October 25, 2005

Special linguistic providence

The idea that the English language is special, especially in its willingness to adopt or invent vocabulary, is favored in the popular imagination and therefore in popular writings on language. But assertions that "English is special" run immediately afoul of two prejudices of modern linguists: that all languages are roughly the same on all evaluative dimensions, and that asserted generalizations ought to be supported by evidence.

A few days ago, Bill Poser complained when Daphne Bramham observed in the Vancouver Sun that "English is the most idiosyncratic and wordiest of all languages". Back in June of 2004, Eric Bakovic took Richard Lederer to task for asserting that "the essential reasons for the ascendancy of English lie in the internationality of its words and the relative simplicity of its grammar and syntax". Eric's discussion, including an exchange of emails with Dr. Lederer, is good fun, well worth reviewing.

Other languages have popular notions of specialness as well: many Japanese are convinced that Japanese is uniquely difficult; some Chinese believe that Chinese is especially succinct and efficient; Umberto Eco mentions the seventh century Irish grammarians who "said that that the Gaelic language was created after the confusion of tongues by the 72 wise men of the school of Fenius... so that the best of every language was selected and retained in Irish, which was perfect because it preserved the original isomorphism between words and things".

Outsiders and insiders generally see the same language in terms of different stereotypes. Thus native speakers of English are unlikely to resonate with Jean-Claude Sergeant's notion that English is "rigidly structured", "characterized first by an extreme concern for coherence and for explicitness approaching redundancy", and required to "avoid all ambiguity as to the identity of agents intervening in a phrase". And Steve Thorne found that the "pleasantness" of 20 English accents was rated very differently by natives and non-natives. (For example, British listeners found Birmingham speech 'boring', 'wrong', 'irritating', 'grating', 'nasal', and 'whingey', while non-native listeners found it 'nice', 'melodic', 'lilting' and 'musical'.)

Languages are certainly different, and they do actually differ in most of the ways touched on by these stereotypes. For example, Chinese text in fact seems to be significantly more compact than corresponding English text, though it's not clear whether this is a fact about the languages or about their writing systems. (In some specific cases, such as the Olympic slogan discussed by Victor Mair, Chinese versions are longer phonetically, morphologically, lexically, orthographically, cybernetically and even conceptually.) And I've been told that some languages do indeed resist lexical borrowing, for language-internal reasons rather than for reasons of cultural preference.

The trouble with this whole area of discussion, in my opinion, is not that assertions of linguistic difference or linguistic specialness are always false. Rather, the problem is the low ratio of fact and insight to glib and evocative generality. There is little concern for facts as opposed to anecdotes, little interest in distinguishing differences in language from differences in writing systems or more general cultural differences, and hardly any effort to avoid confirmation bias and to control for the profound effects of ethnic stereotypes, exoticism and nationalist or anti-nationalist agendas. Generalizations about evaluative differences among languages and dialects are less pernicious than ethnic, racial and sexual generalizations are, but they're just as difficult to study objectively and fairly.

On a lighter note, linguistic and non-linguistic stereotypes combine cheerfully in John Cowan's Essentialist Explanations, where we'll leave them all for now.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 25, 2005 06:33 AM