February 20, 2008

Shaping up the dull-witted pagans

The book review pages of the official journal of the Linguistic Society of America are not always widely read even by active members of the society, so many linguists will not have noticed the stirring polemical writing to be found in the most recent issue of (Language vol. 83, no. 4, pp. 883-6). Interestingly, the target is linguists themselves. People like the honest workers here at Language Log Plaza, in fact. The reviewer is Professor Ronald Butters, and he seems to be fed up with being pushed around by language-loving sentimentalists.

Butters is reviewing Language in the USA (ed. by Edward Finegan and John Rickford, CUP, 2004), and he was irritated right up front by the foreword, by Language Log's own Geoff Nunberg. (He refers to him as a "popular writer and public-radio personality" (hey, watch it, buddy! Nunberg has a linguistics PhD and a teaching job at Berkeley!). The complaint about Nunberg's "breezy, patronizing" foreword is that it

lectures the linguistically unsophisticated about 'chronic American blindness to the complexities of our sociolinguistic history and of the contemporary linguistic situation' ... and presses upon the linguistic novice the solemn significance of the enterprise ('Language in the USA will unquestionably be an important resource for policymakers and decision-makers, and it should make us all better citizens'...).

Butters then goes on to grumble about "the muddied, contradictory, and sometimes seemingly arrogant political center of parts of the book with respect to the complex issues surrounding linguistic discrimination, multiculturalism, language death, and the hegemony of English (particularly those varieties spoken and written by the rich and powerful)." Ever want to see some liberal diversity-loving multi-culti-lefty linguists get slapped about a bit, just so they could taste some of their own medicine? This review is for you!

[Update: and now I see that our own Eric Bakovic received his copy of Language some time ago, and discussed the very same passages I discuss below; but having overlooked this (his opening paragraphs were about a different subject), I wrote the following entirely independently. We overlap. Oh well. It happens.]

The tone of too much of the book (which Butters suggests is set by Nunberg) implies that "the linguistic cognoscenti know what is right and wrong when it comes to language issues, and the public is blind and ignorant and selfish, and they'd better shape up." Whoa! That's not how we sound here at Language Log, is it? All right, I guess I have to admit that I have frequently found my hands hovering over the keys, just about to type something like "Shape up, you members of the public!", though I hope in most cases I have restrained myself from lambasting our gentle readers too much. Maybe we do diss the public sometimes. Perhaps we should try to resist when demons whisper in our ears that we should call non-linguists blind and ignorant, try to mute that tendency in ourselves — even if we care so much about some of the issues involve that in due course we always go back to it.

What Butters wants to see, apparently, is less abuse of the ignorant and diversity-intolerant populace and more actual argumentation:

The linguists in this book for the most part take it as unquestionable and in need of no rational argument that (again, in Nunberg's words) 'efforts to preserve Native American languages' are always a simple social good; that 'a drift towards bilingualism' is not at all 'dangerous' in any important way; that 'common sense' notions about language 'usually amount to no more than myths and folklore ... hardly the grounds that you would want to rely on for making policy'.

Linguists have now hammered many generations of American students with our contrary opinions about normal people's linguistic beliefs, without notable success. The most pliant undergraduates may parrot such ideas in response to exam questions because they know their grades depend on pleasing the linguist. For the most part, though, they go right on believing what the general culture and ‘common sense’ leads them to believe. Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves why this is the case.

Much of the problem is apparent in the rhetorical stances of many of the authors in this volume. They are preaching to the choir in a church full of dull-witted pagans from another, very wicked planet.

I'm not sure whether all of this is fair or not; but I know splendid rhetoric (and a thought-provoking point) when I see it.

And who's next for a slap? Professor Joshua Fishman, a distinguished expert on the sociology of language:

Consider JOSHUA FISHMAN in his chapter 'Multilingualism and non-English mother tongues'. Speaking of the absence of a multilingual tradition in the United States, he writes: 'the ... linguistic resources of the United States have always been so monstrously squandered and destroyed (at worst) or neglected (at best) that ... we have become an overwhelmingly monolingual English-speaking country... During the twentieth century, several world languages were caused or allowed to atrophy in the USA' (117). Novice undergraduates — not to mention Nunberg's 'policymakers and decision-makers' — are going to meet this sort of rhetorical stance with skepticism and confusion. Apart from a few asides about the necessity for Americans to know second languages in the global village, Fishman nowhere explains to his readers WHY the USA would be a better place if the primacy of English were less than it is today, or WHY the apparent gradual death of Yiddish (his example) is such a great national loss, or WHY Australia is better off because 'resettled ... Macedonian and Arabic ... speakers have successfully pursued and attained a ... measure of intergenerational mother tongue transmission' that Fishman finds acceptable (presumably, Australians have more respect for the linguistic traditions of Macedonians and Arabs than they do for their indigenous peoples). Students — and liberal humanities professors, for that matter — know in their hearts that the melting pot has always been the great American tradition, and that it has been viewed almost totally positively by everybody but linguists, and that there are powerful common-sense arguments in its favor. Dismissive scolding has little effect against such deeply ingrained ideologies.

