking his last sentence as an assertion that all languages have had assistance from the likes of Simon, Safire, et al. Right or wrong, it was that sort of speculating about the history of all the world's language that I thought best done by the people who know most about language — linguists, of course (note that the "of course" refers to those who know the most about language, not who are the "best authorities…").

    Point 3: Halpern's syllogism falls apart if in fact it's not true that all languages have had assistance from the likes of Simon, Safire, et al. I consider Mark Liberman an expert on language and, specifically, the history of prescriptivism; thus, when Liberman wrote that "nearly all of the world's languages, for nearly all of the history of the world, have been left to develop without prescriptive guidance," offering "Biblical Hebrew, Homeric Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, Dante's Italian, and Elizabethan English," as examples, I thought Halpern's argument had been shown to be bogus. This isn't fast proof, no. Expert or not, Liberman's assertion isn't necessarily a fact. Haplern has a (small) point here. Still, for the argument in his article to stand he needs to show that the languages Liberman mentions have had prescritpivist assistance, and I don't think he can.

  61. Picky said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    Sustained argument in a civilised tone – so, don't go out of town again!

  62. jamessal said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 9:36 am

    Alright, alright.

  63. Bill Walderman said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    "Nearly all of the world's languages, for nearly all of the history of the world, have been left to develop without prescriptive guidance. An admittedly unfair list of examples would be Biblical Hebrew, Homeric Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, Dante's Italian, and Elizabethan English, none of which seem to have been entirely ruined by the lack of oversight."

    Bibilical Hebrew and Homeric Greek don't seem to be good examples to cite for the proposition stated in the first sentence (which I don't mean to dispute). The texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric poems were extensively edited and normalized in the course of their transmission. In the case of the Homeric poems, the text we have is essentially a medieval vulgate that seems to reflect heavy editing by generations of Alexandrian and later scholars, and an acrimonious debate has been running over whether these ancient editors had any sound evidence at their disposal or even had the faintest idea about what they were doing. (M.L. West, the editor of the recent Teubner Iliad, would dispute this–he thinks he knows what the text of the Iliad looked like in the 7th century BCE and he attempts to reconstruct it in his edition.) The received text of the Hebrew Bible is the product of the Masoretic tradition that culminated around the ninth century CE.

  64. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Prescriptivism in past centuries?

    It seems to be generally recognized that "Biblical Hebrew" is not uniform but that the books of the Old Testament show definite linguistic signs of having been composed in different periods. These books deal with a wide variety of subjects and some of them are very prescriptive about customs and taboos, but not about language. The sayings of the important public figures known as the prophets are recorded, not the pronouncements of any language mavens.

    For Vedic Sanskrit the work of "codification" was done after the language had gone out of general use, in order to preserve the original religious texts, not in order to tell people how to speak in their daily lives.

    Dante's Italian was not shaped by earlier grammarians of Italian: Italian dialects were fragmented and not considered suitable for serious writing, let alone grammatical analysis. Dante's contribution was to create serious literature through the medium of his own dialect, with such spectabular success that this dialect became the standard for Italian writers to emulate.

    Dante's example became a model for writers in other European countries, who started to write serious works in their own languages (works previously written for entertainment such as epics and plays were not considered serious at first), but those languages had not been previously "codified". Shakespeare could not have consulted a grammar of English: "grammar schools" taught the grammar of Latin, a language not spoken by the students. The first grammar of French was written by the Englishman Palsgrave, not for the use of French people but for English speakers who (at a time when French had practically disappeared as a spoken language in England) wished to learn French because of its still strong cultural prestige or in order to travel. The first grammar of Spanish astonished Queen Isabel (what could possibly be its use?) but the author explained that it would help her new subjects in the Americas learn Spanish. These grammars, and the numerous grammars of native languages written by Spanish and other missionaries in the Americas over the next centuries, were descriptive not prescriptive: there was no intent to tell people how they "should" speak their own languages.

    Until the modern world (with books and later other means of communication) there was imitation of prestigious models but not codification, and the first grammars were not for speakers of the languages but for others who might need to learn either archaic texts or foreign languages.

    Historically the rise of grammatical prescriptivism in England is linked to changing social conditions both within the country (favouring upward mobility) and in its relations with its neighbours, who at the time had little incentive to learn the English language themselves (with the present world-wide reach of the English language nowadays, it is difficult to remember that 200 years ago it had no currency in Europe outside of England). Projecting English-type prescriptivism into past centuries or even millennia is as meaningless as imagining that Homer or the Biblical scribes must have used computers.

