On language and politics

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This is a follow-up on a couple of my more recent LL posts on language and politics, and on the discussion that has been generated by one of them in particular.

First, Main Street. Several commenters wrote that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not being "unnecessarily redundant" (as I put it) by referring to "Main Street and everyday Americans", asserting that "Main Street" refers exclusively to the commercial/business part of a (small) town/city in America, not to any residential areas nor to the "everyday Americans" who live there. (Interestingly, some of the comments seem to be duplicating themselves over on Mark's post from earlier this morning.)

While I agree that Pelosi was probably thinking about "Main Street" as exclusively commercial and was thus not being redundant, I have a much harder time believing the implication of some of the comments that no politician could be using the term as simple code for "everyday Americans" (as opposed to "the fat cats on Wall Street" or whatever). I have been conducting a very informal survey of my friends (who don't read Language Log, but who follow the news and are interested in politics and current events), asking them what they think "Main Street" has been used to refer to in the news over the last few weeks. Not one of them so far has restricted the reference of this phrase to the commercial part of an American town/city, and if anything most of them have suggested that it sounds to them like a folksy way to refer to "the American people" in general — pretty much what I had originally thought. (Without any prompting, several of those surveyed also rolled their eyes at the phrase and bemoaned its overuse. It's nice to be in good company.)

Second, about my post on Karl Rove's hypocrisy last month. Several commenters — including some whose opinions I would normally take quite seriously — essentially wrote to ask that Language Log be free of political commentary, at least insofar as the connection with language (and linguistics) is slim. To be sure, language is a pretty damned big umbrella, but if we say that anything having to do with language is fair game then this blog could be about anything and everything. Right?

My view on this is a definitive "yes and no". Yes, language is a big umbrella and some of us take more liberties than others in making a connection between language (or even linguistics as a field) and something we're interested in blogging about. I think this is as it should be: the origins of this Language Log (as described by Mark Liberman at the beginning of this interview) were e-mail messages between Mark (and Geoff Pullum) and friends that "were like long-distance dinner-table conversations" — we all know how such conversations can meander on- and off-topic — and the fact that LL has blossomed into what it is today is a testament to the success of that model, not a reason for changing it.

On the other hand, though, no: we probably should think twice before just taking something someone happens to have said or written and just slap it up on the blog with our opinions about it simply because it's an instance of language use. But in the case of politicians' use of language, I lean more on the side of inclusiveness. In a large representative democracy such as we have in the United States (though certainly not exclusively in such political systems), words often get to speak louder than actions. Politicians (should) recognize the impact that their words can have, and should be taken to task (by any and all witnesses) whenever they abuse this power by using language to manipulate people in devious ways.

And just this month in the new issue of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America, I found a perfect passage supporting this point of view in the article by Sally McConnell-Ginet, Professor (emerita) of Linguistics at Cornell University and President of the LSA in 2006. McConnell-Ginet gave her presidential address at the 81st Annual Meeting of the LSA in January 2007 in Anaheim, and a revised version of that address appears as an article in the journal. The title is "Words in the world: how and why meanings can matter." The following is an excerpt from the first and second pages of the article (pp. 497-498 of the journal):

Of course, all linguists think words (and language more generally) matter in some sense, but they, that is, we, often assume that questions about what is accomplished (or not) in the course of linguistic exchanges are 'just' matters of language use that are completely separate from questions about language itself.

Not all linguists, of course. Dwight D. Bolinger entitled his December 1972 LSA presidential address and the paper derived from it 'Truth is a linguistic question'. As his abstract makes clear (1973:539), Bolinger was proposing that linguists can (and indeed should) shed light on just how people can manipulate language to mislead others.

Truth is the most fundamental of all questions of appropriateness in language. Communication presupposes non-concealment among interlocutors, which logically excludes all forms of deception, not merely propositional lies. The lie, broadly conceived, is therefore a proper object of study for linguists, and a necessary one at a time when lying is cultivated as an art. As members of society, we have an obligation to respond by investigating the lies implicit in propositions, deletions, indirections, and loaded and jargonesque elements in the lexicon.

