Don’t Believe a Word.

David Shariatmadari, whose has written well about language for the Guardian and has been featured at LH before (e.g., here), has published a book called Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language that sounds well worth reading, according to Joe Moran’s review:

As a boy, David Shariatmadari would sit in the hallway and listen to his Iranian father speaking Farsi on the phone to his family in Tehran. It was an early introduction to the estranging beauty of unfamiliar language. So began an interest in linguistics that has given birth to this book, a skilful summation of the latest research on how languages emerge, change, convey meaning and influence how we think.

Each chapter explodes a common myth about language. Shariatmadari begins with the most common myth: that standards of English are declining. This is a centuries-old lament for which, he points out, there has never been any evidence. Older people buy into the myth because young people, who are more mobile and have wider social networks, are innovators in language as in other walks of life. Their habit of saying “aks” instead of “ask”, for instance, is a perfectly respectable example of metathesis, a natural linguistic process where the sounds in words swap round. (The word “wasp” used to be “waps” and “horse” used to be “hros”.) Youth is the driver of linguistic change. This means that older people feel linguistic alienation even as they control the institutions – universities, publishers, newspapers, broadcasters – that define standard English.

Another myth Shariatmadari dismantles is that foreign languages are full of untranslatable words. This misconception serves to exoticise other nationalities and cultures, making them sound quaint or bizarre. It amuses us to think that there are 27 words for eyebrow in Albanian. But we only really think this because of our grammar-blindness about Albanian, which can easily form adjectival compounds by joining two words together. […]

Shariatmadari’s general approach to language is pro-diversity and anti-pedantry. No linguist would disagree with his argument that a word’s meaning depends not on its etymology but on how it is used. (Adam Gopnik once wrote that prescriptivism was “as bogus a concept in linguistics as green cheese is in astronomy”.) But he fleshes out this argument usefully, offering ammunition against the tiresome hairsplitter who, for example, insists that “decimate” comes from the Roman practice of executing every tenth soldier as a collective punishment. (It doesn’t.) […]

He is sceptical of Noam Chomsky’s notion of a universal grammar, the idea that human beings have a sort of syntax-generating implant in the brain. Language for Shariatmadari is not a piece of brain software but something that emerges when we interact with others. It is “a medium that is formed as it is used … a road that is paved at the same time as we walk it”.

This is quite a scholarly and serious book. I admired its refusal to lighten its denser arguments with that jokey “here comes the science bit” flippancy that so often grates in non-fiction books on complex topics. Shariatmadari’s style is never less than clear, but there isn’t too much handholding. His account requires a little patience, but then so does linguistics.

Stick with it and it is a meaty, rewarding and even necessary read. Shariatmadari begins by pointing to “an almost insatiable appetite for linguistic debate” in our culture. But as he then shows, most of the focus is trivial – “how to speak like a millennial” – or myth-ridden. Our wider culture seems profoundly uninterested in the dynamic, makeshift nature of language, the way that it gives birth to thought as much as articulates it.

I hope it’s widely read and has the influence it deserves. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Comments

  1. The psycholinguist John Lucy has given language as one explanation for the starkly different rates of workplace accidents in Sweden and Finland. In Swedish, prepositions allow for the nuanced account of actions over time; in Finnish, case endings stress static relationships. This may make Finns less alert to the temporal arrangement of a process, leading to more interruptions and accidents at work.

    Wow! Found this, a bit old, from 1997:

    A recent set of studies has explored the relation between language and the incidence of occupational accidents in Finland. Occupational accident rates are substantially lower in Sweden than in Finland and among the Swedish speaking minority within Finland despite working in the same regions with similar laws and regulations (Salminen & Hiltunen 1993,1995; Salminen & Johansson 1996). This difference emerges even when controlling for the type, status, or hazard of the occupation or the rate or language of accident report. Researchers have attempted to account for this difference by reference to structural differences between Swedish and Finnish (Johansson & Strømnes 1995, Salminen & Hiltunen 1993). These language differences were first analyzed by Frode J Strømnes, a Swedish experimental psychologist who became interested in why it was so difficult for him to learn Finnish. He contrasted comparable operators in the two languages and concluded that Swedish prepositions can be represented in terms of a vector geometry in a three-dimensional space whereas Finnish cases can be represented in terms of a topology in a two-dimensional space coupled with a third dimension of time (or duration) (Strømnes 1973, 1974a, 1976). Strømnes supported this analysis with a number of ingenious experiments and observations (Strømnes 1974a,b). What emerges in practical terms is a Swedish emphasis on information about movement in three-dimensional space and a Finnish emphasis on more static, Gestalt relations between borders of figures.