  Linguistics, we tell our students, is a science in which we objectively study the language of people as they use it, with a deep respect for the intelligence and good sense of the users, regardless of the language or dialect that they have learned to express themselves in. Ironically, when it comes to studying the beliefs that people have about language and their conclusions about language policy and language planning, we are all too often lacking in objectivity and respect.

Warming to his theme, Butters addresses a paper on Native American languages and the extreme danger of some of them becoming extinct (a paper by Akira Yamamoto and Ofelia Zepeda that he agrees is useful), and he comments:

What they do not really explain is why this is necessarily anything other than a rather good thing. Shouldn't we WANT to 'integrate' — read 'absorb' — these worthy people into mainstream economic and cultural life? Isn't it just inevitable? Isn't that why I am a member of the educated middle class and not mucking around without indoor plumbing in some Swedish monolingual farm community like my mother's grandparents? Yamamoto and Zepeda's answer (177), to someone who believes in the prevalent American linguistic ideologies, seems both effetely romantic and hideously self-serving: (a) 'When we lose a language, it means a "tremendous loss to the cultural richness and distinctness of the native communities" (Goddard 1996:3)'; and (b) 'the loss of linguistic diversity is a loss to scholarship and science'. Most of the students and other naifs who may be forced to read this book come from families who wear nice clothes and live in nice houses with numerous electronic appliances and good foreign cars in the driveway; most of the rest come from families who are struggling to find the means to live that way. Should people really be forced (or even encouraged) to 'preserve' languages if to do so might stand in their way of achieving middle-class comforts — even if they get some vague additional promise of 'cultural richness' — simply because linguists want to be able to study the living languages?

Butters very definitely does not claim that all of the public's beliefs and attitudes regarding language are correct, and of course neither do I. But I think his strident rhetorical questions should be listened to and reflected upon, not just kicked aside as ill-tempered populist rant of the sort associated with Southern politicians talking about the threat from south of the border. Serious questions about the benefits (and perhaps the losses) of having an assortment of distinct native languages within one national society should be addressed through research that objectively determines and assesses the effects, not through emotional appeals to imagined cultural riches not vouched for by the language users themselves, or self-serving demands that aboriginal tongues be kept alive (by poor people) for (comparatively wealthy) linguists to study.

In short, widespread faith in the ideal of linguistic and cultural assimilation should — especially in a democracy — be treated with respect and considered thoughtfully, not snapped at as if it were ignorant bigotry.

An odd coincidence is that in the week that this issue of Language reached me, the obituary of the week in The Economist (February 9th) was about Marie Smith, the last speaker of the now extinct language Eyak. But far from echoing anything like the tough-minded what-economic-benefit thinking that Butters alludes to, the Economist obituarist's discussion of the Eyak language, though well-written and interesting, is entirely devoted to sentimental musing about its many words for trees and roots and spruce needles and resin and abalone and nets and mixing bowls, and the way the word for "leaf" was the same as the word for "feather", as if that were the crucial thing we needed linguistic diversity for. It even adds, apropos of Marie Smith's dream of a future revival of the Eyak language: "impossible, scoffed the experts: in an age where perhaps half the planet's languages will disappear over the next century, killed by urban migration or the internet or the triumphal march of English, Eyak has no chance."

So here, far from a ringing endorsement of Butters from the leading magazine of liberal capitalism, we have a complete reversal of Butters' picture: Mrs Smith, an ordinary woman from extreme poverty who brought up nine children, dreams of linguistic diversity and the survival of an isolated southern Alaskan tribal language, with its precious word demexch for a dangerously thin spot on the ice; while we linguists figure only as the scoffing experts who condemn the dream out of hand!

So which are we? Annoyingly preachy liberals insisting on the preservation of languages of no economic importance for our own aesthetic pleasure and scholarly attention? Or Anglophone triumphalists whose realist picture ranks Marie Smith's native tongue way below the introduction of indoor plumbing?

The answer is, actually, that we linguists are all sorts of people with all sorts of views. There are linguists working on native-language maintenance programs, and other linguists who think there is no point in that at all. There are linguists dedicating their lives to detailed description of aboriginal languages because they believe the few hundred souls who speak them should have access to translations of the Christian gospels, and atheist linguists who think missionary work is cultural-imperialist arrogance or even downright evil. There are linguists who rant at a supposed ignorant public of dull-witted pagans, and other linguists who, like Butters, call for a bit more reflection on the basis for the sermon. We'll do fine if we continue to read each other's work, and reflect on each other's points of view, and don't all shout at once.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 20, 2008 06:36 AM