June 29, 2004

English: international and simple

If Richard Lederer is right, then the newly-free people of Iraq will soon all be speaking English -- in part because English-speaking armies will probably still be occupying their country for quite a while, but primarily because English borrows many words from other languages and because English grammar is relatively simple. (Though this latter fact appears to be somewhat easy to forget.)

Lederer has a PhD in English and Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire, and writes many books on language and other matters. He lives here in San Diego and can be regularly heard on my local public radio station. He co-hosts* a locally-produced radio show on language (on which Geoff Nunberg was once a guest) and makes other public radio appearances, such as during pledge drives (become a regular member for $120 and get an autographed copy of one of his books, become a Producer's Club member for $1000 and get Richard to speak at your favorite function). On November 5, 2003, Lederer appeared as a guest on another locally-produced radio show, promoting one of his new books A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language.

I wasn't tuned in at the time, but heard about it later from a colleague. Apparently, Lederer claimed sometime during this appearance that English is "the most cheerfully democratic and hospitable language on earth", and offered as evidence that English speakers borrow words like kimono effortlessly from Japanese while Japanese speakers must adjust English words like baseball, pronouncing it besuboru, in order to borrow them. (The bit in quotation marks is quoted from a subsequent e-mail exchange I had with Lederer, as noted below.)

Now, I'm thinking that this would be a perfect topic to discuss in my 101 class: we could pick this claim apart with the help of judgments from the Japanese-speaking students in my class who will undoubtedly find English speakers' pronunciations of kimono to be atrocious. But, being the responsible academic that I at least pretend to be, I wanted to know exactly, word for torturous word, what Lederer said. So I wrote to Lederer requesting a recording or transcript. After a little back-and-forth, Lederer eventually provided me with an electronic version of a chapter entitled "In Praise of English" from his 1991 book The Miracle of Language in which the claim in question is supposedly supported by evidence.

The main thesis of this 12-page (double-spaced, 12-point type, standard margins) chapter is as follows:

"The emergence of England and then the United States as economic, military, and scientific superpowers has, of course, contributed to the phenomenal spread of the English language. But the essential reasons for the ascendancy of English lie in the internationality of its words and the relative simplicity of its grammar and syntax."

As you might suspect, the evidence adduced to back this thesis up is seriously lacking. The support for the "internationality" claim consists of lists of words borrowed from many languages into English; no comparison is made with borrowings in any other language, lists or otherwise. What's more, not a single shred of evidence for the "relative simplicity" claim is made: not one rule of English "grammar and syntax" is mentioned, not even obliquely, much less compared to the rules of some other language.

Returning to the kimono vs. baseball example, we can imagine what Lederer might have been thinking: Japanese admits a proper subset of the types of syllables that English admits. But doesn't this make English syllable structure rules more complex than Japanese syllable structure rules? Besides, this all ignores the fact that English and Japanese have nonoverlapping sets of phonemes, and that their phonological rules are also not in a subset/superset relationship. Ask an English speaker to pronounce sukiyaki, with an unrounded high back vowel and high vowel devoicing, or futon, with a bilabial fricative, high vowel devoicing, and a nasal glide, or any of the many other words English has borrowed from Japanese, and Japanese speakers will giggle just as much as English speakers might at besuboru (or any of the many other words Japanese has borrowed from English).

I wrote again to Lederer to point some of this out to him, but never got a response. I did talk to him on the phone recently, however, and took the opportunity to mention that Japanese has sounds that English doesn't have. Lederer responded that he wasn't aware of that, though he didn't thank me for raising this point. You'd think he would, because he also mentioned to me that he considers The Miracle of Language to be one of his "serious" books, and that he writes all of those other popular/humorous books in order to support his writing of the more serious ones. Clearly, "serious" does not mean "held up to basic standards of scholarship" in Dr. Lederer's view.

*(Lederer's co-host recently left the show due to a "dispute over contract language", and there was a search for a replacement co-host. I'm eagerly waiting to find out who, if anyone, got the job.) back

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Posted by Eric Bakovic at June 29, 2004 02:08 PM