May 15, 2006

Linguistics fails again

In the May 13, 2006 New York Times, there's an article by Diana Jean Schemo about the controversy at Gallaudet University over the selection of Jane K. Fernandez as president, "Protests Continue at University for Deaf". The article is an interesting account of an unusual situation, as you'd expect from one the paper's main higher-education reporters. However, it contains one very odd sentence:

Deaf students here said that American Sign Language, which uses gestures to express words and ideas rather than specific letters, was easier for them to understand than other forms of communication that may translate letters and syntax that they have never heard and that are more difficult to grasp.

I think that this may be a reference to the difference between ASL and "finger spelling", in which the letters of written English are spelled out with a series of hand-shapes. However, the article continues

Erin Moran, who is studying for a master's in counseling and was handing out fliers opposing Dr. Fernandes, criticized her for not banning students from speaking in front of deaf students, instead of using only American Sign Language. When that happens, Ms. Moran said, deaf students feel shut out at an institution that should help strengthen their identity as deaf people with a right to participate fully in the world.

This makes it seem as if Schemo is contrasting sign language with spoken language, implying that speech "uses ... specific letters" "to express words and ideas". Perhaps this is Schemo's confusion, or perhaps it was introduced by an editor working to shorten a longer account of the linguistic issues involved. In either case, it's another example of the common confusion between languages and their writing systems, and another casual journalistic mis-description of speech and language.

Confusions about the nature of orthography and its relationship to language are most evident in discussions of Chinese, but there are plenty of examples within the boundaries of English. For another case involving a smart and well-educated person writing in a major American publication, consider Leon Wieseltier's account of his g-dropping choices in his Sopranos role as "Stewart Silverman". It's clear enough what pronunciation options Wieselter was getting at, though his description was completely inaccurate; in contrast, it's not at all clear what Schemo meant to tell us about the nature of ASL.

As I wrote about another casually botched linguistic description in the popular press, I blame the linguists. Modern intellectuals are almost entirely bereft of resources for talking about the simplest facts of pronunciation, sentence structure, and meaning. This isn't their fault -- in most cases, no one has ever taught them anything about these topics. My profession has failed in its most basic duty to society.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 15, 2006 06:58 PM