    A later study of cinematic style found that Indo-European (Swedish, Norwegian, English) productions formed coherent temporal entities in which action could be followed from beginning to end across scenes, whereas UralAltaic (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian) productions showed more emphasis on static settings with only transitory movement and formed coherent personcentered entities in which scenes were linked by the emotional Gestalts of persons (Johansson & Strømnes 1995, Johansson & Salminen 1996, Strømnes et al 1982). Based on preliminary observations of factories, the hypothesis was formed that the Finns organize the workplace in a way that favors the individual worker (person) over the temporal organization of the overall production process. Lack of attention to the overall temporal organization of the process leads to frequent disruptions in production, haste, and, ultimately, accidents (Johansson & Salminen 1996, Johansson & Strømnes 1995). At the moment, concrete evidence for this interpretation is lacking, but research on production processes is under way to test the hypothesis.

    https://cslc.nd.edu/assets/142525/lucy_linguistic_relativity.pdf

    Would like to see this in less abstract terms.

    (I think I’m a Finn at heart,)

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kusaal has exactly two prepositions, and an extremely low rate of workplace accidents which I’m sure has nothing whatsoever to do with a complete absence of factories. Perhaps being kicked by a goat counts, though?

    Sadly, I am unable to tell whether Kusaal prepositions allow for the nuanced account of actions over time, because Gibberish was not offered as an option in my school, so I don’t understand the question.

    This reminds me irresistibly of the discussion we were having about even serious scholars being prone to lapsing into crackpottery. Assuming for the sake of argument that Finnish cases differ in mystical fourth-dimensional ways from Swedish prepositions, it does not by any means follow that Finnish is a linguistic cripple unable to express the rich temporality of Swedish prepositions by some other linguistic mechanism.

    Welsh, of course, conjugates prepositions, thereby avoiding the problem seen in Swedish that it is impossible to tell the person of the object of the preposition. This explains why there have never been any mining accidents in Wales.

    Strewth.

  3. The entire explanation looks to me to be on a shoogly peg (or have I used that wrong?).

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    Shoogly indeed,

  5. Vilhelm S. says:

    Wait, where does “decimate” come from then?

  6. ktschwarz says:

    young people … are innovators … Their habit of saying “aks” instead of “ask”

    I thought “aks” was an old form that dropped out of the standard but survived in some dialects (per Language Log). Of course, it could also be re-invented. Is there in fact a generational difference in “aks” in British English?

  7. AJP Crown says:

    The Guardian also had this article in their column The Long Read in yesterday’s paper. They’re giving David Shariatmadari’s book an enormous amount of promotion (perhaps in lieu of wages, I wouldn’t put anything of that kind past them).

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/aug/15/why-its-time-to-stop-worrying-about-the-decline-of-the-english-language

  8. “The psycholinguist John Lucy has given language as one explanation for the starkly different rates of workplace accidents in Sweden and Finland. In Swedish, prepositions allow for the nuanced account of actions over time; in Finnish, case endings stress static relationships. This may make Finns less alert to the temporal arrangement of a process, leading to more interruptions and accidents at work.”

    So, in a book called “Don’t Believe a Word”, is this the kind of thing we are asked to believe? (It wasn’t entirely clear that this comes from the book, but I guess it does?)

    I speak both Finnish and Swedish and I didn’t know that Swedish allows for the “nuanced account of actions over time” but that Finnish case endings “stress static relationships”. (Most Finnish case endings could be described as postpositions anyway, so I’m not sure what the big difference is supposed to be.)

    I have never actually encountered anyone who actually says “Language X is declining” in the sense that English or some other language is actually developing to become unusable, as suggested in the Long Read Guardian article. So to me that seems like a straw man.

    (One does hear people say, e.g. college students write less well than X years ago, or young people have poorer vocabularies than X years ago, or people swear more than X years ago, but these are claims of a different sort and could be true.)

  9. I have never actually encountered anyone who actually says “Language X is declining” in the sense that English or some other language is actually developing to become unusable, as suggested in the Long Read Guardian article. So to me that seems like a straw man.

    No, it’s a real thing. It’s not as common as it used to be, thankfully, but back in the day it was one of the most common complaints about language.

