Expert

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While people are discussing the label polymath in another thread (which reports that the polymathic Noam Chomsky has been cited as, in descending order, a philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, and author, but not as a linguist), a letter to the New York Times Magazine (October 18, p. 12, from Andrew Charig of Middlefield, Mass.) laments the death of William Safire, "who most likely was the foremost expert on the American language". Expert?

Ben Zimmer made note, in his "On Language" piece on Safire (on October 11), of Safire's "acute awareness of the limits of his own expertise". Bill never called himself an expert, or a linguist for that matter, and rightly so. He was a journalist who wrote enthusiastically about the English language (getting his information from references, his mail, and the work of his assistants) and expressed opinions about English usage, but he was no kind of scholar and didn't pretend to be one.

(A side point: "the foremost expert on the American language" is unanchored in time. I assume that Charig meant merely that at the time of his death, Safire was the foremost expert on the American language, but he could be construed as saying that Safire was the foremost expert of the late 20th century, or of the whole 20th century, or of all time.)

Now, a question for the readers: who would you nominate as the foremost expert on the American language (in one or another of these time periods)? An obvious candidate is H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language (originally published in 1919, with revisions and weighty supplements over the following decades).

Mencken is an interesting case. Like Safire, he was (proudly) self-taught and strongly opinionated, and journalism was the center of his working life. Mencken, however, developed his enthusiasm for American English beyond the writing of columns, to a systematic survey of the language, thus making himself into a kind of expert, though without an academic association.

Moving to more recent times, we'd want someone who was an expert in all aspects of American English: lexicon, pronunciation (phonetics and phonology), morphosyntax, sociolinguistics, and dialectology, and the historical developments in all of these areas. There are first-class experts in each of these areas, sometimes covering two or three, but covering them all is a hard row to hoe; there is just so much known now in each of them. Bill Labov is probably as close as it gets.

But I'm happy to hear other nominations.

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36 Comments »

  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    I hope I will be forgiven for thinking first of Professor Irwin Corey.

    My wife, who knows almost nothing about classical music (to which I take the Safire approach — great affection but no claim of expertise) delights in asking me, at frequent intervals, who was the foremost of all classical composers. When I declare a five-way tie (the number sometimes varies, depending on my mood), she accuses me of wussing out.

    This is the greatest comment ever posted to Language Log

  2. N said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    I doubt there are enough hours in the day to be an expert in all those fields AND be able to publish results so people know you exist. I'd have to go with a similar tie to Lieblich and say the entirety of the Linguistics, English, Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology, … communities.

  3. Morgan said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    Apologies for not providing a nomination with this comment, but the strength of specialization is that a specialist has more space for in-depth knowledge of their chosen field. Of course, a more general expert's services are always useful at least to point one to the correct specialist, or to teach generalized introductory courses; but on the whole, specialization is so efficient a system for scholarship that it seems ludicrous to try to work against it.

  4. Doctor Science said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Jonathan E. Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. He knows whereof we speak.

  5. John Lawler said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    I'm sure it would be impolite to nominate Arnold Zwicky, so I won't. Instead, I nominate (the late, alas) James D. McCawley as the greatest expert on the English language (and for that matter, on language in general), but I'd better qualify it as "of the twentieth century", since he died in 1999. Runner-up would be James E. Hoard.

  6. Bill Walderman said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    Foremost expert on American language: Ives Goddard

  7. Troy S. said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

    I'd nominate JRR Tolkien. Among his many technical accomplishments, he worked on the OED, constructed some of the most well-known conlangs, produced beautiful translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, preserving their alliterative character, and was an expert in philology in several languages. Most importantly I think, he inspired generations of people to become language geeks, myself included.

  8. Robert Coren said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    @Troy S.: Much as I admire Tolkien, I doubt he qualifies as an answer to Arnold's question, which specifies "American English".

  9. maxj said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    Next up: Who's the #1 Proust scholar?

  10. Susan Remkus said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    No one tops the God Of Metaphor, George Lakoff.

  11. Thorleif said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    William Labov.

  12. Thorleif said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    Or, since I completely missed AZ's nomination at the end there, Walt Wolfram.

    Along the lines of Bill's comment, Marianne Mithun.

    Or, for the lulz, Sarah Palin.

  13. dr pepper said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    How about those cromulent wordsmiths who write for The Simpsons?

