The politics of agreement

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There was rather an unfortunate fracas in the sherry lounge at Language Log Plaza yesterday. Liberman was still throwing his weight around with evidence that attacks on Palin's language are mostly ill-informed linguistic snobbery, when Pullum, who is much better informed than most snobs, pulled the rug out from under his feet.

Now, at last, we can get discussion of political language from an expert whose credentials are not open to question. Here is presidential historian Davis Logsdon of the University of Minnesota (quoted at the Huffington Post, by his mouthpiece Andy Borowitz):

Every time Obama opens his mouth, his subjects and verbs are in agreement….

Now, it's true that this apposite little witticism reinforces a stereotype (i.e. Obama speaks fluently compared to certain other salient politicos). And it's also true that no evidence at all is offered for the generalization. But it's important to keep in mind that the expert providing the quote, Davis Logsdon, is a distinguished university professor. And Professor Logsdon's primary distinction… is that he doesn't exist.

Not only that, but he moves around. While currently a non-existent historian, it appears he was formerly a non-existent dean of the non-existent School of Divinity at the University of Minnesota, as described here:

It is "highly unorthodox" for a presidential candidate to select a vice presidential running mate who is a prominent figure in the Holy Bible, says Davis Logsdon, dean of the School of Divinity at the University of Minnesota. 

But according to Mr. Logsdon, if the Huckabee-Christ ticket makes it all the way to the White House, it could be historic in more ways than one: "If Huckabee is elected and then something happens to him while in office, we would be looking at our first Jewish president."

And then there was his stint as a law professor:

At the University of Minnesota's School of Law, professor Davis Logsdon said there is "a valuable lesson to be learned" from Mr. Simpson's conviction: "Apparently, in America it's easier to get away with murder than stealing sports memorabilia."

But most excitingly, Logsdon is also one of our own. Yes, here we learn that among all his other non-existent positions, Logsdon is a former linguist, once called upon to translate Bush's State of the Union address into English. (Translation, of course, is the main job that fictional linguists do.) The article foreshadows Logsdon's later comments on Obama, running with the fluent/disfluent politico meme:

Davis Logsdon, a professor of linguistics at the University of Minnesota, was one of several scholars approached to do the translation who ultimately quit in frustration. 

"The problem is that the language the president speaks, by most measures, is not a language at all," Professor Logsdon said. 

So is he a non-existent former linguist, or a former non-existent linguist? Either way, I much prefer a fictional expert on language to the media norm: real experts with fictional expertise. So if you're reading this Professor Logsdon, you have a standing invitation to join us and our many other fictional friends for a little something in the Language Log sherry lounge.

(Hat tip: Moni Kiraly)



18 Comments

  1. Bob Lieblich said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

    Does anyone know if there's a connection between Prof. Logdson and Martin Eisenstadt? They sound like soul mates.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/13/msnbc-retracts-story-sour_n_143517.html

    This sort of thing has fueled rumors of my own non-existence, which I am happy to deny.

  2. Wayne Leman said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    I agree that Obama uses very good English, not only in his writing but also speaking. He does not have the tangled clauses and neologisms of Palin. I have noticed that Obama is a member of the group, increasing in size, that uses nominative case pronouns where our prescriptivist teachers told us only to use objective case. For instance, Obama said something like:

    "The President and Mrs. Bush invited Michelle and I to visit them at the White House."

    I wonder how long it will be before the grammar and style books will accept this as standard. I hear it all the time these days.

    I'm sure that Obama, like everyone else, still uses uses objective case when there is not a conjoined object, as in:

    "The President did not invite me (*I) to join the G-20 economic group. I wouldn't have gone anyway, since there is only one President at a time."

  3. Mark P said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

    I wonder if George P. Burdell, a fictional student at the Georgia Institute of Technology since 1927, could aspire to such accomplishments, should he ever graduate and permanently leave that institution.

  4. AM1 said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

    "Now, at last, we can get discussion of political language from an expert who's credentials are not open to question."

    Who's credentials? Really?

    [thanks for catching that – now corrected. dib]

  5. Faith said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    Any relation to either Alfred Crockus or Crosley Shelvador?

  6. rip said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

    There is this phrase in the original poster's text:

    >an expert who's credentials are not open to question

    and one of the commentators speculates about certain things becoming standard usage.
    I wonder whether "who's" is becoming standard usage, as it is obviously used at the Language Log, whose credentials are immaculate.

    [Maybe it is becoming standard, maybe not. But I view it as a mistake when I do it myself, so, as noted above, I corrected it.

