April 02, 2004

The Culture of Polarization, Linguistics Style

A piece by Emily Eakin in The New York Times a few weeks ago recounted the research of Valdis Krebs (described intriguingly as "a social-network analyst in Cleveland") on the readership of those political bestsellers by Michael Moore and Al Franken or Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. By examining Amazon.com's "customers who bought this book also bought" feature, Krebs was able to map networks of titles that defined conservative and liberal readerships. Not surprisingly, there was little crossover between the two. (In fact, the effect extended to other, nonpolitical bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code and The South Beach Diet, whose readerships also seemed to fall out on partisan lines -- go figure.)

The Times piece came to mind last week as a few of us languagelog contributors were chewing the electronic fat over the perennial question of why linguists get no respect. Despite the best -- and occasionally, bestselling -- efforts of popularizers, people seem disinclined to give up their cherished preconceptions about language, from their conviction that African American Vernacular English is slovenly and without rules to their certainty that Elizabethan English persists in Appalachian hollows. (For a catalogue of these canards, see Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill's collection Language Myths.)

Is what we have here just a failure to communicate?

That's the view of many linguists, who call for more and better efforts at popularization. But it seems to me that linguistics has been pretty well served by its popularizers, from from Robert A. Hall to modern linguists like John McWhorter, Steve Pinker, Geoff Pullum, Mark Baker, Deborah Tannen, Jean Aitchinson, Ray Jackendoff, Neil Smith, Donna Jo Napoli, David Crystal, John and Russell Rickford, John Baugh, and many others. And that's not to mention the informative documentaries of Gene Searchinger and Robert McNeill. Pound for pound (we're a small discipline, after all), I'd stack that line-up against the popularizers of any other science.

In fact the problem here may be a polarization of audience analogous to the polarization of the audience for political bestsellers. Let's check the Amazon "customers also bought" list for some of the most successful recent popularizations (I'm omitting other titles by the same author):

Steve Pinker's The Language Instinct:

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
On Language: Chomsky's Classic Works, ed. by Mitsou Ronat
Contemporary Linguistics ed. by William O'Grady et al.

John McWhorter's The Power of Babel:

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
The Atoms of Language by Mark C. Baker
Words and Rules by Steven Pinker

Mark Baker's Atoms of Language:

Foundations of Language by Ray Jackendoff
The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
The Power of Babel by John McWhorter
Words and Rules by Steven Pinker
Understanding Syntax by Maggie Tallerman

Geoff Pullum's Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax:

Language Myths ed. by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill
On Language by Noam Chomsky, ed. by Mitsou Ronat
Freedom Evolves by Daniel Clement Dennett
The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

The generalization seems to be that people who buy popularizations of linguistics tend to buy other popularizations of linguistics -- or failing that, other books on cognitive science and related topics. Now let's look at some books by the grammar mavens and word-lore collectors:

The Grouchy Grammarian: A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better, by Thomas Parrish:

A Word A Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English by Anu Garg and Stuti Garg
The Dictionary of Concise Writing: 10,000 Alternatives to Wordy Phrases by Robert Hartwell Fiske, Richard Lederer
1000 Most Important Words by Norman W. Schur
Verbatim: From the bawdy to the sublime, the best writing on language for word lovers, grammar mavens, and armchair linguists, ed. by Erin McKean
Dubious Doublets: A Delightful Compendium of Unlikely Word Pairs of Common Origin, from Aardvark/Porcelain to Zodiac/Whiskey by Stewart Edelstein

Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done by Barbara Wallraff, Francine Prose

Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh
Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner
Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson
Sin and Syntax : How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn

Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner

Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh
On Writing Well by William K. Zinsser
Sin and Syntax : How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis

(I tried this with Richard Lederer and William Safire, but it turns out that the "customers also bought" lists for all their books included only other titles by the same authors -- though probably that says something, too.)

If you were to go just by these results, you might conclude that linguistic popularizers can have only a limited effect on popular attitudes about language -- the people who buy their books are the ones who are already disposed to accept their ideas, just like the purchasers of those "Conservatives-are-from-Mars-liberals-are-from-Venus" bestsellers.

Still, we should probably take all this with a grain of salt. The "customers also bought" lists obviously don't reflect the full range of the readership for linguistic popularizations, particularly those, like Steve Pinker's and John McWhorter's, which have obviously reached a wide general audience. And it may be too much to hope that linguists will be able to overturn popular misconceptions about language overnight -- on the basis of personal experience, it's hard enough to make these points to the English professors and cognitive scientists down the hall. At least we're in there trying.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at April 2, 2004 10:31 PM