Joan Acocella is the longtime dance critic of the New Yorker. I imagine she’s a fine dance critic; I don’t know or care anything about dance, so I wouldn’t know one way or the other, but when I’ve dipped into her pieces from time to time she’s seemed literate and sensible. She writes book reviews as well (she has a PhD in comparative literature, so she even has academic credentials in case any were needed). However, when it comes to the study of language, she is an utter ignoramus, which makes it surprising that the New Yorker allowed her to run on for pages and pages blathering about it in the latest issue. I’m as mad about it as I was a decade ago about David Foster Wallace’s similarly dumb essay for Harper’s; I don’t have the time or energy to go into similar detail, but I hope to give good grounds for thinking the New Yorker shouldn’t have published it.
In the first place, like DFW, she’s using a review assignment as a pretext for an extended rant that only occasionally bothers to make contact with the book allegedly under discussion. This kind of thing is fine when the reviewer is a specialist in the field and can provide helpful context and relevant information; that’s half the fun of reading the NYRB and LRB. But Acocella is not an expert; she knows no more about the study of language than I do about the history of dance, which is to say a mix of clichés and misunderstandings. I suspect Acocella would be upset if she were to read what purported to be a review of a book on dance in which the reviewer jovially passed along a lot of nonsense about the Ballets Russes and George Balanchine picked up at random over the years, yet she apparently feels no shame about doing the same herself.
After setting up the straw men she will be manipulating for the rest of the review (“many English speakers have felt that the language was going to the dogs,” while “[t]o others, the complainers were fogies and snobs”), Acocella turns to telling us about Fowler, Orwell, and (of course) Strunk and White (that’s E. B. White, of the New Yorker) as though we’d never heard of them before. After 1,300 words of this, she moves on to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which DFW called “the Fort Sumter of the contemporary Usage Wars” (see this LH post). As she says at great length, it aroused considerable controversy and gave rise to the American Heritage Dictionary and its “usage panel,” which started out pretty conservative but over the years has started to reflect general usage much better. She then has 800 words on slang and “U and Non-U,” for no apparent reason except that she finds them interesting. She is then ready to provide her magisterial judgment on the subject at hand: prescriptivists are snobbish but descriptivists are self-righteous, and the author, an example of the latter, is just full of mistakes. “Hitchings applies a great deal of faulty reasoning, above all the claim that since things have changed before, we shouldn’t mind seeing them change now.” What’s wrong with that, you ask? I won’t try to summarize her “argument”; here it is in all its glory:
It is not hard to see the illogic of this argument. What about the existence of a learned language, or a literary language? If Milton took from Virgil, and Blake from Milton, and Yeats from Blake, were those fountains dry, because they were not used by most people? As for the proposition that, if something was good enough for Dr. Johnson, it should be good enough for us, would we like to live with the dentistry, or the penal codes, or the views on race of Johnson’s time?
But wait, there’s yet more nonsensical nonsense to come:
But the most curious flaw in the descriptivists’ reasoning is their failure to notice that it is now they who are doing the prescribing. By the eighties, the goal of objectivity had been replaced, at least in the universities, by the postmodern view that there is no such thing as objectivity: every statement is subjective, partial, full of biases and secret messages. And so the descriptivists, with what they regarded as their trump card—that they were being accurate—came to look naïve, and the prescriptivists, with their admission that they held a specific point of view, became the realists, the wised-up.
I honestly don’t know what she’s trying to say here, but I’m quite sure it has nothing to do with descriptivism, which is simply a scientific account of language, having nothing to do with dentistry or secret messages. And she ends with this astonishing ad hominem: “Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though.” Right, it’s the descriptivists, the ones trying to get rid of elitist ideas about language, who are taking the Rolls. Aside from the sheer idiocy, you’d think someone who writes about ballet would avoid casting that particular stone from that particular glass house. (Say, ad hominem is fun!)
There’s more to say about this mess, but I can’t go on; fortunately, there’s an excellent takedown by Mark Liberman at the Log, and Jan Freeman has a good post at Throw Grammar from the Train. I hope the magazine prints at least one of the outraged letters that I’m sure are flooding their way; the wave of recent books on language by people who know what they are talking about has opened a lot of eyes, and purveyors of crap like this can no longer expect a matching ignorance on the part of their readers. Really, it’s as if the New Yorker had printed a smug anti-Darwinist article by someone who knew nothing about biology. Shame on them!