Back in October, Allan Brown wrote a piece in Times Online about the money being spent on promoting and broadcasting the basically moribund Scots Gaelic language. It seemed at first that he was making a reasonable critique: spending about $30,000,000 on a digital TV service for a language with no more than 50,000 speakers, all of them bilingual in English and most of them without digital TV, could be argued (though linguists aren't supposed to think this way) to be an enterprise of doubtful value. But just as I was getting interested, Brown blundered into linguistics and revealed his dumb side:
Yecchhh. Everything about the layman's concept of a language that I rail against is there.
I say language but Gaelic isn't one, not really. Its vocabulary is tiny, with no form of saying yes or no and attuned to a distant, pre-technological world. It's essentially a kind of rural patois, a bonsai idiolect; a way of specifying concepts central to a particular, highly codified way of life.
A language, for Allan Brown, is just a big bag of words, and Gaelic hasn't got enough of them to count as a language at all. (You don't have a real language unless you have one that's just like mine in having one-word interjection-like sentence substitute particles for affirmation and denial; mine is a language, yours is just a patois, so there.) He doesn't know what "idiolect" means, either. (An idiolect, by definition, is spoken by just one person, not 50,000.)
And then, bafflingly, he completely undercuts his thesis about the "tiny" vocabulary by making a point about it being super-rich rather than tiny:
You might think, for example, that the word sgriob is just a bad hand at Scrabble; it's actually the Gaelic word describing the tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky. The fact that Gaelic has a six-letter word for this while English has a twelve-word phrase reveals a lot about Gaelic ways and priorities.
No it doesn't. It reveals nothing. I happen to know a one-syllable word (turd) for a piece of excrement shaped by its expulsion from the anal sphincter, but that doesn't reveal a lot about my ways and priorities. It is a completely meaningless and useless random factoid about the lexicon of the language I happened to grow up speaking. That lexicon also contains scrum, buttercup, ogre, bong, and thorium. If you try to form an impression of my ways and priorities from such things you're a moron.
As I say, Brown does make some fair points about the irrationalities and impracticabilities inherent in sentimental save-the-language political movements on behalf of moribund languages spoken only by old people; but as soon as he starts trying to talk about the linguistic properties themselves he becomes another gibbering fool mumbling the usual nonsense about nouns (the X have no words for Y but N different words for Z, and all that hogwash). He doesn't really know what a linguistic system is.
I've said all this before. People just aren't listening. Nobody listens. I am like a man opening the door of a mountain cabin in a blizzard in order to howl into the wilderness that the snow should stop. It will never stop. Laypersons (forgive me, good lay readers of Language Log, I don't mean you) will never stop seeing a language as nothing more or less than a big bag of words. Or worse, I suppose, a tiny one. Sigh.