  14. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    Safire himself might well have nominated Fred Cassidy (1907-2000), founder of the Dictionary of American Regional English. As I mentioned in my tribute, Safire was a huge DARE fan.

  15. Mark N. said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    @Morgan: Specialization has efficiency benefits, true, but it also imposes significant forest-for-the-trees sorts of costs. It can also lead fields into incoherent states, where one sub-specialty bases most of its work on a consensus that is flatly incompatible with the consensus view in another sub-specialty. Since the two sub-specialties have their own conferences, journals, and researchers, such contradictions can persist for a long time.

  16. Steve said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:50 pm

    (Aside: this being Language Log, I'm surprised there hasn't been an uproar yet over this little gem from Charig's letter: "Our criteria should be Fowler, Strunk and White, the O.E.D., Webster — not Chaucer." [emph. added])

  17. rkillings said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 1:20 am

    Your question isn't about "expert" so much as it is about "foremost".

    The expert foremost in the minds of the public is always going to be a maven. The expert foremost in the minds of those in academia is always going to be a scholar.

  18. Lane said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 8:00 am

    Steve, I'll oblige: Boo, Strunk and White!

    My vote (amateur though it is) is for Labov. Raise your hand if you too have discovered a whole new American accent recently.

  19. empty said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 8:17 am

    I wonder which edition of Fowler the letter-writer holds as gospel.

  20. Doug Sundseth said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    rkillings has the right of it.

    Was Safire an expert in American English? I think that a reasonable person would say he was. He certainly knew more than the vast majority of the population of AmE speakers by any reasonable definition, his self deprecation notwithstanding.

    Are there people more expert than he was? That, too, must be answered with "Yes".

    I don't think there was any late-20th century* expert on the subject, though, who was more influential than Safire. The high podium and big microphone provided by the NYT is really important. (Mencken is a decent alternate, though. See also Barbara Wallraff.)

    For much the same reasons, when alive, Carl Sagan could reasonably have been described as the foremost astrophysicist in the world, even though actual astrophysicists of my acquaintance had little respect for him.

    * Noah Webster was definitely more influential and Strunk and White might have been, hence the qualification.

  21. Mr Punch said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    Safire and Mencken were well-known as writers (literate journalists with personal styles) before they became language mavens (not Mencken's terminology). Being able to actually do something does, after all, represent a form of expertise — there's a reason Tim McCarver and Joe Morgan, but not say Bill James, are expert commentators (color men) on baseball telecasts.

    I would have nominated David Foster Wallace had he outlived Safire. Now I don't know — Michael Chabon, maybe.

  22. pdxpaul said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Trent Resnor and Snoop Dogg – sorry, one just won't cut it.

  23. empty said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    expert commentators (color men) on baseball telecasts

    Oh dear, this is awakening a pet peeve of mine. No, it's neither a usage peeve nor a usage-peeve peeve. The nonsense you hear from some of these baseball commentators! Especially Joe Morgan: I often turn the sound off for innings at a time just to avoid hearing him make the same almost vacuous comment four times on a row. (Sorry, off-topic, peeve muzzled now, sorry.)

  24. ShadowFox said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    Of course, if Dan Brown wrote the obit, he would have opened it, "Renowned American language expert William Safire …"

  25. JBF said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

    "I'd nominate JRR Tolkien. Among his many technical accomplishments, he worked on the OED, constructed some of the most well-known conlangs, produced beautiful translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, preserving their alliterative character, and was an expert in philology in several languages."

    Certainly Ronald Tolkien does NOT qualify for polymath. All of these fall into one field of learning–language. I would classify you, as so many others, as a blind LOTR worshipper that has been brainwashed by so much advertising and marketing hype. This man does not deserve half of what people pour upon him on a daily basis. Besides Motte-Fouque's The Magic Ring fantasy trilogy (upon first release) written nearly a century prior to LOTR was the true masterpiece and birth of fantasy as we know it. But you will not hear this anywhere because the Tolkien marketing machine actively hides this truth and discredits it.

  26. Sili said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    It's interesting to see "expert" once again used as a compliment (I presume).

    There has been a trend for certain demographics and their politicians to decry any touch of expertise as being undemocratic.

    Yet everyone loves to peeve, so perhaps language is somehow excepted from this general disdain? Hmmm, no, real experts seem as reviled as in any other subject. Yet the Maven gets away with being an 'expert' without opprobrium. Odd.