  65. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    Bill Walderman:

    You posted your comment while I was writing mine. Your point about editing does not invalidate mine: the editors of Homer or the Bible probably imposed some of their own language uses in editing the texts, so that we have them at some remove from the original authors, but those original authors wrote or more accurately spoke them without such interference or "guidance" except their own sense of their language and their own oral tradition.

    To these Western examples one can also add those of many other countries which did not have a written medium until extremely recently, for instance the oral epics of the Ainus or the Siberian native people.

  66. Bill Walderman said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Marie-Lucie, my point was not that the Hebrew Bible or the Homeric poems were originally composed (however and whenever that may have happened) by individuals writing under the influence of prescriptive grammarians, or that the individuals responsible for their composition were attempting to establish models for the proper usage of the languages in which they were composed. The point I was trying to make is that the texts of these works as we have them today have been extensively edited and reworked by scholars who operated on prescriptivist (and probably often erroneous) assumptions about what the language of the texts should look like. For that reason, it doesn't seem strictly accurate to cite the Homeric poems and the Hebrew Bible, at least in the form we know them today, as examples of language flourishing without the intervention of prescriptivism.

    That's probably not a point that can be made about Dante and it definitely isn't true of Elizabethan English. I don't know about the Rg Veda (although I suspect that some normalization went on at some point in the tradition).

    But wait–there may actually have been some prescriptivism at work in the composition of a part of the received text of the Iliad. The Tenth Book, which almost everyone recognizes somehow just isn't integral to the poem (recognizing that there's no agreement about exactly what "integral to the poem" could mean in the context of a document of such uncertain origin), contains, in addition to some uniquely grizzly and nasty activities that don't seem to jibe with the rest of the poem, a number of bizarre verb-forms that look as if they were made up by someone trying to imitate Homeric verbal morphology without having a clear understanding of the underlying principles. Isn't that prescriptivism in action?

    And even in the rest of the Homeric poems, it's generally recognized that the language, which is basically in an Ionic dialect but resorts to Aeolic forms when it's metrically convenient, is an artificial language that was never spoken as a vernacular in the streets of Smyrna or wherever but was likely the highly cultivated product of a long tradition of oral poetry. While it must have been intelligible to an audience of non-professionals, it was the exclusive medium of an elite cadre of singers or poets, who must have shared some understanding of the underlying grammatical principles.

  67. Bill Walderman said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    Marie-Lucie, we seem to have cross-posted again. I think we're fundamentally in agreement.

  68. Dave M said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    "And it was a don at Wittgenstein's college, Trinity, that maintained progress was regress in the wrong direction, and another who suggested we got rid of the whole pointless argument by simply using the word 'gress'."

    Yes, but remember that whichever direction you are facing, the gress is always greener on the other side of the fence.

    As for Wittgenstein, Halpern doesn't seem to like him either. I looked at his site, and in one of the articles about "postmodernism" there's a bit about "Wittgenstein's Fallacy" (don't ask) which manifests a misreading of that philosopher which is simply glorious in its scurrility – a welcome change from the obsessively footnoted hair-splitting I'm more used to (and participate in).

    He is right though, I must admit, to say that there is no "guarantee that Turing was right about machine intelligence even if Wittgenstein had taught him everything he knew." But I think we all knew that. (Thanks to Stephen Jones for that wonderful quote about Turing's motivations.)

  69. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    Bill,

    Thank you for your comment. I don't think there is much discrepancy between your opinions and mine, and you know much more about Greek than I do.

    But the fact that there were some rewritings of earlier texts or that poets followed oral traditions about the composition of poetry or other genres is not the same as prescriptivism, a doctrine which is not about following traditions, or bringing archaic texts up to date (eg Homer or the Bible), but about consciously imposing rules meant to be followed by the general population because the language is somehow felt to be defective (an attitude of at least some of the 18th century prescriptivists: "our language offends against every part of grammar", meaning Latin grammar) and the usage of "even the best writers" is held to be full of errors.

    For instance, new translations of the Bible into English are appearing regularly because of a need to reach people who no longer understand earlier versions, or to clarify the meaning or intent of some difficult passages. This is not linked to prescriptivism: some translations have been made into very colloquial English. Prescriptivism would be holding on to a single translation no matter what.

