May 24, 2006

Broader common-sense discussions, not narrower "licensed" commentary

There's a lot of confident-sounding nonsense out there about language, in print and in conversation. And it's natural for Roger Shuy, who does a lot of work in forensic linguistics, to describe this in terms of the metaphor of "practicing linguistics without a license". However, I'm afraid that some of the nonsense comes from people with impeccable academic credentials, while some of the sensible stuff comes from people who are smart, rational and curious but don't have any diplomas. And the idea of being "licensed to practice linguistics" suggests that we want people to be passive consumers of expertise, whereas the truth is just the opposite. It's great that so many people want to talk about language. Our suggestion is not that they shut up and leave it to the experts, but rather that they put some effort into learning and thinking as well as into writing and talking.

In the case that Roger was commenting on, my beef with Stewart Lee was not that he's a comedian without any particular credentials in linguistic analysis. My problem was that his ideas are plain nonsense, in ways that anyone who can read his essay can easily understand. For example, Lee says that the "pull back and reveal" type of joke doesn't translate well from English into German, because "the rigours of the German language's far less flexible sentence structures" "prevent using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment". But in his examples, the "reveal" is not determined by the order of words in a sentence, but rather by the order of clauses in a discourse -- a matter in which German differs from English not at all. (For that matter, the sentential word-order in his example doesn't crucially differ between the two languages, though that isn't relevant to his argument.)

You don't need a course in linguistics, much less an advanced degree or any other sort of credential, to see the problem here. You just need is to understand the meaning of the words Lee used -- or to look them up on line if you're not sure -- and to ask yourself a few simple questions about the logic of his argument.

The same thing is true about the other case that I mentioned, the claims of Prof. Jean-Claude Sergeant about the paradoxical rigidity of the English language in comparison to French. Prof. Sergeant is certainly as licensed as they come, in formal terms -- "Director of the Maison Française in Oxford, a research centre funded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs ... former head of the British and American Studies Department at the ... Sorbonne Nouvelle", recipient of an honorary degree in 2002 from Oxford University. But what Prof. Sergeant had to say about English in relation to French was just as confidently nonsensical, in my opinion, as what Mr. Lee had to say about English in relation to German. And anyone who can read his essay, and cares to take the time to think through what it means, and to spend a few more minutes looking at the facts, can see this.

Like Roger, I'm very much in favor of better linguistics education in the general curriculum. More linguistic knowledge and more analytic skills and more practice in analysis and argumentation would surely be a good thing. But the pay-off, in my opinion, would be public discussion of language that is as vigorous, rational and well-informed as (say) public discussion of automobiles, computers, investments or court cases. And the way to get there is probably to encourage broader discussion -- and therefore more nonsense -- rather than less.

At least, that's what I argued last year about science blogging in general ("Raising standards -- by lowering them", 3/7/2005). I offered a three-point plan for improving scientific communication, whose first point was:

Encourage everyone to think about science, and to write about it on the web, whether they know anything about it or not. And encourage them to criticize what others write, and to read others' criticisms, and to tell their friends about the best stuff that they find, whether in the popular media, or in the technical literature, or in weblogs. I claim that open intellectual communities intrinsically tend to generate a virtuous cycle: if there were an order of magnitude more science writing in blogs, there'd be less than an order of magnitude more crap, and more than an order of magnitude more good stuff. (The same is probably true for science writing in newspapers, though the network effects are smaller there.) This follows from a scientific version of Moglen's Metaphorical Corollary to Faraday's Law: add more wires, lower the resistance, and more intellectual current is induced.

In my opinion, the same thing goes for language-related writing, whether strictly scientific or simply rational. I know that Roger feels basically the same way that I do. It's just that when you hear some of the crap that people come out with, it's hard to resist the temptation to turn on the siren and write them a ticket.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 24, 2006 05:37 PM