    Is it reasonable to expect linguists to be better at talking and writing than all the other billions of people who also talk and write? Are linguists' usage patterns in some way privileged? Should even our grammatical accidents become sacrosanct? Were it so, I think I would enjoy never being wrong. But not so much as Pullum does.
    – dib]

  7. John Lawler said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

    Rather like Brutus Force, who first appeared in Postal's Linguistic Anarchy Notes, usually advocating mind-numbingly ridiculous concepts, like the fact that quantifiers and yak dung are in complementary distribution, and usually affiliated with the Center for Applied Linguistics, but who's career has moved to other institutions. For a recent example, see my sig link above.

  8. Bill Walderman said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 6:04 pm

    Another distinguished linguist whose credentials are not open to question is Quang Phuc Dong, Prof. Emeritus at the South Hanoi Institute of Technology, author of this eminent contribution to what was then called "transformational grammar":

    http://home.twcny.rr.com/lonniechu/QUANG.html

  9. Will Keats-Osborn said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    "Is it reasonable to expect linguists to be better at talking and writing than all the other billions of people who also talk and write?"

    No, but as Rip pointed out, we definitely expect Language Log employees to be better at talking and writing than all the other billions of people who also talk and write. Better at everything, in fact.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

    Will Keats-Osborn: …we definitely expect Language Log employees to be better at talking and writing than all the other billions of people who also talk and write. Better at everything, in fact.

    Thanks, I think.

    But it's only Geoff Pullum who's better than everybody at everything. I, for example, am a fast but inaccurate typist, prone to slips of the finger and the brain, and I'm also a really terrible proofreader. Geoff is always having to fix my mistakes.

    Luckily, the Language Log subscription department stands ready, as always, to refund double your subscription price in case of less than full satisfaction.

  11. rip said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    "… less than full satisfaction"?
    Quite the opposite ;)

  12. Matt said,

    November 19, 2008 @ 9:49 pm

    "Quite the opposite ;)"

    Is that more than half satisfaction?

  13. Kevin Iga said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 8:54 am

    Another point is that "who's" and "whose" are phonetically identical, so swapping one for the other is not a part of the spoken language, but the written one. And while the existence of a language faculty for spoken language is fairly well-accepted in mainstream linguistic circles, no one has really been claiming that the same applies to written language. In fact, this plays the same role as punctuation, which, according to a Pullum TOPIC… COMMENT column from awhile ago, is exactly the sort of thing linguists try to convince students that spoken language is not: it is arbitrary, a cultural artifact, adhering to no universal rules, a technology that needs to be taught explicitly to students, etc.

  14. rip said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 9:45 am

    >>Quite the opposite ;)
    >Is that more than half satisfaction?

    *g* What I meant was "more than full satisfaction", i.e. more satisfying even than might have expected (considering the quick response, the politeness to answer comments).

    Your interpretation, Matt, seems somewhat half-hearted to me, or, to phrase it more positively, it seems to be a good compromise. The full opposite (which I might have announced as 'triple opposite') would have been "more than half disappointment" – which I didn't mean, of course.

  15. Chris said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 9:50 am

    So is he a non-existent former linguist, or a former non-existent linguist?

    To me, the latter would imply that both his status as a linguist *and* his status as non-existent were only formerly true and have since changed – probably not the meaning you intended.

    His nonexistence persists over his changes of career.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    "The President and Mrs. Bush invited Michelle and I to visit them at the White House." I wonder how long it will be before the grammar and style books will accept this as standard. I hear it all the time these days.

    I always associate it with the Hyacinth Buckets of this world, but as upwardly-aspirable females are the engine behind language change perhaps it is here to stay.

    I think it is a question of what is considered to be the emphatic pronoun. In Britain, particularly in the North, it is generally considered to be 'me', but increasingly we are seeing 'I' and in the US 'I' is very common in the phrase 'It is I", where most Brits would always say 'It's me' and view the alternative as insufferably pompous.

  17. Sili said,

    November 20, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    Cant we all just get along and write "whos"? (I'm trying to channel John Wells, but I think I'm failing.)

    PeeZed Myers is in your neck of the woods (I asked him to give you a big wet one lasting seven minutes) – can't you ask him if there're any (other) known pranksters at UM?

    The Herr Professor Doktor Logsdon reminds me of a certain German diplomat, whos name escapes me, who did a great many grand things on behalf of the former BRD back in the day. I think he crossed the Antarctic in a suit and with a briefcase once. For some reason he always managed to time his accomplishments to coïncide with 1/4.

  18. faisal said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    Hey David,
    Really
    i need the whole texts for the lovely song.
    i will sing it with my students
    Faisal shamali

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