    The "elite cadre" of Greek poets (like some of the medieval Occitan troubadours) may have developed their own, very self-conscious and somewhat artificial rules of language and composition, but they were not trying to impose those rules on the general population – that would have defeated part of their purpose: virtuosos try to find more and more ways to display their virtuosity to their competitors and to lesser mortals, not to make them all virtuosos.

    As someone (perhaps Mark Liberman) remarked in one of these posts, there is a difference between prescription and prescriptivism. Prescription may be needed to help children or non-native speakers master a language or a specific register of their own language, but prescriptivism holds that everyone needs man-made rules otherwise the language will fall apart (Halpern's position). If that were the case no language would ever have developed. Instead there is a self-regulating mechanism in any speech community for balancing the needs of self-expression and communication.

  70. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    (Bill, that was another cross-post).

  71. Aelfric said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Okay, biblical Hebrew is one of the rare subjects here in which I can claim some actual knowledge, and I think there is something to be said about the prescriptivist/descriptivist dynamic at work in the "kethib/qere" ("it is written"/"it is said") distinctions in the bible. For instance, the name "Jerusalem" in the Hebrew Bible is a basically impossible word, but is understood to always be pronounced the same way ("yerushalayim"). This happens with a number of other words. Is this early prescriptivists winning ("I don't care how you say it, you have to spell it this way")? Early descriptivists winning ("I don't care how it's spelled, I'll say it the way I want to")? Neither? How exactly this informs the debate, I don't know, and I must return to my actual work (boring lawyering), but if anyone else has thoughts, I'd love to hear them!

  72. peter said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

    Could someone please explain the relevance of the side-of-the-road-driving-metaphor to discussions about language? Surely there is no equivalence in spoken or written language of vehicle crashes caused by drivers independently choosing different sides of the road to drive on. If we users of a language independently choose different syntactical or pragmatic patterns, where is the harm? Where the loss of life or limb? We either mis-understand one another or we do not. If we do, and the matter is important, it will surely soon enough be rectified through further communication. To use an Ockerism, this metaphor is a furphy.

  73. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    peter,

    You need to ask the person who proposed this metaphor. I doubt that it was a linguist. It would have to be a person who thinks that language rules are decided by arbitrary fiat and that languages left to their own devices will fall apart in short order. Mark Halpern seems to have the idea "better artificial rules than no rules at all", as if languages did not already contain their own rules, quite sufficient for their speakers.

  74. Pat said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

    He responds to all blog comments on the internet? God help him if we move this to alt.usage.english—I heard they have 500 words for "cunt."

  75. jamessal said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

    7. Liberman and others make a total hash of my rhetorical question, “…what does language, undisturbed, become? What course do we know it would take if only outsiders would cease to meddle with it?” I was thinking, as readers of my book would know, of the claim often made by linguists that prescriptivists are meddling with a natural process, and should cease to interfere. My question is directed to those linguists, asking them how they know what the natural course of language development is, and why the product of that process is to be preferred to one in which prescriptivists have a role.

    I wish I had read this earlier (rushed, I only read the sections that mentioned me explicitly); it would have saved me the trouble of teasing out the logical implications of Halpern's rhetorical questions, because apparently he's insisting that those questions were meant solely to address a straw man. I've never known a linguist to argue that language has a natural course with which prescriptivists shouldn't meddle. (Often in response to prescriptivist doomsaying, linguists will preach perspective, observing that the language changes being deplored are no different from innumerable language changes in the past; but that's obviously different.)

  76. Stephen Jones said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 4:26 am

    If you read Halpern's article on Turing he seems to have the idea that Turing is saying that the ability to pass the Turing test is the same as thinking.

    As far as I am aware he wasn't. What he was saying is that thinking is necessary to pass it. This is analogous to the 'telephone test' which my friends and relatives sometimes apply when they hear of bombings or natural disasters near the two places I live. In order to see if I'm still alive they telephone me. If I answer they know I'm alive. Now answering the telephone in not equivalent to being alive, and not answering it doesn't mean I'm dead, but being alive is a necessary prerequisite to answering it.

  77. Stephen Jones said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    I think part of Halpern's problem is that he is an editor. He feels his authority to make suggestions to those he edits is being undermined. Thus the defensiveness regarding their turf.

    Napoleonic delusions seem to be anything but uncommon in the breed. Here's a quote from one who posted on a little used EFL forum I frequent.