Bolinger eloquently dissected the 'doublespeak' then being employed to justify the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, arguing that the government's linguistic practices tried to obscure the awful truths of that conflict.

McConnell-Ginet then goes on to discuss Bolinger's 1980 book Language: The Loaded Weapon a little bit. This is one of those linguistics books that I keep at home and re-read portions of on occasion (quick quiz: parasitic gap or ATB+RNR?), and that consistently make me feel that certain ideas from linguistics are really worth popularizing. Linguists have plenty of interest to say about matters that seem, at first blush, not-so-much about language.

Now, I'm the first to say that I'm no Bolinger, and its true that I didn't really do my solemn duty by infusing my post on Rove's contradictory depictions of VA Gov. Kaine and AK Gov. Palin with any sort of deep analysis that only a trained linguist can provide. But remember, this is a dinner-table conversation and I was just generally talking about a recent example of the use and abuse of language by a politician. If you disagree with my obvious political leanings, or if you'd already heard about the example from elsewhere, or if you simply don't find it interesting — you can always turn and talk to the other person sitting next to you.


  1. Ed said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    I can't believe you even have to defend yourself from "commenters". You are the author; they are the audience. You outrank them!

  2. bulbul said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

    Or, to use the dinner table analogy: you are the host. If I don’t like what you serve, I will not accept your invitation the next time. It would never occur to me to criticize your cooking and assume I can tell you what you can server and what you cannot – which is precisely what some of the commenters on that thread were doing.

  3. Kate said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

    Yes, it's very important to learn how to read and listen to other peoples' use of language and parse all the implications.

    That is really the main reason I read this blog – because it helps with that.

    So, thank you!

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 7:55 pm

    They're allowed to complain, and you're allowed to ignore their complaints, or to make fun of them in front of everybody else.

    Still, I doubt most who complained would have done if the linguistic analysis were as deep as we're used to seeing here. It's possible to take the complaints seriously without actually changing the radius of the umbrella; you just need to say something compelling about the examples.

    There's something compelling to say about any language use, right?

  5. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:54 pm

    /me tosses the LL editors a serving of their respective favorite beverages

    One of the other language-related blogs I read is Fred Vultee's excellent Heads Up: The Blog, which I was first introduced to here. Although his blog is nominally about journalism and how newsroom practice goes awry, he spends a great deal of time analyzing and explaining how news language and presentation can be manipulated to tell implicit, as well as explicit, lies. (Poster child: Fox News and its other Murdoch stablemates.)

  6. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

    I don't object if Language Log occasionally gets political, since generally speaking, the level of discourse here is high enough that it usually amounts to an interesting and enjoyable discussion.

    That said, I also prefer if, when the posts with political content do come, that the linguistic component thereof is substantial enough to be interesting from a purely linguistic point of view.

  7. Joe said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

    Speaking of analyzing sentences (and politics), Slate has a new article on that very subject:


    Somehow, I bet they'd fail that quiz from the other day, too.

  8. Peter said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 2:31 am

    Bolinger is quoted as saying: "Communication presupposes non-concealment among interlocutors, which logically excludes all forms of deception, not merely propositional lies."

    Even Presidents of the LSA can sprout nonsense, it seems. One of the most common commercial uses of the WWW is for online auctions, every single one of which presupposes concealment among interlocutors. No rational bidder bids their true value for a good, and every rational bidder knows this about the other bidders.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 7:06 am

    There's a very weird understanding of communication going on there.

    Language use is by definition manipulative, that's what it's for, and we can't help it. Even if somehow language were purely declarative (you could only use it to make statements about your beliefs) it would have the same effect. I say "I want some sugar" and the people who hear me are changed, manipulated by what I said, one of them might feel inclined to bring me a bowl of sugar, one of them might feel inclined to make a bawdy joke, another might think that I'm boring, or that I'm trying too hard, or that I have a silly accent. I have changed these people, and all I wanted was some sugar but they have no insight into what I'm actually thinking or feeling beyond what I say.

