IGNORANT BLATHERING AT THE NEW YORKER.

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!

Comments

  1. dearieme says:

    “prescriptivists are snobbish but descriptivists are self-righteous”: whereas I suspect that prescriptivists are sincere but descriptivists are (probably) not – I’ll bet they prescribe like mad to their own children, if only in one subset of prescribing, to wit proscribing.

  2. This argument is made from time to time. The difference is that when descriptivists prescribe, they’re fully aware that their prescriptions are purely a matter of personal taste and subjective æsthetics. Whereas when prescriptivists prescribe, they believe their prescriptions are the one True, Correct form, written in stone tablets by some ancient god (that they never both to check). Prescriptivists have a bag of hearsay “rules” and use them as shibboleths to establish membership in a prestigious social club.
    It’s alright to have preferences for some forms of language; I suppose everyone does. The problem is to pretend your preferences are some God-given impartial criteria for correctness.
    It’s like not wanting to have gay sex vs. proclaiming gay sex is wrong.

  3. On the one hand, linguists necessarily take a descriptive approach to grammar. Their task is to study language as it exists.
    On the other hand, anyone who tells you how and how not to use the language (whether a teacher, a parent, an editor, a writer of style guides, or just someone who can’t resist telling you what they think) necessarily makes prescriptions (and proscriptions).
    It’s cute that these words “descriptive” and “prescriptive” rhyme, but it’s endlessly misleading to offer them as a pair of contrasting approaches. Approaches to what?
    Prescriptivism is not an alternative way of being a linguist. Linguistics isn’t about the way language(s) ought to be.
    Descriptivism is not an alternative way to teach people how to speak or write. There may be teachers who say “anything goes”, but that’s not descriptivism, that’s “anything goes”.
    If these words were not so tainted, it would be quite reasonable to say that a professor of linguistics holds his or her students to certain standards in writing is behaving prescriptively. That would not be to classify the professor as a “prescriptivist” as opposed to a “descriptivist”.

  4. The standards of formal language use (prescriptive) are not at all the same thing as the principles that underlie all language use (descriptive). The latter has to do with the basic mechanics of languages (not just English) while the former is mostly about style rather than grammar, per se.

  5. I hasten to add that when the linguist is making red marks on the student’s paper he probably won’t be saying “that’s not English” or “that’s not a word” or “that’s ungrammatical”. He knows what is wrong for the occasion, but he doesn’t call it just plain Wrong.

  6. Ø: It’s cute that these words “descriptive” and “prescriptive” rhyme, but it’s endlessly misleading to offer them as a pair of contrasting approaches. Approaches to what?
    Yes, I agree, it’s dumb. It’s Mets v. Yankees, Spurs v. Arsenal, and it goes with “talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk” book reviews.
    I don’t know why you think this piece is beneath the New Yorker, Language. Supercilious nonsense about English is right up their street. The New Yorker can’t figure out how to write co-operate without using a goddamn umlaut, for fuck’s sake. They’ve got sticks up their asses, always have had.

  7. So in the linguistically informed world of the future, the student who writes “The narrator of Moby Dick be telling us to call him Ishmael” gets two marks on his paper, a red one for failing to use Standard English in a student essay, and a green one for using the AAVE durative present when the immediate present is called for. To the first, he replies “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?”; to the second, “Yeah, you right, I was tired.”

  8. Bathrobe says:

    One is by John R. Rickford, a distinguished professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford. Rickford tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it.
    This is sheer nonsense and shows she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. If she thinks that the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism is simply one of ‘rules’ vs ‘no rules’, she is severely mistaken. Chomskyan linguistics, for instance, is full of rules. The problem is that they are not the rules of ‘good usage’ that she is thinking of. They are rules of how language is spoken, and would be expected to contain rules on the grammar of ‘ain’t’ in the spoken language.

  9. Bathrobe: Yes, that’s why I dislike the use of words like “rules” or “laws” to describe observed regularities (as in “laws of physics”). Oh no, prescriptivism—what have I become?
    The languagelog piece discuss Acocella’s misreading of Rickford at lenght.

  10. I think the problem with English-speaking world is a kind of unreasonable prescriptivism, which is not based on any actual usage data, rather than prescriptivism per se. A more factually-based kind of prescriptivism is taught and argued as descriptivism, a term a little misleading but not too much: as it is the descriptivism of a sociolinguistic norm.

