Wright on language and linguistics

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According to Dana Milbank, "Still More Lamentations From Jeremiah", Washington Post, 8/29/2008

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, explaining why he had waited so long before breaking his silence about his incendiary sermons, offered a paraphrase from Proverbs yesterday: "It is better to be quiet and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

Barack Obama's former pastor should have stuck with the wisdom of the prophets.

Milbank focuses on the fact that at the National Press Club yesterday,

Wright praised Louis Farrakhan, defended the view that Zionism is racism, accused the United States of terrorism, repeated his belief that the government created AIDS to extinguish racial minorities, and stood by his suggestion that "God damn America."

We'll leave those issues to the political blogs. But Rev. Wright's recent divagations have extended into linguistic territory as well. And the results are mixed at best.

On one hand, it's great to see a public figure dealing with linguistic issues. In his speech at an NAACP dinner on Sunday (video links here), Rev. Wright uses the words "linguists" and "linguistics" in a positive way, names the levels of linguistic analysis, argues the nature of creole languages, talks about the cerebral lateralization of learning styles, and discusses the social evaluation of r-lessness.

On the other hand, what he said about these issues was mostly confused and confusing in various ways, confirming again how badly our profession has failed in its duty to provide for the linguistic education of contemporary intellectuals.

For example, Rev. Wright's discussion of the social evaluation of r-lessness (which pleased Mr. Verb) began with the strange suggestion that r-lessness has something to do with consonant clusters:

Those of you in the congress, sister Kilpatrick, you know, Ed Kennedy today cannot pronounce cluster consonants. Very few people from Boston can.

But r-less varieties of English omit all syllable-final r's, including those in words like "car" (which Wright cites) and "four" where there is no cluster at all; and r-less speakers are not any more likely to simplify clusters of other consonants than anyone else is. As in the case of Leon Wieseltier's analysis of g-dropping, Wright's phonetic discription is deeply confused, while he makes a valid point about social evaluation:

And nobody says to a Kennedy you speak bad English; only to a black child was that said. Linguists knew that 50 years ago.

But even this valid point is blurred by a facile appeal to the stereotype of blacks as victims — there are plenty of stigmatized varieties of English spoken mainly by white people. (In fact, in certain precincts of Cambridge MA, an r-less townie accent is not likely to get much respect. For some other examples from antique Language Log posts, see "Lazy mouths vs. lazy minds", 11/26/2003; "The thin line between error and mere variation, part 4", 7/26/2004; "A new record for within-U.S. linguistic prejudice", 7/27/2004; "The beauty of Brummie", 7/28/2004; "Disgust for voices and accents", 8/4/2004; "The disappearing modal: for those who'll believe anything", 3/27/2005.)

Rev. Wright continues:

And they also knew, number two, that every language, including the language of Jesus, Aramaic, was made up of five subsets, pragmatics, grammar, syntax, semantics, and phonics.

This is a reference to the levels of linguistic analysis. I don't think I've ever heard a public figure lay these out in a major speech — but the Rev. Wright's number, order and naming are, well, idiosyncratic. The usual division is into six levels, named as pragmatics (how language is used to communicate), semantics (the meaning of words and phrases), syntax (the structure of sentences), morphology (the structure of words), phonology (the inventory of sounds and their systematic arrangement into words), and phonetics (the physical facts of speech).

Wright's reason for getting into this is to support another somewhat strange statement:

And [they knew] that African speakers of English and African speakers of French and African speakers of Portuguese and African speakers of Spanish in the new world had created *languages* — not dialects — all with five different subsets. Languages, not creole or patois, *languages*.

The implied claim that the language varieties called creoles deserve respect is entirely valid. But with respect to the terminology, what linguists actually believe is that the distinction between "language" and "dialect" is mostly a political one, not a linguistic one, and that "creole languages" are creoles as well as languages. Certainly it would come as an unpleasant surprise to the many linguists who study the history and structure of creole languages — including distinguished African and African-American linguists like Salikoko Mufwene, John Rickford, and John McWhorter — to be told that the terminology they use today was discredited 50 years ago.

When Rev. Wright ventures briefly into lexicography, he does no better than Cullen Murphy, John Powers, or William Safire's interns did:

Miseducation. Miseducation incidentally is not a Jeremiah Wright term. It's a word coined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson over 80 years ago.

But the OED's first citation for miseducation is from 384 years ago, and there plenty from more than 80 years ago:

1624 BP. J. HALL Epist. VI. vi. 394 Our Land hath no blemish comparable to the mis-education of our Gentry.
1834
T. CARLYLE Sartor Resartus II. iii. 42/2 As for our Miseducation, make not bad worse.
1840
C. KINGSLEY Misc. (1859) I. 237 Spiritual faculties, which it is as wicked to stunt..by miseducation as it is to maim our own limbs.
1881
Harper's Mag. Dec. 103/1, I fear it will be impossible otherwise to deliver the English masses from this unhappy piece of miseducation.
1907
Fabian News 17 31/2 Sir John discusses such burning topics as the feeding of school children, their overwork, their mis-education,..and the State neglect of children under the Poor Law.