    Lets accuse politicians of bullshit, of exaggeration, of misrepresentation, and on rare occasions when it's true, of outright lying. But don't accuse them of "manipulating" people, of course they're manipulating people, that's redundant.

    Peter, the computerised bidding system actually handles concealment for you. If all (or even most) participants were rational, as you suppose, you would simply tell the computer your true value and the person with the highest true value would win the auction for some small increment over the next highest true value. In fact that's what the system's inventors really expected to happen.

    What actually happens with eBay and similar systems in practice is very different and more interesting (or frustrating if you're a rational bidder). Many people become emotionally involved in the bidding, and they exceed their true value, indeed sometimes people exceed the retail value of an item that is available in stores, essentially paying a premium for winning it in an auction.

    The auction software encourages this behaviour (which benefits the auction site up to a point) by sending a message to people when an auction exceeds their declared true value, asking them if they would bid again. A rational person would discard all such messages, since there is no reason to exceed their true value. But real people tend to enter a game-playing mind set, and they want to "win" the game so they increase their bid. In a sense, they are still bidding a true value, but they're now bidding on the auction winning outcome itself, not the item being auctioned, which you hopefully agree is irrational.

  10. language hat said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    But remember, this is a dinner-table conversation

    But remember, this is a dinner-table conversation in a room labeled "discussion of language by real live linguists" (metaphorically speaking; obviously those words do not appear on the site). I am happy to stipulate:

    1) It's your site, and you're free to talk about whatever you like.

    2) Lots of people clearly enjoy it when you lambast the Republicans, so you're not alienating your audience.

    Furthermore, I agree in general with the political slant here (i.e., I would be horrified at a Republican victory in November). But I come here (and I suspect I am not alone) specifically for discussion of language; I can and do get whatever political discussion I need at Daily Kos, Talking Point Memo, MetaFilter, etc. When I go to language sites, it's to satisfy my language-talk craving, and I think you will agree that's much harder to do than to get a political fix. The more the percentage of posts here that are thinly veiled excuses to talk politics, the less my enthusiasm for visiting. I trust it's clear that I am a fan of the Log, since I have been touting and quoting it since its inception, and I think all the linguists here are good guys and gals, but — well, let's just say I'll be glad when the election is over.

    To those commenters who seem to think everyone should shut up and eat their soup: I presume the Loggers are as interested in feedback as I am, as long as it's thoughtful and reasonably respectful.

  11. Eric Baković said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    @ hat: you're among the ones "whose opinions I would normally take quite seriously", and I do in this case as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

  12. Andy J said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 11:24 am

    I heartily agree with Language Hat on this. As a Brit I have no interest whatever in the purely political posts, and I generally skip those where the preamble fails to reveal sufficient linguistic content, just as I do when Arnold Zwicky posts on the Big Penis Book. But I do acknowledge that as major users (and abusers) of the English language, politicians will often throw up (think vomit here) items of linguistic novelty, possibly on a par with Chinglish signage. I doubt if Sarah Palin's accent is one of these.

  13. Ed said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    @Eric, next time just post a Zippy cartoon and be done with it.

  14. Arnold Zwicky said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    Andy J: "I generally skip those where the preamble fails to reveal sufficient linguistic content, just as I do when Arnold Zwicky posts on the Big Penis Book."

    Almost all of that posting was about the structure of English. The posting wasn't about the Big Penis Book, it was about the expression big penis book and similar expressions, and their place in English morposyntax.

    Many of my postings use some found example(s) as a hook to lead into a discussion of some aspect of language structure or language use. The alternative is to just announce a topic and give a lecture about it.

    I understand that some people are put off by (some of) the hooks I choose. (Every so often I get complaints that I post so much "on homosexuality".) Too bad.