  11. Jamessal says:

    I hasten to add that when the linguist is making red marks on the student’s paper he probably won’t be saying “that’s not English” or “that’s not a word” or “that’s ungrammatical”. He knows what is wrong for the occasion, but he doesn’t call it just plain Wrong.
    That’s why it’s not prescriptivism.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    I taught introductory linguistics for twenty-odd years. During that time I gave regular quizzes throughout the semester. Some of the questions involved answering in a short paragraph of two or three sentences. The worst problem was the sometimes lack of coherence because of an inability to form complex sentences, at least on short notice, for instance starting a sentence and using the last word of this incomplete sentence as the beginning for another sentence instead of using two sentences or a properly formed complex sentence. This did not happen so much in exams requiring short essays, as the students had more time to think ahead and to rewrite, but was quite frequent in quizzes, where time was limited. In such cases I often rewrote the sentences myself as an example of how they could have been written coherently (I usually had small classes, so that was feasible).
    I also told the students that I was not concerned about split infinitives or the like, and I explained why, but that if they were writing for professors of English who cared about such things they should follow those profs’ directives. There was no need for them to feel guilty about their own native intuitions but it would be advisable for them to indulge the prescriptivists’ tastes in order not to lose marks.

  13. jamessal says:

    I think the problem with English-speaking world is a kind of unreasonable prescriptivism, which is not based on any actual usage data, rather than prescriptivism per se.
    No, the problem very much is prescriptivism per se — a shoddy canon of language books written by people who know nothing about how language works. Prescriptivism is, by definition, “unreasonable … not based on any actual usage data.” Better informed, more sound advice about usage is just that, and a descriptivist can dispense it without any contradiction whatsoever.
    One of the main problems with this debate is that even people with decent heads of on their shoulders, people who can recognize the idiocy and cravenness of the article Hat here is demolishing — people, it seems, like you — often conflate advice of any kind with prescriptivism. This conflation is engendered in large part by the etymological fallacy, part of which is the belief that people can figure out what a word means just by looking it. Prescriptivism, for example, has almost nothing to do with simple prescription, even though the latter word looks similar to the former (because it derived from it); for some time now, prescriptivism has had a meaning all its own: it denotes the fatuous attitude toward language held by the authors of the aforementioned canon.
    Keeping these meanings clear will go a long way toward finally putting bed many of the canards bandied about in the so-called language wars, canards this time perpetuated by Joan Acocella and her incompetent editors at The New Yorker.

  14. jamessal says:

    even though the latter word looks similar to the former (because it derived from it
    I’m sorry — that should have been: “… the former word [prescriptivism] looks similar to the latter [prescription] (because it derived from).”

  15. dearieme says:

    “when prescriptivists prescribe, they believe their prescriptions are the one True, Correct form, written in stone tablets by some ancient god”. If it weren’t that I don’t like to stereotype stereotypes, I might view that as stereotyping.

  16. dearieme says:

    Mind you, when I was a young adult I met plenty of Americans in university life who spoke a handsome, dry, terse English. The ones I’ve met more recently mainly speak drivelish. Whether this is a consequence of the overthrow of prescriptivism I couldn’t say. Maybe both are the consequence of some deeper social trend.

  17. dearieme, you are a curmudgeon, if you don’t mind my saying so.

  18. Cowan, I would love to live in a world similar to that. Destigmatizing Ebonics, maybe even teaching a standardized form of it in schools, seems like it might get rid of a lot of the racism you see in business and everyday life. If you can’t criticize their way of speaking, that’s one less legitimate way to teach your children to hate black people.
    I’m going to read this article, because the excerpts look pretty bad but I think I probably agree with Acocella. It is fully possible to seek to promulgate your peeves without denying language science, as I think Fowler demonstrates.

  19. And can, in consequence, sit next to me any time at all.
    Only thing I would add is that if I wanted my child to learn, say, French, I would rather it be from an Academician than from an Apache. (And in due course I would hope she might pick up a bit of street patois – but only after the fact.)

