Sunday, March 02, 2008

Nintendo is a nighttime game

John McWhorter is featured today on C-SPAN's In Depth.

And I have the subtitles running as always. During a profile segment showing him in his home answering questions about his work habits he explains that he finds he's doing a lot of his work and writing quite late. I assume he meant late -- he used the phrase "wee hours".

Of course that's how I heard it. Whoever was doing the captions must be playing a lot of video tennis lately. The transcription:

...the Wii hours are good for me.



One caller asked McWhorter why so many linguists have moved into political discussions. His list of examples: Chomsky, Lakoff, Safire, Nunberg, McWhorter.

One of these is not like the others.]



  1. Oy. I'm not sure which is worse, the assumption that linguists don't pay attention to politics, the assumption that five people is "so many", or the assumption that Safire is a linguist.

    No. Wait. I am sure.


  2. Let me guess... the Lakoff the caller had in mind was George, not Robin?

  3. Evidence that assumptions (or if you prefer, "convictions") about prescriptive/descriptive linguistics might be politically loaded?

    By the way -- what do you think of McWhorter? I watched most of that interview, and found him quite sane, even as I recognized how unpopular his opinions would be in the eyes and ears of most academics.

    (P.S. -- you can tell me in person if you think he's right; I wouldn't want you to risk your ethos for such a silly question.)

  4. Really casey? You still think so?

    One of these days I'm going to have to ask you to make your argument more explicitly.

    How does the knowledge that prescriptivists incorrectly describe language and incorrectly understand linguistic processes bleed over into a view about states rights and free/fair trade and defense policy?

  5. Well, I think if we frame the question that way ("how does their incorrect understanding...") then nothing very interesting can follow. So if anything else is impossible, nevermind what follows:

    However, as I said, McWhorter seems to be a pretty run-of-the-mill "genius" from what I can tell just by looking at his bookshelves and the way he pets his cat. If we think of prescriptivism as a "minority" rather than an "incorrect" view, then we might ask what leads certain obviously intelligent people to defend the view of prescriptivism.

    Asking you to consider this seems like asking Mark Leahy to consider why some obviously very intelligent people (from Edmund Burke to F.A. Hayek to Bill Buckley) have embraced conservatism. It's one of those questions that necessarily washes over him, right?

    My argument, extended, would have to do with understanding the motivations of people like McWhorter. I can remember very clearly my mother teaching me to speak "grammatically" precisely because it separated (or "elevated over" in her mind) me from my peers. And here's the interesting part: much of it stuck. That seems rather textbookly "prescriptive" to me, and I know from experience that my mother's motivation (herself a fierce prescriptivist) had everything to do with social class/identity.

    Now that was probably morally questionable. But it happened, and if you didn't object to it morally, then you might begin to see how controlling language is both possible (obviously) and, perhaps, "natural" (insofar, say, as class-climbing in civil society is normal).

    But more later, because I know I'm speaking without the necessary knowledge and that it's making you object right and left, probably justifiably.


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