June 18, 2005

Language don't get no respect

jacobs A. J. Jacobs, author of The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2004), might have worked his way through the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (and lived to tell us about it in this book), but the very few things he remembers about his college classes aren't entirely accurate.  Language don't get no respect.

Jacobs writes engagingly, and his first name is Arnold, which is a plus in my book, but already on page 2 I gave a little cry of dismay, on reading the following:

Like many in my generation, I've watched my expensive college education [at Brown University] recede into a haze...  Off the top of my head, I recall exactly three things from my classes:

1.  When my comp lit professor outed Walt Whitman.

2.  When the radical feminist in my Spanish class infuriated the teacher by refusing to use masculine pronouns.  "La pollo."  "No, el pollo."  "La pollo."  "No, no, no, el pollo."  Et cetera.

3.  When the guy in my Nietzsche seminar raised his hand and said, "If I listen to one more minute of this, I'm going to go crazy," then promptly stood up, walked to the back of the class, and jumped out the window.  It was a ground-floor window.  But still.  It was memorable.

(I left item 3 in there because I was impressed that Jacobs spelled Nietzsche's name right.)

No, no, I moaned, not pronounsArticles, man, articles.  Did you learn nothing in Spanish?

No doubt the radical feminist also insisted on using feminine pronouns, but in these examples it's the (definite) articles that she's wielding.  Granted, in Spanish the definite articles and the third-person definite pronouns are closely related (sometimes, homophonous), but still they are grammatically distinct, and it's useful to have different labels for them.  Too bad that Mr. Know-It-All didn't remember that from his Spanish class at Brown.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 18, 2005 04:39 PM