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]