  10. ktschwarz says:

    Kristian: I have never actually encountered anyone who actually says “Language X is declining”

    I gather English isn’t your L1? Most people educated in English have been made to read Orwell, who is quite unambiguous:

    Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, … Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that individual writer. …

    That’s taught as holy writ in a lot of schools. David Shariatmadari gives lots more examples in the “Long Read” linked above.

    (Thanks for the link, AJP, it answers my question above about “aks”. Associating it with young people was the book reviewer’s error: Shariatmadari first mentions “aks” as a normal variation, then only later goes on to discuss young people’s innovation.)

    Language Hat: It’s not as common as it used to be

    How could you measure that? Don’t you just mean you don’t hang out in that kind of place anymore?

    What really has changed, I think, is that *pushback* against ignorant peeving gets much better platforms than it used to. Ben Zimmer and Lane Greene write in high-prestige magazines; Kory Stamper, Lynne Murphy and Gretchen McCulloch have well-promoted books, just to name a few of the most recent; there are blogs with major institutions behind them (Lingua Franca, Language Log) as well as many well-qualified independent bloggers.

  11. Damn you got me all excited but apparently this isn’t being published until January??

  12. How could you measure that? Don’t you just mean you don’t hang out in that kind of place anymore?

    Heh. You may be right.

  13. My wife interviewed for a job with a company that had problems with managers not being able to communicate well with workers on a noisy factory floor. The workers were mostly not L1 English.

    She suggested that the managers learn to speak in a standardized way such that each task had only one way to describe it and each verb was used only for a single specific action. This was quite doable as the number of tasks on the floor was limited. That way the workers would only need to master a small English vocabulary instead of the entire language.

    They didn’t go for it. They wanted a solution that didn’t involve making managers change their behaviour.

  14. @maidhc: It seems to work for air traffic controllers…

  15. @ktschwarz

    I have probably read that essay sometime, or something similar that Orwell wrote. I interpret Orwell to mean that if people live under a regime where they only read agitprop novels instead of “good literature”, then the political discourse in that country is going to decline and people are not going to be able to express new ideas or ideas that rulers dislike.

    What I have never encountered from any modern person is this kind of thing (quoted from Shariatmadari’s essay), that some kind of neurolinguistic apocalypse awaits us:

    The 21st century seems to present us with an ever-lengthening list of perils: climate crisis, financial meltdown, cyber-attacks. Should we stock up on canned foods in case the ATMs snap shut? Buy a shedload of bottled water? Hoard prescription medicines? The prospect of everything that makes modern life possible being taken away from us is terrifying. We would be plunged back into the middle ages, but without the skills to cope.

    Now imagine that something even more fundamental than electricity or money is at risk: a tool we have relied on since the dawn of human history, enabling the very foundations of civilisation to be laid. I’m talking about our ability to communicate – to put our thoughts into words, and to use those words to forge bonds, to deliver vital information, to learn from our mistakes and build on the work done by others.

    The doomsayers admit that this apocalypse may take some time – years, or decades, even – to unfold. But the direction of travel is clear.

  16. Eh, he’s exaggerating for rhetorical effect.

  17. Clearly, but to me it doesn’t seem like a very effective rhetorical device, because it leaves me in considerable doubt as to what exactly he’s talking about.

  18. Well, that’s because you’re apparently unfamiliar with the widespread phenomenon of handwringing over predicted linguistic decline.

  19. In the sense that anyone thinks “English is declining and people living in the same community won’t be able to understand each other” it is unfamiliar to me, yes.

  20. Kristian,

    I’m a bit confused by your argument. On the one hand, I can certainly believe that you might never, personally, have encountered someone making that argument. But to jump to the assumption that no one ever has — that Shariatmadari is presenting “a straw man” — is a bit odd, given that Shariatmadari gives you examples in his Guardian article. For example, he quotes the British broadcaster John Humphrys as writing in a book that “ultimately, no doubt, we shall communicate with a series of grunts”. (There’s your “neurolinguistic apocalypse” right there.)

    I interpret Orwell to mean that if people live under a regime where they only read agitprop novels instead of “good literature”, then the political discourse in that country is going to decline

    No, here is what Orwell said, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse.” This isn’t a hypothetical, it’s a statement about the current situation of English, as “most people who bother with the matter at all” see it. And his suggestion is that most such people agree that the collapse is inevitable.

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