  20. Am I the only one who first thinks of the airport when I see DFW?

  21. Joe R.: I would too.
    BWA: I would rather it be from an Academician than from an Apache
    I think a Cree or an Ojibwe would be a better bet. (Many years ago, my wife got a written invitation to an “apache party”; she has rather high cheekbones, and showed up in an approximation of Apache traditional dress. Instant humiliation!)
    Sili: Me too.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    deariene: when I was a young adult I met plenty of Americans in university life who spoke a handsome, dry, terse English.
    I assume that this was in British universities, at a time when fewer students a) attended university, and b) crossed the ocean to do so, so that there was probably a (mostly) class-based selection.
    When I was in university (in France), I thought that the foreign students I met were much more intelligent and interesting than the French ones. Later I realized that the foreign students were mostly “the cream of the crop” where they came from, not “the run of the mill”.

  23. Dearie, is this what you mean by handsome, dry terse English? Sounds like drivel to me. At least you don’t need subtitles to understand Kennedy or Eisenhower.

  24. (Sorry, d., I missed a comma. My mistake, not yours.)

  25. marie-lucie says:

    A few years ago there was a study of how the queen’s pronunciation had changed over the years, along with that of the rest of the English population.
    I think that the subtitles in the film were for the benefit of people with hearing problems, or perhaps different accents in various Commonwealth countries.
    No doubt “drivel” refers to the platitudinous content rather than the pronunciation or sentence structure.

  26. By the way, I believe the patterned brickwork you see at the beginning of that clip, as the camera zooms in on Sandringham, is sometimes called diapering (but not nappying).

  27. Yes, I meant the content. There’s no less drivel spoken on this side of the Atlantic.

  28. dearieme says:

    “No doubt “drivel” refers to the platitudinous content rather than the pronunciation or sentence structure.” Not entirely, because some of the sentence structure is, like, just so awesome it literally blows your mind.
    In addition to the platitudes and the loss of brevity, the lack of humour is also noticeable. Maybe it’s just that the cleverest Americans don’t enter academic life any more. Can’t say I blame ‘em.

  29. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I initially read Okuzaki as Okazaki, and asked myself what have fragments got to do with it? Doubtless this question will seem utterly unintelligible to many, but in fact Okazaki fragments that play an important role in DNA replication. If I remember rightly there were two Okazakis — husband and wife: both were in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and he died of leukaemia a few years after they made their discovery. The mystery remains, however: why Okuzaki (who appears to be a manga characterà?

  30. AJP, an erstwhile presciptivist who began a journey to descriptivism about the same as I became an Arsenal fan, I’m confused. Descriptivism vs prescriptivism may not be that critical but Spurs vs Arsenal is the ultimate archetypal battle of evil vs good, in which good is doomed to lose.In the words the very descriptivist Douglas Adams (a lifelong Gooner) “Arsenal without a chance.” If anyone doubts his descriptivist cred, just remember Streeetmentioner.

  31. Bathrobe says:

    That Christmas message from the young queen brought tears to my eyes, it sounded so dated and nostalgic. I kept wondering as I listened: who wrote that speech, were they serious, and did people in those days really believe that stuff?

  32. I don’t know anything about DNA, I’m afraid. Kenzo Okuzai is a character in Kazuo Hara’s film The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.
    I’m horrified to be described as an erstwhile prescriptivist, it’s almost as bad as ‘erstwhile Sarah Palin supporter’, which goes some way towards illustrating Ø’s point that it’s not a subtle enough – if you’ll pardon the word – description.
    Talking of Arsenal, I see that Chelsea is planning to turn Battersea power station into a football stadium.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    I think “erstwhile prescriptivist” is not meant to refer to AJP, but is Stuart’s self-description. Who did you mean, Stuart?

  34. Bathrobe: Yes, many of them did believe it, a set sretching right across all the classes, and equally those who did not chime with it. It was largely inherent in their upbringing, in which respect was a large component. There wer epeople who would stand to attentiuon in their living rooms when they heard the National Anthem. It may seem quaint now, even in the UK, but it was sincere. I think there is still such respect for in the US for the flag, which may be seen as the equivalent to the monarchy. In my youth, in Australia and the UK, the National Anthem was played at the end of every movie show, and it was very much expected that you stood for it – starting to leave the theatre was frowned nupon by many. Times change. Happily for us, the Queen remains true to her role, even at 86, and even though her accent may have changed with the times. Shows how smart she is.

  35. marie-lucie is clearly correct: in “an erstwhile presciptivist who began a journey to descriptivism about the same as I became an Arsenal fan, I’m confused,” the long first phrase has to refer to “I” (and in fact has an “I” within it, an internal eye to watch the grammar).

