October 23, 2004

An evening with Nunberg

Those lucky enough to be in Santa Cruz for the Western Humanities Alliance conference this weekend had a chance to hear Geoff Nunberg giving a spectacular lecture entitled "The shadow cast by language upon thought" yesterday afternoon. His primary topic was the centuries-old view that if we could just shake off the shackles of our language, or (in a somewhat different version) stop using words so carelessly, we would at last be able to see reality with crystal clarity. It ties in with and presupposes the view that there are some old, pure, un-jargonized layers of our vocabulary that interfere with such direct and unmediated up-close perception less than certain contrived, dishonest, modern uses of language do.

Everyone and their dog seems to believe such twaddle. They talk and write about language in terms that suggest the mere use of a term like "senior citizens" will cloud our vision so we can't see grandma and grandpa clearly at all; if we would only revert to more direct and simple language (like "old folks", maybe? or "geezers"?) the scales would fall from our eyes and we would be able to see their frail bodies and trembling limbs plainly for the first time. I'm even more hostile to this dopey view than Nunberg is (I absolutely despise Orwell's essay "Politics and the English language", which did so much to popularize this view; Nunberg was relatively respectful toward it). His examples were consistently fascinating, his discussion of them constantly enlightening.

The humanists at the conference sat entranced as Nunberg developed his analysis, and I felt that unusual feeling where you wish an hour-long lecture would morph into a three-hour graduate seminar so it wouldn't have to end. When I stepped up to open the session and introduce the speaker it had been 4 p.m. By 6:20 p.m., the question period long over, people were still clustered around Nunberg in the partially cleared conference room, and it began to look as if our early dinner reservation was in jeopardy. Eventually Barbara and I broke into the knot of conferees who showed signs of wanting to talk to Nunberg all night, and — feeling slightly selfish — hauled him off to Oswald's bistro, there to talk philosophy and linguistics and politics and journalism with him ourselves for another couple of hours. A couple of hours when academic work and privilege and pleasure combined.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 23, 2004 05:12 PM