And in an area of psychology bordering on language, Rev. Wright takes up a curious combination of ideas about "object oriented" vs. "subject oriented" and "left brained" vs. "right brained":

Dr. [Janice] Hale's research led her to stop comparing African-American children with European-American children, and she started comparing the pedagogical methodologies of African-American children to African children, and European-American children to European children. And bingo, she discovered that the two different worlds have two different ways of learning. European and European-American children have a left brain cognitive object oriented learning style, and the entire educational system in the United States of America, back in the early '70s, when Dr. Hale did her research, was based on left brain cognitive object oriented learning style. Let me help you with them fifty cent words.

Left brain is logical and analytical. Object oriented means the student learns from an object. From the solitude of the cradle with objects being hung over his or her head to help them determine colors and shape to the solitude in a carrel in a PhD program stuffed off somewhere in a corner in absolute quietness to absorb from the object. From a block to a book, an object. That is one way of learning, but it is only one way of learning.

African and African-American children have a different way of learning.

They are right brain subject oriented in their learning style. Right brain that means creative and intuitive. Subject oriented means they learn not from an object, but from a subject. They learn from a person. Some of you-all are old enough, I see your hair color, to remember when the NAACP won that tremendous desegregation case back in 1954 and when the schools were desegregated. They were never integrated. When they were desegregated in Philadelphia, several of the white teachers in my school freaked out. Why? Because black kids wouldn't stay in their place. Over there behind the desk, black kids climbed up all on 'em.

Because they learn from a subject, not from an object. Tell me a story. They have a different way of learning.

This strikes me as a caricature, at best, of the ideas of Dr. Janice Hale. What she presented as cultural generalizations, Rev. Wright puts forward as essential racial characteristics of all "African and African-American children". In my opinion, it's insulting to them to suggest that they're incapable of being "logical and analytical", and insulting to "European and European-American children" to suggest that they're incapable of being "creative and intuitive".

And Rev. Wright's version of the left brain vs. right brain dichotomy is exaggerated, as most talk about the cerebral hemispheres is, but it's also idiosyncratic. The usual exaggerated (not to say fabricated) functional opposition does oppose logic and intuition, but it also generally lines up language in the left brain vs. vision in the right brain, rather than Rev. Wright's left-hemisphere "object oriented" vs. right-hemisphere "subject" or "person" oriented. In fact, there's plenty of object-related neural processing that tends to be right-lateralized, such as visualization of mental rotation; and plenty of person-related neural processing that tends to be left-lateralized, such as the ability to speak.

This is enough, I think, to give a picture of Rev. Wright's style. The theme of his sermon was that "different does not mean deficient". That's true and important, in language as well as in other areas. And the content of his sermon was vivid, wide-ranging, and confident. Unfortunately, it was also conceptually confused and factually careless. In this respect, the reverend Jeremiah Wright reminds me of another polarizing public figure: president George W. Bush.

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15 Comments »

  1. john riemann soong said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 9:49 am

    A white pastor however, would never suffer such scrutiny…

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    A white pastor however, would never suffer such scrutiny…

    If this comment is a reference to the post that it follows, then its author can't have read many Language Log posts. We scrutinize people all the time, including pastors, and nearly all of them are white.

  3. john riemann soong said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    Sorry, I did mean to refer more to the media coverage than the post itself. I know you guys routinely critique erroneous statements, line by line. But the post's scrutiny would not exist without media scrutiny

    For example, who are McCain's and Clinton's pastors anyway? How do we know they're not spouting their own spiel in church? Suppose if one of Clinton's or McCain's campaign managers suddenly decide to attack users of singular they — would they receive any news coverage?

    My point was more of the fact that many people subscribe to popular ideas about linguistics, including popular figures. It's nice for a church leader to be well-educated about linguistics, and would be delighted to see one educate the masses about it, but I do not consider it a requirement for the profession. Where we might start to become very concerned is when people involved in the academic field make particularly ignorant remarks. Whereas the academics Language Log often frequently criticises (for example, English professors at Yale, those involved in the field of academic publishing and so forth…) should be expected to be less ignorant about the subject of the study of language as a science.

  4. dr pepper said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    One of McCain's pastors has been roundly criticised for his bizarre interpretation of the Holocaust as how a "loving God" motivates his chosen people to return to their rightful country where they will later all get killed and sent to Hell. McCain, in distancing himself, said well at least i didn't spend years listening to this man without speaking up.

    As for right brain/left brain stuff, i've struck from the beginning of its popularization back in the 70's, by how those who lament our supposed neglect of the right brain are prone to label everything into neat categories. That's a thoroughly left brain activity.

  5. Doug Sundseth said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    "And nobody says to a Kennedy you speak bad English; only to a black child was that said."

    I'm sure George Bush will be happy to hear this.

    Also surprised.

    [myl: This is really an excellent point. It's certainly been said many times that President Bush uses "bad English" -- Jacob Weisberg has turned this into a small industry of (in my opinion) doubtful ethics, as discussed here, and others have joined in enthusiastically.]

  6. Freddy Hill said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

    Wright is getting some scrutiny, true. But a prominent white pastor who had delivered the section about "different learning styles" word for word would have been crucified in the media.

