What Linguists Talk About When they Talk about Language

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If you’re a U.S. mayor who’s openly squeamish about seeing signs posted in Spanish, but you have difficulty speaking Standard English yourself, you don’t want to catch the attention of a group of linguists. They’ll eat your subject-verb disagreements for lunch—and the place they’ll perch for their meal is languagelog.org, a weblog about the ways we use, and sometime abuse, language.

It’s the creation of Dr. Mark Liberman, a Penn phonetician, and Dr. Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of California—Santa Cruz, with contributions from many of their colleagues.

When Bogota, New Jersey, Mayor Steve Lonegan called for a boycott of Spanish-friendly McDonald’s and then asserted to the Newark Star-Ledger, “The true things that bind us together as neighbors and community is our belief in the American flag and our common language,” the linguists dug in:

“Being monolingual in Standard English is the baseline for politicians,” blogged Pullum. “Lonegan falls below this; he’s two languages short of being bilingual.”

In a posting titled “English Under Siege in Pennsylvania,” Liberman recreated another threat to the American way of life from “aliens” who “by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours.” He went on to explain that the century was the 18th, the immigrants were German, and the hand-wringing author was Benjamin Franklin.

“Viewed in the light of history, the current anxiety over linguistic identity seems exaggerated,” Liberman wrote. “By most measures, English in America seems to be stronger than it’s ever been.”

In addition to being a prolific blogger, Liberman is director of Penn’s Linguistic Data Consortium, co-director of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science, and Trustee Professor of Phonetics.

“I realized that like most other people I spent a lot of time exchanging emails with friends on topics of mutual interest, along the lines of ‘What do you think of so and so?’” he says. “A web log is a lot like a public conversation of that sort. I thought it would be a pretty interesting experiment … if I started sharing those thoughts.”

The blog has been a hit even with those who don’t typically think in terms of morphemes and toponyms, and has logged more than six million “page views” since its creation three years ago. Highlights from the blog appear in Liberman and Pullum’s new book, Far From the Madding Gerund.

Language Log is the place to turn for lessons on the phonology and semantics of “tighty whities,” for a detailed history of passive voice, and to learn which ancient Chinese proverbs quoted by business executives are not so ancient—or even Chinese, for that matter.

And then there are the deliciously critical commentaries on Dan Brown’s bestsellers. Pullum found plenty of material to pick apart in the opening sentences of The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons: “Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery” and “Physicist Leonarda Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.”

“The simple fact is that if you are ever mentioned on page 1 of a Dan Brown novel you will be mentioned with an anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier, and you will have died a painful death by page 2, along with several curiously ill-chosen clichés and mangled idioms.”

Though Pullum’s Dan Brown critiques are among Liberman’s favorites, when it comes to his own material, he says, “I’m actually most pleased, I think, about the posts that are on more scientific topics, as opposed to ones that are off the cuff and fun.”

One of his pet peeves is how linguistics—and science in general—is often reported in the media. “I think it’s quite common for people to feel confident about linguistic matters because they feel that, by virtue of being able to talk, they have all the necessary knowledge.”

In Liberman’s view, this is the equivalent of claiming expertise in genetics because you have DNA. He has taken on plenty of news reports, including a BBC story suggesting that the frequent pronunciation of umlauts makes Germans grumpy. After doing his own research, he called it “a fabrication by a reporter looking to sculpt some good material out of some scraps of science and a whole pile of journalistic manure.”

Liberman says he was concerned at first that his blogs would generate a lot of hate mail, but the discussions have been “remarkably civil.” He’s also quick to post corrections when he gets something wrong.

As opinionated as Liberman is, he’s not the grammar policeman one might expect him to be—a condition that puts him at odds with some self-appointed language experts.

“It’s not uncommon to find someone, for example, claiming we should hold the line against some novel change which they view as the degeneration of the language, when it is actually the older form,” Liberman says. “In other cases there are what are sometimes felt to be rules of the language that someone just made up at a certain point. John Dryden, for example, once objected to Ben Jonson having split an infinitive and, although he liked Jonson’s work in general, he thought a line would have been better if he’d put the adverb in a different place. Somehow that’s [been] made into a rule of usage with the notion that in the golden age of knowledge, people obeyed these principles.” —S.F.

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