Lord knows I get frustrated with the general level of ignorance concerning language and linguistics out there in the world; lashing out at it has been a feature of LH from the beginning. But I direct my fire at those who have a professional responsibility to know better, primarily journalists. Journalists reporting on language cannot be expected to know the facts as a linguist would (apart from those rare exceptions like Michael Erard, who took the precaution of getting an MA in linguistics before going into journalism), but they have the same responsibility to get the basic facts right as those reporting on astronomy, nuclear physics, or for that matter politics. When they fail egregiously, as they do on a regular basis, I let them have it.
But it is folly to expect a member of the general public to get things right. To expect the public at large to grasp the fundamentals of physics or chemistry is setting oneself up for disappointment, but at least they are taught these things in high school, so one can, if one is so inclined, blame them for being inattentive or for forgetting what they once knew. No one who has not taken a linguistics course can be expected to know about, let alone understand, the scientific view of language. So I was not pleased to visit Language Log this morning and find Victor Mair attacking the Chinese-American author Ruiyan Xu for a brief op-ed piece she wrote for the NY Times a couple of months ago (finding her “claims to be highly dubious, some to be rather troublesome, and yet others to be downright annoying”) and saying “Mark Swofford, over at pinyin.info, has just written a masterful dissection: ‘Chinese characters: Like, wow‘, 7/2/2010.” Upon visiting pinyin.info, I found Swofford saying Xu writes like “a stoned grad student with a large vocabulary” and dissecting her little op-ed practically word by word as though it were a dissertation, or a paper in Language, scrawling contemptuously “No, no, and no…. No, that’s wrong….” and hauling out the big guns of sarcasm (“Alas, poor English! How confused we must be to be using a mere alphabet. Oh, if only we could achieve linguistic, aesthetic, and historical meaning!”) and irrelevant snide observations (“The author of the poem… lived from 1140 to 1207 and was thus a contemporary of such Western poets as the troubadours Bertran de Born, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Giraut de Borneil — hardly poets whose work suffered for having been written with an alphabet”). I am reminded of Pope’s line “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” (though I’m afraid I tend to remember it as I first learned it from William Rees-Mogg’s famous 1967 Times editorial attacking the prison sentences handed down by a vengeful court to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, the title of which ended “….on a wheel”).
What was Xu’s sin? Talking about language in general and Chinese characters in particular the way virtually everyone who has learned any Chinese and is not a linguist talks and thinks about them. What was her main point? That something valuable is lost when the phrase 百度 bǎidù ‘hundred times,’ which in Chinese alludes to a well-known poem by Xin Qiji (or, for people who still use Wade-Giles, Hsin Ch’i-Chi), becomes in a non-Chinese context the meaningless Baidu. Is her point correct? Unquestionably. Does either Mair or Swofford appear to understand or care about it? No. They are far too concerned with bashing her for not being a linguist.
Now, if her little op-ed were somehow to become a major source of people’s understanding of language, then sure, blast away; I attack Strunk and White on precisely those grounds. But to drag out an inoffensive little op-ed by a novelist who makes no pretense of being a linguist and is concerned with other matters and to attack it at such length suggests exactly the kind of seething rage the Loggers are always attributing to those who get upset about “incorrect usage” in English. If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, I guess a foolish intolerance is the hobgoblin of frustrated specialists.
Incidentally, you can hear a musical rendition of Xin Qiji’s poem here (you can find the poem itself at Swofford’s post), and for sheer amusement value, here’s what Google Translate does with it:
Dongfeng night, the Arcadia. More Blew, star like rain. BMW Man Road, Hong Thai car. Fung study on three dynamic, glimmer turn, fish and dragons dance night. Moth child Xueliu gold thread. Laughter floats. Searching for her 1000 Baidu public. Looking back, that person is in, the lights dim.