  36. Really? I thought that he accidentally left out the word “time” between between “the same” and “as I”, and that it referred to AJP.
    But if so it’s odd. The way I am interpreting it, maybe it would be better written
    “AJP (an erstwhile prescriptivist who began a journey to descriptivism about the same time as I became an Arsenal fan), I’m confused.”

  37. marie-lucie says:

    To make things explicit, one could use “as” before “an erstwhile prescriptivist”, but conversely, “AJP” could be omitted, therefore : “An erstwhile ….., I …”. This sounds somewhat old-fashioned without “as”, but otherwise formally correct.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Ø, I agree that the sentence structure is ambiguous and that one could interpret the sentence as you do, but consider the content: how would Stuart know that AJP “began a journey to descriptivism at the same time as [he, Stuart] became an Arsenal fan”? The sentence describes the changes in Stuart’s own thinking and tastes in two separate areas, not the coincidental timing of his and AJP’s mental journeys.

  39. I seem to recall that AJP has mentioned his transition from usage peever to anti-peever. Maybe he even gave a timeline. Why are we talking about this? I hope that Stuart will weigh in and straighten it all out for us. Stuart?

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, a tempest in a teapot, but AJP did not agree he was “an erstwhile prescriptivist”, so let’s wait until we hear from Stuart.

  41. This is the second time in two days I’ve seen “a tempest in a teapot” – the other was quoting JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon’s first description of what turned out to be a $2 billion trading loss…
    I’ve always seen “a storm in a teapot” (though tempest is nice). Has global warming caused an upsurge in teapot storms, or it that the North American version ?

  42. marie-lucie says:

    Paul, I only know “a tempest in a teapot”, but I have lived most of my life in North America. The triple alliteration is particularly nice.

  43. I seem to recall that AJP has mentioned his transition from usage peever to anti-peever. Maybe he even gave a timeline.
    Is someone impersonating me? I don’t remember being that peevish. And – don’t forget we live way out in the bush – I wouldn’t know how to give a timeline; is it a line with dates & events?

  44. It seems that I may have discovered how to make a contribution here – accidentally omit a couple of words. My opening should have read “AS an erstwhile presciptivist who began a journey to descriptivism about the same TIME as I became an Arsenal fan, I’m confused”. Even though I re-read it before posting, I still missed both omissions. Curious, but at least it triggered plenty of discussion.

  45. I think there is still such respect for in the US for the flag, which may be seen as the equivalent to the monarchy.
    Yes, indeed. The U.S. flag represents the sovereign people, and we pay it sovereign honors: members of the military must (and former members may) salute when it passes them. Civilians may and often do remove their hats (if male) and put their hands on their hearts in the same situation, which is also called a salute. For the same reason, we do not dip the flag (lower and quickly raise it) when entering a foreign port: sovereigns do not bow to other sovereigns. (More precisely, the U.S. Navy will respond to a dip with a dip, but never initiates one.)

  46. Bathrobe says:

    AS an erstwhile presciptivist who began a journey to descriptivism about the same TIME as I became an Arsenal fan, I’m confused
    Now all is revealed. And it finally makes sense. That first AS is what implicated poor old AJP in something that he never did.

  47. Bathrobe says:

    I thought it was “storm in a teacup”.

  48. Apparently the Brits have storms in their teacups and Yanks have tempests. I only knew the latter until I was virtually a graybeard.

  49. It’s ‘tempest’ for me.

  50. A WiPe article begins by saying
    Tempest in a teapot (American English), or tempest in a teacup (British English),
    but later says
    The first recorded instance of the British English version, “storm in teacup”, occurs in Catherine Sinclair’s Modern Accomplishments in 1838. There are several instances though of earlier British use of the similar phrase “storm in a wash-hand basin”.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    teapot vs. teacup
    Here in Nova Scotia there is an organization which promotes the work of local artists through greeting cards featuring their work. One such artist has a series of cards representing teacups, each with a particular visual joke or pun. One I like shows a two- or three-master foundering among waves within a teacup! I have not asked around me, but perhaps “storm in a teacup” is more common locally than “tempest in a teapot”. Nova Scotia is a very conservative province overall, so it would not be surprising if local English had preserved a British phrase.

