May 06, 2007

Memo to American linguists

The second and final round of the French election is today. In past weeks, we've talked about the candidates' nicknames, and about a political cartoon's use of those names in a phonologically-defined phrasal template, among other trivial things. Today I want to drawn your attention to something more important: a professor of linguistics at l’Université de Provence, Jean Véronis, has established himself as a mainstream political commentator in France.

One piece of evidence that he has arrived: this interview with Jean in 20 minutes discussing last Thursday's debate, «Ségolène Royal a voulu montrer qu’elle avait la stature d’un chef d’opposition» ("Ségolène Royal wanted to show that she has the stature of an opposition leader").

Jean has reached this position via several books ("Combat Pour l'Elysée: Paroles de Prétendants"; "Les Politiques mis au Net"; "François Bayrou: Confidences"), the development of specialized search engines for current press and political discourse, and many blog entries.

While there are some parallels to the role of George Lakoff in the U.S., the differences are also striking. George has made his impact mainly by offering conceptual advice to one political group, the left wing of the Democratic party; in contrast, Jean has provided analysis rather than advice, largely avoiding partisan comment or commitment. George's analyses have generally been framed as insightful observations illustrated with examples, in the manner of traditional humanistic discourse on grammar; in contrast, the foundation of Jean's work is the statistical analysis of text corpora, in the style of modern computational linguistics.

The French journalistic and intellectual worlds are significantly smaller than their American counterparts; but there are other differences that may have made Jean's accomplishment more difficult than it would have been in this country. In any case, his success highlights the fact that there is an unfilled niche in the intellectual ecology of American political discourse.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 6, 2007 08:55 AM