June 18, 2006

Words fathers forget how to pronounce

TIME magazine's salute to Father's Day included publishing an article by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert on whether being a dad will make you happy. His unseasonably curmudgeonly answer is no; and part of the reason people don't realize it is that if time with your children is the only fun you get, you naturally rank it high on the pleasure scale, and in fact people tend to have to give up all their other pleasures in order to cope with the demands of rearing children:

Even if their company were an unremitting pleasure, the fact that they require so much company means that other sources of pleasure will all but disappear. Movies, theater, parties, travel—those are just a few of the English nouns that parents of young children quickly forget how to pronounce.

How's that again? Kids actually damage the record of phonological information in your mental lexicon? Sounds even worse than the worst that parents had previously suspected...

I'm grateful to Jesse Sheidlower for pointing out to me this beautiful case of something I had previously documented (in this case and before that this one): a writer taking a straightforward claim about the world that is arguably true and turning it, for absolutely no reason that I can detect, into a claim about language that is wildly and demonstrably false. I have simply no clue about why people do this strange self-defeating switch into insincere claims about linguistic behavior that could have been sincere claims about the subject they were discussing.

It might well be that movies, theater, parties, and travel are a few of the things that as a parent you should expect to have to give up or at least cut back on for quite a while. It certainly is not true that you will forget the pronunciations. Professor Gilbert knows that. So why did he say it? Was it a metaphor? I don't see it. A joke? No, doesn't seem funny. A brain slip? No, the rest of the article seems sane (for various reasons people think their kids make them happy, he argues, but in general it is actually not true; you should have a kid if you would like to expend a lot of time, worry, money, and trouble raising a kid, but not in order to try and obtain an increase in your average happiness level, he suggests — all seems fairly plausible). A daring lie? A bet? Or a dare? Surely the editors would have caught it and stopped him. No, this is some weird literary device that I do not understand (and it needs a name, by the way).

Luckily, right now I actually live just ten minutes' walk away from the great tower block of William James Hall on Kirkland Street, where the Harvard Department of Psychology is located. I can simply walk up there and find Professor Gilbert and ask him. I know he will see me. I am from Language Log. That opens doors. And when I get my answer, you will read it here, and you will learn at last why sane writers in magazines and newspapers capriciously turn a true statement about things into a ravingly false statement about words, and then, insanely, publish the latter instead of the former.

Update: Dozens and dozens of people are mailing me to explain kind, as if I were a very stupid child, that Professor Gilbert must have meant it as a humorous overstatement. I know that. I was never in doubt about that. I'm wondering (a) why people go for this peculiar kind of falsity overstatement (talk about words instead of things), and (b) why they imagine this makes things more funny. But never mind. I know you'll all keep mailing me patient explanations anyway. Thank you very much for your interest. Sigh.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 18, 2006 04:48 PM