  52. Trond Engen says:

    In Norwegian it’s storm i et vannglass “storm in a glass of water”. We’re not that into tea.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    I had forgotten that we have the same in French: une tempête dans un verre d’eau.
    This could be a literal translation from another language. The phrase that first comes to my mind with un verre d’eau is se noyer dans un verre d’eau, literally ‘to be drowning in a glass of water’, meaning ‘to be overwhelmed by trivial incidents’, almost ‘to make a mountain out of a molehill’.

  54. @marie: Judging from the wikipedia article, likely from Latin? We have tempests in glasses of water in Portuguese too, often preceded by “don’t make a”.

  55. Speak for yourself, Trondy. I drink nothing else.

  56. Garrigus Carraig (f/k/a komfo,amonan) says:

    @marie-lucie: Has the queen’s accent changed over the years? I’ve always had the impression that old recordings didn’t reflect the way people actually talked, rather that there was a kind of stage diction or public-speaking diction which was carried over into radio and then television, and that eventually this practice was abandoned for more natural diction. I suppose I find it hard to believe that people actually spoke in real life the way they did in recordings.
    As much as I sympathize with republicanism, I find it impossible to dislike the queen. I am utterly charmed by her. There, I said it.

  57. Trond Engen says:

    Je drekk bære vatten!

  58. mollymooly says:

    “storm in a teacup”. Also, “drop in the ocean”.
    ‘As much as I sympathize with republicanism, I find it impossible to dislike the queen. I am utterly charmed by her.’ This looks like a job for…President Elizabeth Windsor.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Garrigus Carraig: Has the queen’s accent changed over the years?
    This is not my own observation, since I very rarely hear the queen and am not terribly familiar with varieties of British accents, but it was discussed a few years ago, I think on Language Log. Some British linguists made a study of her recordings and came to this conclusion. Traces of this research should be findable on the internet.
    mollymooly: “storm in a teacup”. Also, “drop in the ocean”.
    I don’t think these mean quite the same thing. The way I understand these phrases, “a storm in a teacup” is a disproportionately strong emotional reaction to something quite trivial, like ‘much ado about nothing’, but “a drop in the ocean” is a very minor, inconsequential fact which will have no influence on something much bigger and more significant. Of course, I could be wrong on both counts.

  60. Je drekk bære vatten!
    What dialect is this?

  61. Trond Engen says:

    It’s from north of Oslo, around lake Mjøsa. That particular phrase was made famous by Vazelina Bilopphøggers.

  62. I don’t think these mean quite the same thing.
    I don’t think mollymooly was suggesting they did; I assumed it was just free association.

  63. She’s a bit too conservative for my taste, but I’m sure she’s very nice and amusing and quite smart. The point is that has nothing to do with how she got the job. She’s not queen because she’s smart, she got the job solely because of who her father was. She got it because they are distantly related to some of the most immoral and unpleasant characters in English history: William the Conqueror and Henry VIII, to name but two, people who poked people’s eyes out, murdered their own family and burnt down buildings.

  64. Bathrobe says:

    I’m glad Garrigus Carraig changed his monicker. The old one always made me think of Kofi Annan.

  65. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Oh yeah m-l, I didn’t mean to imply that the assertion was yours. Anyway here’s the LL post, in case anyone else is interested.
    I am surprised by the notion of an adult’s accent changing. Has anyone noticed this phenomenon in themselves or in a family member? I also wouldn’t think she would have enough contact with commoners to influence her speech or anything else.

  66. Garrigus Carraig says:

    Crown: Indeed, she does not really deserve the job; she just happens to be kind of good at it. Anyway I’d bet £5 that her successor will indeed drive one or two of the realms to republicanism.
    Bathrobe: Both names are of Akan origin!

  67. marie-lucie says:

    I am surprised by the notion of an adult’s accent changing
    Many people who change countries do not try to adopt the accent of the new country but their pronunciation is nevertheless affected by the new environment. For instance, an English friend of mine, in Canada for many years, is sometimes taken for a Canadian or American when she goes back to England, even though she sounds definitely British to Canadian or American ears. I have heard similar reports from various people in the same situation.
    The queen may not have much contact with many commoners, but she must watch TV and movies, as well as speak with her staff.
    [the Royals] are distantly related to some of the most immoral and unpleasant characters in English history: William the Conqueror and Henry VIII, to name but two,
    There have been several distinct lineages on the throne of England. I don’t think there is much common DNA, if any, between the queen and those villains, or between the villains themselves.

