November 20, 2007

According to Umberto Eco

I was surprised to hear Umberto Eco, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning, using the phrase according to me several times. He seemed to think it is synonymous with "in my view", or "the way I tell it". It is not.

According to X has the peculiar property of only being properly used by people other than X. We can say, "According to her, the Jews control world banking", and we mean that this global banking stranglehold stuff is her story about the Jews, and we are by no means committed to it.

The constraint is (somewhat) analogous to a similarly odd fact about lurk: you only describe other people's actions using it. If I wait around outside your office trying not to be seen (not that I would, but I could), someone might say "Geoff Pullum has been lurking outside your office", which is normal use of the language describing slightly nefarious behavior on my part. But if I say "I'm planning to come and lurk outside your office", that would be deeply weird in a linguistic way, unless it was a joke.

I have only ever heard according to me from foreigners who have learned English imperfectly. One tends to think of Umberto Eco as a sort of polymathic cultural and linguistic European academic superstar who would spot this sort of subtlety. But no, there he was, talking about what he says in his new book, and saying "according to me". Stop it, Umberto. Get a clue. This is not an idiom to use about yourself. Use it when imputing views to others, especially (though not exclusively) when you are skeptical about those views. Never use it to say that something is your own view.

There, now I've been prescriptive. See what you made me do? Still, it's in a good cause. Think of me as a language teacher. An EFL instructor to a polymathic cultural and linguistic European academic superstar.

Updates, November 21: just in case you thought I had overlooked the following points, let me assure you that I was aware of them, and you do not need to join the swarms of people who are flooding the mail servers with messages pointing them out to me.

  1. The net forum usage — "I usually only lurk on this forum, but I'd like to make one comment" — is of course a special one, with jocular origin. Those of you who are writing to me about it, please don't; it underlines my point rather than refuting it. People are coining words like "delurk" and "relurk" now, to describe (I assume) coming in out of the lurker's shadows and retreating back into them. If you were just in the middle of writing to me about this, please relurk.
  2. There is a disanalogy between the two expressions I discuss in that lurking in its original sense describes nefarious activity or impure motives, so there is a reason for the normal practice of not using it about ourselves. This aspect is not there with according to me: being an information source is nothing to be ashamed of. It's just that English speakers normally use according to X for attribution to information sources external to themselves.
  3. I simplified the constraint to make the point more briefly, but in fact there is a more general formulation which is more interesting. It is not just about the speaker, because the same oddness arises in indirect discourse. That is, it is not just ?According to me, US policy is all wrong that is odd; the same oddness is there in ?John explained that according to him, US policy was all wrong. The phenomenon this illustrates is called logophoricity. Some languages have special logophoric pronouns so that (among other things; see Christopher Culy, "Logophoric pronouns and point of view" Linguistics 35 [1997], 845-859) they can keep grammatical track of the difference between a pronoun referring back to the person whose point of view is being taken or whose thoughts or experiences are being represented and a pronoun referring back to someone else. (This is not a fully explanation of logophoricity, or a particular good one; but you see, I started out just trying to write a one-liner about Umberto Eco not appreciating that according to me is not used in logophoric contexts in English. But then people started mailing me and it all got weird. People often ask why Language Log doesn't have open comments and doesn't publish email addresses all over its pages. The reason is that there are roughly 8.34926 gzillion things to be said about almost any piece of language we comment on, roughly 1.02981 gzillion of them being true — though often irrelevant — and 7.31945 gzillion being false, and we try to protect ourselves from having more than a few thousand of them being reported to the mighty Language Log organization on any given day.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 20, 2007 04:27 PM