June 29, 2007

Revealing speech

I've recently finished reading (the hardback edition of) Richard Dawkins's book The God Delusion. If you haven't yet read the book and are vaguely curious, the first chapter is here. It's already available in paperback in Britain; the U.S. edition of the paperback is expected in September. You can see and hear Dawkins reading the preface to the paperback here.

I didn't expect to find much about language in this book, but there's actually a fair bit: some discussion of the Great Vowel Shift, a reference to the universality of "the underlying deep structure of grammar", and at least a couple of instances in which an appeal is made to stress to clarify an important distinction in meaning (p. 215: the SELfish gene vs. the selfish GENE; p. 364: more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in YOUR philosophy vs. more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your phiLOsophy). Among all these bits about language, a couple stand out for me in particular because they are highly misleading (and could have easily been checked); one of these is discussed below the fold, and I'll follow up with the second at some future date.

Let me state first, though, that this isn't a critique of Dawkins's book nor of his abilities as a scientist, and it says nothing about his case for atheism. As regular readers of this blog already know well, there's just a whole lot of misinformation about language out there, and what I say below just shows that even the most intelligent and highly educated among us can get it wrong.

On p. 44 (in Ch. 2), Dawkins devotes two paragraphs to a story from David Mills's book Atheist Universe. Here's the first paragraph, with emphasis added. (Please note that I haven't yet read Mills's book myself.)

David Mills, in his admirable book Atheist Universe, tells a story which you would dismiss as an unrealistic caricature of police bigotry if it were fiction. A Christian faith-healer ran a 'Miracle Crusade' which came to Mills's home town once a year. Among other things, the faith-healer encouraged diabetics to throw away their insulin, and cancer patients to give up their chemotherapy and pray for a miracle instead. Reasonably enough, Mills decided to organize a peaceful demonstration to warn people. But he made the mistake of going to the police to tell them of his intention and ask for police protection against possible attacks from supporters of the faith-healer. The first police officer to whom he spoke asked, 'Is you gonna protest fir him or 'gin him?' (meaning for or against the faith-healer). When Mills replied, 'Against him,' the policeman said that he himself planned to attend the rally and intended to spit personally in Mills's face as he marched past Mills's demonstration.

I'm as disgusted as Dawkins is (and as I presume Mills is) with the intolerance of this police officer (and other members of the police department, as we'll see further below). But what does the officer's speech variety have to do with it? Why use eye dialect -- spelling what the police officer said in such a way that it's clear that he's a speaker of a non-standard variety of English -- and to top it off, include a patronizing translation of the quotation? In fact, why quote the police officer directly in the first place? The only reason appears to be to highlight the way the police officer speaks and to thereby make a(n implicit) connection between his speech variety and his intolerance. Before committing this passage to paper, Dawkins might have asked himself: "Is there no such thing as an intolerant speaker of Received Pronunciation?"

But perhaps Dawkins is just following Mills's lead here. According to Wikipedia, "David Mills was born on January 24th, 1959 and lives in Huntington, West Virginia." This is technically ambiguous (was Mills born in Huntington or not?), but listening to Mills speak (as you can on his website), I would guess he's a native speaker of Southern American English, more specifically the Midland variety which includes most of West Virginia (and which I'm personally very familiar with, having married someone from Louisville, KY). Now, this doesn't mean that Mills himself uses is instead of are or that he pronounces for and against as fir and 'gin, nor does it mean that he doesn't have negative attitudes about people who do speak this way. This brings me to Dawkins's second paragraph.

Mills decided to try his luck with a second police officer. This one said that if any of the faith-healer's supporters violently confronted Mills, the officer would arrest Mills because he was 'trying to interfere with God's work'. Mills went home and tried telephoning the police station, in the hope of finding more sympathy at a senior level. He was finally connected to a sergeant who said, 'To hell with you, Buddy. No policeman wants to protect a goddamned atheist. I hope somebody bloodies you up good.' Apparently adverbs were in short supply in this police station, along with the milk of human kindness and a sense of duty. Mills relates that he spoke to about seven or eight policemen that day. None of them was helpful, and most of them directly threatened Mills with violence.

I'm willing to bet that, like many American English speakers (not just Southerners), Mills uses good in casual conversation in many cases where well is prescribed. (Even if Mills is among those who make it a point to use well where prescribed, I very much doubt he'd say that I hope somebody bloodies you up good is better rendered as I hope somebody bloodies you up well.) So what's up with the "[a]pparently adverbs were in short supply" comment? For one, it's clear that this is entirely Dawkins's contribution to the commentary. Second, the obvious intent of the comment is to say without saying, nudge-nudge wink-wink, that speaking in the way this police sergeant does, mistaking adjectives for adverbs, reveals/reflects his intolerance (because both are reflections of his ignorance).

(Adverb awareness is a double-edged sword. Recall that many prescriptivist types consider a surplus of adverbs to be a bad thing. There seems to be a Goldilocks phenomenon to be investigated here ...)

This all illustrates how many folks -- especially the overeducated among us who are Dawkins's main audience, somewhat ironically -- are willing to accept without question that speech variety and a(n in)tolerant attitude go hand in hand (perhaps, as suggested above, mediated via level of education).

(Incidentally, you can find an .mp3 reading of both of the paragraphs quoted here on Mills's website -- it's an excerpt from the audio book co-narrated by Dawkins and his wife Lalla Ward. Listen closely to Ward pronouncing just the "fir him or 'gin him" quotation. It's a delightfully odd and entertaining mixture of Lalla's own British dialect and what she imagines Southern American English to sound like.)

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at June 29, 2007 06:20 PM