March 05, 2004

Dennis Miller and Giving Hitt a Break

Geoff's post on chimp talk reminds me of my appearance on Dennis Miller's new show a few weeks ago. Miller is using a chimpanzee as a mascot in homage to Dave Garroway on the Today Show back in the day. While I was awaiting my participation in the sequence of sound bites that is the panel part of the show, I found myself fascinated by the chimp Miller had sitting on the set while he was taping an interview with a UN official.

Monkeys make me distinctly uncomfortable -- they strike me as, basically, shitty little people. But watching that quizzical little primate casually scratching an itch on its face at one point, with the same poised deliberation that we humans use doing the same thing, I was somehow intrigued.

So because there was a delay in the taping and I had run out of things to talk about with fellow guests Mickey Kaus and a chain-smoking LA talk show host, I decided to go check this creature out when his handlers (five people!) took him behind the set during a break.

Truly weird, as it kept reaching out with its five-fingered hand as a quest for attention of some kind. I love cats and dogs but didn't quite know what to do with this little humanish thing, so I asked "How much language does it understand? Dogs can manage about twenty words; my cat has about three. What about him?"

One handler soberly said "Oh, they understand about as much as an eight-year-old." And this meant spoken language, not signs.

Well, obviously this would have meant that the critter was processing everything we were saying, when it clearly was not. The handler was displaying the usual slippage between folk conceptions of language and we linguists' conceptions of same.

And in this vein I cannot help thinking that we need to give the Hitt article in the Times a break. The gulf in perception between us and laymen in terms of language is almost as vast as the one between ours and astrophysicists' understanding of time and space. Naturally Hitt thinks there is no future marking in Kawesqar because they use canoes -- universally people suppose that languages are just bags of words, and then Level Two of understanding, generally picked up one morning in Anthro 101, is that grammar and culture march in lockstep.

In this vein I present assorted comments on language that I have encountered over the years from thoroughly smart people.

Party, 1995: "I spent a year in Ghana and I learned Twi. It was easy because there isn't any grammar." (That is, Twi has little inflection -- despite its tones which make it as hard to learn for us as Chinese...)

White Plaza, Stanford University, 1992, in conversation with Czech-American. John: "Well, you know, Russian doesn't even have a verb TO BE in a sentence like I AM YOUR FATHER." Czech person: "That's stupid!"

Sproul Plaza, Berkeley, 1995: "I learned the creole in Guinea-Bissau when I was in the Peace Corps, and it's all metaphor."

San Francisco, 2000, backstage at an opera performance, in conversation with a native Tagalog speaker: "Oh, I always thought Tagalog was a pretty easy language." (Te-tell that to someone ang who tr-um-ies to maga-learn it after the age of three!)

Assorted conferences and linguistics publications, 1998 to present: "The only reason creoles look less complex than Navajo is because verbs take inflectional affixation when they move to INFL and in creoles like Haitian the verb doesn't move."

Man on the street: "English is easy at first, but then it's harder to get really good at." (As if once one has mastered the declensional and conjugational paradigms of German or Russian one is ready to write like Goethe or Tolstoy.)

We have to learn to expect articles like Hitt's until basic linguistics is taught in middle or high school.

Posted by John McWhorter at March 5, 2004 03:08 AM