    (Describing how the language works) doesn't help me make editing decisions. It's not my job to write like common people do with spelling and punctuation mistakes intact. It's my job to be above that, to write excellently and render the English in documents submitted to me at a higher level than it was before — even if it was just okay.
    A good editor is similar to a pianist who knows the technical skills (which are not randomly generated) that are proven to make lasting impressions in people.

    (Q:Or alternatively whenever you have a passage where nothing seems wildly out of place just write 'Stet All'.)

    We hear mundane things said every day by common people. Why pay an editor to write similarly to the way we hear the masses speak and present themselves every day — so crassly and badly planned? You hire an editor and pay him or her good money to write from a fresh angle and interesting perspective, and to write well, thought-provokingly, and entertainainly — enough so that it's worth my time to read it. Common people merely make conversation; but a good editor elevates the conversation.
    It's the linguists' job to describe how reality is. It's the grammarians' or editors' job to improve that reality. Similarly, it's the historians' job to describe how life or a situation existed at one time; and it's the scientists' or politicians' job to improve that life and situation, environment, etc., for the present and future. To each his own.

    Now Halpern is much more reasonable in his writings about editing (he specifically states an editor should never confuse his job with that of a writer) but he does seem to suffer from the feeling that he needs some kind of authority backing him up, and that descriptive linguists are undermining that authority.

    It's strange. I'm actually quite touchy-feely with prescriptivists compared to the treatment I meet out to people who don't spell or punctuate properly on online forums because 'it's only the internet'. I would actually support the creation of the English equivalent of 'Real Academia Española', and Halpern's arch-enemy Chomsky has stated he considers the English spelling system near-perfect. And I think it would be a great idea to reintroduce the teaching of Rhetoric.

    To use Nunberg's analogy, landscape gardeners are not geologists but are still useful and productive members of society. All we're asking is that they do a survey of land before drawing up the plans.

  78. marie-lucie said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    I am glad to know of Mark Halpern's background, as that puts his ideas into perspective (his is a very narrow one).

    About the teaching of "Rhetoric", I suppose you mean the overall structure, coherence and argumentation in a text. This can be taught in any language, and is not the same as introducing artificial rules for the specific language in which a given text is written.

    Re Chomsky about the English spelling "system":

    What Chomsky means is that the system allows words or their roots to be recognizable in writing in spite of the vagaries of English stress, which tends to distort original vowels, as in music – musicality – musician where music is recognizable even though the written vowels do not sound the same in each word, and the c has a different sound in the last word, because of the following i. Similarly with the i sounding different in child – children. To the extent that such alternations are systematic and predictable, the spelling "system" has its advantages, especially in visual recognition.

    On the other hand, a large part of English spelling is unsystematic and unpredictable, and makes huge demands on the visual memory of speakers. There is no reason why verbal ability should necessarily correlate with an excellent visual memory. Surely a "near-perfect" spelling should not cause English-speaking children to take more than twice as long to learn to read and write (and keep learning spellings or their pronunciations long after elementary school) than their counterparts who speak languages with more systematic spelling (such as Spanish).

    The main advantage of keeping the spelling as it exists is that it provides a uniform reference for speakers who might have very different pronunciations in different regions and parts of the world. This is a pragmatic, not linguistic reason.

  79. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 25, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    Stephen Jones: "compared to the treatment I meet out to people who don't spell or punctuate properly on online forums because 'it's only the internet'."

    Either a little joke or a nice instance of a variant of the Hartman-McKean-Skitt Law in action.

  80. Stephen Jones said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:26 am

    OUCH!

  81. bianca steele said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    Stephen Jones,
    Do you also respond to e-mail or memoed requests for information at work by refusing to answer until the grammar and punctuation have been corrected?

    As for the Turing Test, to be fair to Halpern, there are arguments within philosophy and cognitive science over whether there could be any difference between passing a Turing Test and thinking. But Halpern's essay is hilarious. He claims to know Turing's full intention in writing it, his choice of named sources is very strange (superficial, apparently more concerned with professional status than with the usual scholarly standards), and he seems to think it's a scandal that he's unable to summarize it all in a 2500-word piece that satisfies everybody who has an opinion. (Donald Davidson has some explorations around Turing's article, including the gender issue. The article itself is now online.)

  82. Kevin S. said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

    Ugh… I really hope my suggestion that Professor Liberman read Mark Halpern's writings is not what led to this ugly mess of a thread.