  15. Andy J said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    @ArnoldZ. Sorry, I hoped the clue was in the "As a Brit" – my mention about your BPB post was an attempt at humour (with a u). If it's any comfort, MYL [I like to think of him as Dad] doesn't always appreciate my 'humour' either.

  16. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

    I'm not offended by sexual content, but I have to confess I find Zippy the Pinhead to be insufferable. :)

  17. bulbul said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 9:07 pm


    To those commenters who seem to think everyone should shut up and eat their soup
    I don't think that, far from it. As guest here, we may not always like the menu – I, for one, would respectfully disagree with Andy J and assert that Sarah Palin's accent is an excellent example of the kind of subject I would like the LanguageLoggers to discuss. What does tick me off, however, is how disrespectful some of the commenters – not you, of course – were in their disagreement.

    Andy J,
    Not to belabor the point, but I do not understand why you would find the analysis of Sarah Palin's accent objectionable – it's linguistically relevant (accents and dialects are interesting) and there is no political aspect to it. Take this speech by Obama on the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Am I the only one who hears Obama pronounce "Czechoslovakia" as "Czechloslovakia" and "since" as "sex" or perhaps "senx" in 0:51? It may not be that interesting to everybody, I think it is an item of linguistic novelty and would certainly love to hear more from resident phoneticians. But let's just treat Obama's pronunciation and Palin's accent as what it is – items of linguistic interest related to public figures. Nothing more.

  18. Eric Baković said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

    @ Nick Lamb — you wrote: "Lets accuse politicians of bullshit, of exaggeration, of misrepresentation, and on rare occasions when it's true, of outright lying. But don't accuse them of "manipulating" people, of course they're manipulating people, that's redundant."

    I wrote: "Politicians (should) recognize the impact that their words can have, and should be taken to task (by any and all witnesses) whenever they abuse this power by using language to manipulate people in devious ways."

    See the difference?

  19. Eric Baković said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 11:05 pm

    @ Peter — you wrote: "Even Presidents of the LSA can sprout nonsense, it seems."

    I think you mean "spout". But in any event, your example only proves Bolinger's point. In an auction and similar types of communicative events, concealment of certain facts (e.g. about "true value") are part of the rules of communicative engagement. Anyone entering into an auction knows that or should know that. When someone doesn't know, they're shocked to find that those are the rules (because they don't conform to the otherwise expected rules of communication) and either they choose not to engage again or they do engage again after adjusting their expectations.

  20. Sili said,

    October 5, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    I've grown very fond of one of Zwicky's expressions: "Labels are not definitions". And I've used it freely on other blogs already.

    I don't read any political blogs, but get all my commentary from (left-leaning) blogs on biology, maths, physics, language and surgery.

    Just because something is called Surgeonsblog does not mean it has to be all surgery all the time. In fact it doesn't have to be surgery at all. I'm pretty saddened that Sid Schwab felt he had to start a new blog for his political commentary.

    Similarly, this may be LanguageLog but you are free to discuss anything you like. The dinner conversation is a nice simile. I think it was on the "Blogs as Places" post that someone likened them to modernday salons – and the idea of politics not being discussed in a salon strikes me as quaint, actually.

    On Pharyngula and Bad Astronomy there're all too often comments along the lines of "What happened to the Science?", "I come here for the Science, not the soapboxing." and so on. What these people (willfully?) fail to understand is that noöne's forcing them to read each and every post. It's not that difficult to detect a 'slant' from the word go, and why these people can't then just stop reading, but feel the need to complain, I'll never get.

    Finally, this is your diningroom, and as such you are of course allowed to show unruly guests the door. I don't know that you've done it yet, but you did somewhere threaten to ban commenters as needed. I'm glad you're allowing comments, and I'd honestly rather you censor the rambling off-topic posts (like mine) than you disallow comments altogether – even though that obviously is the easiest way to deal with the problem.

    Thank you.

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