  27. farm-raised turkey said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    It saddens me to see the epithet "the American language" used so casually, with its attendant presupposition/assumption – uniqueness and English, on a site whose posters (and probably many of its readers) are linguists. This phrase seems to carry connotations; it implies that the language it refers to has some kind of privileged status and that other languages spoken in America (whether referring to the polity or the continent) don't. Off the cuff it's difficult to make explicit exactly what the connotation is, but the phrase seems to suggest that the language in question is connected with defining features of being American (or vice versa), and so by implication, other languages aren't connected so. It's kind of like how one might want to be careful in using parallel phrases like "the American ethos" or "the American aesthetic"; it doesn't seem entirely appropriate to use it to describe a widespread ethos or aesthetic just because it's widespread. Values seems to play a part, somehow.

    In any case, all this to say that the use of "the American language" (with English in mind) seems uninclusive not just to the native languages of the continent, but to the languages of more recent immigrants. From this connotation, it's a very short step to ideas like, one has to speak English to truly be American, or only English counts as something that is truly American, and so on.

    (As an interesting comparison, think what it would mean to say, "the Canadian language"…)

    To address AZ's question, it seems to me that anyone who could justifiably be considered an authority on American English, and not just 'English', would have to be someone who is knowledgeable about the quirks – *ahem* I mean, features – of English as spoken and written in America.

  28. marie-lucie said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    Motte-Fouque: you mean La Motte-Fouqué.

  29. Karen said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    @JBF – Your rant might have been on-topic had JRRT been called a polymath. This post was asking for a language expert… An "American language" expert, to be sure, which probably disqualifies JRRT. But not because he wasn't a polymath.

  30. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    farm-raised turkey:

    It saddens me to see the epithet "the American language" used so casually, with its attendant presupposition/assumption – uniqueness and English, on a site whose posters (and probably many of its readers) are linguists. This phrase seems to carry connotations; it implies that the language it refers to has some kind of privileged status and that other languages spoken in America (whether referring to the polity or the continent) don't.

    I merely quoted the letter-writer. But "the American language" has a long history, going back to Noah Webster at least (and popularized by Mencken), where it's a contrast to "the English language" and identifies what scholars these days (me included) generally call "American English". You're reading too much into the label.

  31. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    @JBF: Besides Motte-Fouque's The Magic Ring fantasy trilogy (upon first release) written nearly a century prior to LOTR was the true masterpiece and birth of fantasy as we know it.

    But on the contrary, La Motte-Fopuqué was a Johnny-come-lately. If you want fantasy, a magic ring, a flying horse, travel to the moon, etc., read Ariosto (1474-1533).

    Or for that matter Boiardo (but I haven't yet read his Orlando Innamorato, the prequel to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso).

  32. Acilius said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    Count another vote for Labov.

  33. E W Gilman said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    If we look to the past, Louise Pound (a considerable help to Mencken) and Albert Marckwardt (who wrote a book on American English) should be mentioned. I was pleased to see somebody mentioned Fred Cassidy. Another researcher who might deserve consideration is Allen Walker Read. More recently there is Dennis Baron. I should probably mention others but my aging head has had trouble enough remembering these names.

    I would respectfully reject JRR Tolkein. His only comment on American English that I found (and I now don't remember where) was snide.

  34. Troy S. said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Ah,sorry, I misunderestimated the question. You have given me some names to look into, although as far as being both prominent and well-known outside of the circle of professional linguists, I suppose it would have to be Mencken. As to the antiquity of stories about magic rings, try Plato with the Ring of Gyges. The moral of course is that anonymity can corrupt ordinary people into doing and saying rather unkind things. Rather like internet forums, eh?

  35. Daniel C. Parmenter said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    May I nominate a non-native speaker? For a number of years I worked with Professor Susumu Kuno from Harvard and he consistently amazed me with the breadth and depth of his knowledge of English syntax and usage, including idiosyncratic American usage, often casting a doubtful eye on the analysis and acceptability judgments of native-speaker linguists. He also knows a thing or two about NLP systems and the art of hand-crafting grammars.

  36. John Cowan said,

    October 26, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

    JRRT's comment (that American English sounded like English after being wiped over by a dirty sponge) was not snide but an object lesson administered to an ignorant Yank in a train who believed that RP was a survival of Feudalism (JRRT's capital letter) and that speaking it proved you were a snob, and repeated by him only in a private letter published only after his death. No one can read the preface to the Second Edition of LOTR without realizing his affection for most of us Across the Water.

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