June 29, 2004

His speech lacked syntax

From Arnold Zwicky by email comes a citation to this quote from Barry Bearak's article "Poor Man's Burden" in the New York Times Magazine, June 27, 2004, p. 32; it's about Lula da Silva, the working-class president of Brazil:

His speech lacked syntax; he cut off the S's on his plurals like a peasant.

Bearak at least appears to be illustrating his claim about Lula having no syntax with a comment about something that is either morphological or phonetic. The Brazilian Portuguese of the lower classes, it would seem, drops either the plural -s morpheme (that would be about noun inflection) or any final s (that would be purely about pronunciation). Why is it that journalists make remarks of this kind about language when they don't even have a clue how to distinguish between sentence structure, word endings, lexical choice, pronunciation, spelling, and punctuation? It's like journalists writing about ecology being unable to distinguish between birds, insects, fish, and land mammals. It's like a political journalist having no inkling of the distinction between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. As we have pointed out over and over again on Language Log (don't make me list the links), it isn't good enough. Journalists should know at least something about language if they're going to make derogatory, and supposedly informed, comments on people's speech.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 29, 2004 09:17 PM