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.
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.