    There is so much that could be said in reply to the angry, self-righteous, and hypocritical attackers of Halpern, but let's just deal with one of the most obnoxious, Stephen Jones, who, when he is not "meeting out" (sic) harsh treatment to sloppy Internet writers, insists that Turing "studied under" Wittgenstein. Halpern says he didn't. Guess who turns out to be right? From the Web page of Andrew Hodges, author of the book Alan Turing: The Enigma:

    "Turing was introduced to Wittgenstein in summer 1937, and when Turing returned to Cambridge for the autumn term of 1938, he attended Wittgenstein's lectures — more a Socratic discussion group — on the Foundations of Mathematics. [...] There are no letters or notes which indicate subsequent contact between Turing and Wittgenstein, and no evidence that Wittgenstein influenced Turing's concept of machines or mind."

    Turing was, therefore, an attendee at a series of lectures, one that an expert on Turing characterizes as "more a Socratic discussion group". That is not quite the same as saying that Turing "studied under" Wittgenstein, is it (understatement)?

    So, using Stephen's "reasoning", I'd say that his own "idea-free" little howler makes me not care to read anything further he has to say, and I imagine that Halpern feels similarly.

    Mark H., given this crowd, you were wise to cut and run!

  83. Kevin S. said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    P.S. to A.S., who writes,

    "Says the man whose (self-published) book is a string of unfounded verbal attacks on individual linguists and on the profession as a whole."

    Halpern's book was published by Transaction Publishers, an independent publisher since 1962, and which specializes in the social sciences. Educate yourself by going here: http://www.transactionpub.com/cgi-bin/transactionpublishers.storefront . It is not a vanity press, and, even if it were, then that fact would be completely irrelevant to the merits or demerits of Halpern's arguments.

  84. Stephen Jones said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:50 pm

    I'm aware of the passage in 'Turing; the Enigma'. It was my source for saying that Turing studied under Wittgenstein. I'd have thought attending a 'Socratic Discussion Group' was an admirable way of studying. Halpern was saying he found the Turing Test ridiculous. I mentioned Wittgenstein to point out that somebody who had attended the classes/seminars with Wittgenstein was hardly likely to make obvious mistakes.

    I had of course then not read Halpern's brilliant explanation. Turing did have a brilliant mind but because he was a lonely little homosexual he yearned to have the computer as a playmate.

    Reading Halpern it's hard to say on some matters whether he's being dishonest or obtuse. He'll claim, quite rightly in my opinion, that generative grammar has not fulfilled its original promise, and then make the totally unfounded jump to saying that this disrproves Chomsky's theories of language acquisition even though the salient points which are that language acquisition is the result of expression of an inbuilt genetic mechanism, that speakers don't learn the language but rather make it, and that the main influence on the final form the language will take is the peer group are all incontrovertible.

    The person who introduced the confrontational tone was Halpern in his original writings. He manufactures strawmen on an industrial scale, mispresents the positions of those he dislikes, and then tries to introduce an irrelevant political slant.

    If Kevin S thinks Halpern makes some valuable points for descriptive linguists to answer perhaps he could let us know what they are. Rather a lot of us have looked at his stuff and not found any.

  85. Stephen Jones said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

    Do you also respond to e-mail or memoed requests for information at work by refusing to answer until the grammar and punctuation have been corrected?

    No, though my colleagues normally don't make those mistakes.

    What I object to are people who'll write a whole misspelt post in an internet forum for English teachers, without a punctation mark or capital letter, and then tell you they don't have time to punctuate it properly because it's not like it matters.

    The point of correct punctuation and spelling is that they make it easier for the person reading to understand. If you say you haven't the time to do that, why should the person whose help you've asked for have to spent more time trying to work out what you've said.

  86. Stephen Jones said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 4:36 am

    Transaction is a serious publisher. What I find amusing is that it has classified the book as Political Science, not Linguistics or Communciation, both of which they also have sections of.

  87. David Marjanović said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 8:04 am

    Okay, biblical Hebrew is one of the rare subjects here in which I can claim some actual knowledge, and I think there is something to be said about the prescriptivist/descriptivist dynamic at work in the "kethib/qere" ("it is written"/"it is said") distinctions in the bible. For instance, the name "Jerusalem" in the Hebrew Bible is a basically impossible word, but is understood to always be pronounced the same way ("yerushalayim"). This happens with a number of other words.

    What do you mean by "a basically impossible word"?

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