    I'll let the real linguists decide if the semantics of the piece change depending on who delivers it, or it is just that the pragmatics are different.

  7. Brian said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

    Maybe it's fortunate I've only heard snippets of Wright's speeches, but the little exposure I've had has been surrounded by thoughtful analysis. Such as here, and on the BBC. It doesn't surprise me that Rev. Wright referenced linguistics in his speech, even though he may have missed a few of the details. According to his biography, he was studying English at Howard at the same time Bill Labov was raising the attention on AAVE as a respected part of English. He, and other black leaders, have seen sociolinguists studying black culture as other parts of academia turn their attention elsewhere. To Rev. Wright, linguists are friends.

    But we aren't brothers, and we miss that sometimes…. like in Oakland in 1997. No matter how much we know about black culture (or at this point, inner city culture) most of the linguistic community can't claim we grew up in it. That's blissfully changed in recent years, but even if you make it out, you lose some credibility as you get out of that culture. Which makes it incredibly hard to find solid links between the inner city and middle America.

    What Rev. Wright is saying sounds really bad in middle America. But middle America has never been his target audience, even when he's outside the church. It's kind of funny, but the sociolinguists are in a prime position right now to step forward and explain what Rev. Wright means when he says, "God Damn America." Linguists aren't apologists, but we sure are good at tuning up a message for an audience.

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

    @john riemann soong: I think a notable white pastor who made such sweeping racial statements would find those statements subjected to similar scrutiny. (I'm not saying it's fair, necessarily — racial issues in America affect blacks more, and more negatively, than they do whites, so a black pastor would presumably find it harder to avoid discussing race — but it's more complicated than just "he gets scrutinized because he's black.")

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 29, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

    (And lest there be doubt, my comment is also about the media coverage overall, and not Language Log's coverage specifically. As Dr. Liberman notes, Language Log scrutinizes everyone.)

  10. J, Gorman said,

    April 30, 2008 @ 7:06 pm

    Funny how for my entire life (64 yrs) educated people have tried to inform the rest of us that there is no difference between races other then superficial meaningless ones. Now Mr. Wright has either set back this notion with his left brain/right brain learning modality or he is misinformed. Many seemed to agree with him during his recent speeches. Must this war be revisited or do black children see and experience learning differently then Japanese or Chinese children. Is Wright a miseducated clown (two masters and a doctorate, 5 languages spoken) or is he the keeper of some unknown information that might give all racists the ammunition they are always seeking to claim some higher statues for their group. How can people actually debate in any serious way his ugly, race based view of our government and the majority of this countries people. If he is so in love with Africa maybe he should turn his laser like educated mind eastward and supply some critical analysis to their leaders and forms of government.

  11. Joshua said,

    May 1, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    I don't really see the problem with conflating phonology and phonetics into "phonics" in the example cited. Surely Rev. Wright is nevertheless displaying more knowledge of Linguistics than can reasonably be expected of public officials with that statement. There isn't any independent problem with leaving Phonetics out of this list anyway since all the others vary in their instantiation from language to language, but the laws of Phonetics are universal.

    General objection to your tone at the end. If you've identified Wright's speech as racist (which you more or less do in discussing his mischaracterization of Dr. Hale's research), then what is the point of blathering on about it being "vivid, wide-ranging, and confident?" From where I sit, this sounds like a bit of white guilt bubbling up. Weak.

    And what, exactly, is the point of bringing George Bush into the picture? I'm no fan of the man, but it's off topic by any measure. Isn't it enough to stick to your subject's own flaws without the snarky political asides? We all know your liberal creds.

  12. dg said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    Gee, and here I thought we could make it through at least one extended analysis without ragging on Bush. I guess the "coda" to the piece served to validate the author's anti-Republican credentials, lest his criticism of Wright be taken for right-wing propaganda.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    May 2, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    Actually, we've often defended W (e.g. here), and Donald Rumsfeld (e.g. here), as well as other polarizing figures in the current administration.

    To the extent that there are any credentials in question here, they're not liberal but anti-idiotarian. And the point of the aside was just that factual carelessness and ideological fervor tend to go together, especially in people who are used to the nearly-exclusive company of those who agree with them.

    As for Wright's list of the levels of linguistic analysis ("pragmatics, grammar, syntax, semantics, and phonics"), the main problem is with the "grammar, syntax" part. This is a bit like saying that the North America is divided into Canada, the United States, America, and Mexico.

  14. Stephen Jones said,

    May 3, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

    It is interesting that Wright's attitude towards 'Afro-Americans' is basically the same as that expressed by James Watson that resulted in such a furore in the UK some months ago.

    It's another example of ignorance of elementary statistics, or perhaps can be considered as a reification of the mean.

  15. evil racist said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    what wright said basically supports racism. whether an individual is "deficient" really depend on the environment. for instance, in environments where ebonics is valued over high classed britsh accent (e.g. gangsta rapping), speaking like the queen will probably get you no where. in an environment where information is transmitted with words, having dyslexia is a deficiency. Similarly, in our present environment, where analytical thinking is valued over "subject oriented learning", those who are not capable of object oriented learning style would be deficient…

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