  68. Common descent does not imply common DNA, because half the ancestral DNA is eliminated in each generation. Sixteen generations and essentially all of the 40,000 human genes are gone.
    It is utterly commonplace for those who have changed regions as adults to wind up with intermediate and indeed variable accents. My wife, for instance, lived in North Carolina for 18 years, in Southern Florida (which basically has a Northern accent) for 7 years, and in New York City for 43 years to present. She still sounds impressionistically Southern most of the time, pin-pen merger and all that. But when she visits with her family, they tell her how Yankee she sounds — whereas to my ears she instantly becomes much more Southern just by talking with them.

  69. I have heard similar reports from various people in the same situation.
    Me, for instance.
    There have been several distinct lineages on the throne of England. I don’t think there is much common DNA, if any, between the queen and those villains, or between the villains themselves.
    You can easily trace a genetic line to Elizabeth II from William the Conqueror via Henry VIII. After more than a thousand years there are now literally millions of people who are descended from the Norman and Saxon kings, although most of them are unaware of it. The Hanovers, Stuarts, Tudors and so on have different names not because they’re unrelated but because a claim to the monarchy is based on male primogeniture, and when it happened that there weren’t any suitable boy descendants, the DNA was passed through a daughter who had married into another family. Then the “House” changed. You can see the Stuart – Hanover example very clearly here. Tradition is useful and wonderful in some ways, but it’s important to remember that it’s the tradition of male primogeniture that makes this claimant, Mrs Mountbatten, rather than Mrs Bloggs down the road, head of state.

  70. Sixteen generations and essentially all of the 40,000 human genes are gone.
    Even I know that after 16 generations one is not bereft of human genes.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks for the history, AJP. Actually William the Conqueror took advantage of the rule “when it happened that there weren’t any suitable boy descendants, the DNA was passed through a daughter who had married into another family”. He was one of several potential claimants to the throne of England since the old king had no descendants and William was the grandson of the king’s sister.

  72. Bathrobe says:

    She got it because they are distantly related to some of the most immoral and unpleasant characters in English history
    OK, but does viciousness get passed down in the genes?

  73. I don’t know. They were still having people murdered fairly recently. James I had Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched, for example. The rumour that the eldest son of the prince of Wales was Jack the Ripper is described in the Oxford DNB as “silly”. They enjoy killing animals, if you count that.

  74. The main change I hear in HM’s accent is the loss of the clipped vowel you can hear in that recording in words like family, and which meant that the two vowels in *city* were pretty much identical.

  75. marie-lucie says:

    AJP: … fairly recently. James I …
    I am not sure if this is taking the long view or the short view of history!

  76. Pooru: It’s called happy-tensing, if you are curious, and it is now very common everywhere in the English-speaking world.

  77. @John:
    Cool, thanks.

  78. Did we believe that stuff? Yes we did, for the most part. Would that we could believe it now. More important is that it is so very evident that the queen believed it. That’s what makes what she said drivel, perhaps, but at least not bullshit. And, come to think of it, I’d be prepared to assert that it wasn’t, in the circumstances of the time, drivel, either. It seems to me to be an address about standards in the public behaviour of nations. Of course she was wrong to think that ours was that much better than other people’s (this was just a year or so after Suez) but her Christian faith (which I do not share, by the way) made her think there was a moral way of behaving, and that it should be encouraged. Not sure that’s drivel.

  79. her Christian faith…made her think there was a moral way of behaving, and that it should be encouraged. Not sure that’s drivel.
    It may not be drivel, but subsequent events have shown how provocative and inflammatory it can be for a head of state to use their own religion as a justification for national morals. Norway, incidentally, has just decided to have an official separation between the church and the state. It’s never too late for Britain to do the same; that would be a moral way of behaving, in my opinion.

  80. Etienne says:

    In answer to Garrigus Carraig (about an adult changing accents): for a year I worked in the American South, and I will never forget the surprise I felt when I realized that I was regularly realizing the first syllable of “cornbread” as /ko:n/ (my L2 English is otherwise quite rhotic). Phonologically, I was definitely “going native”, and I assure you it was quite unconscious.

  81. the long view or the short view of history
    Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, once was asked (so the story goes) his opinion of the French Revolution. He paused thoughtfully, and said “Too early to tell.”
    head of state to use their own religion
    Hey, do you think it’s easy to be an Anglican one day and a Presbyterian the next, and switch back again when you return from Holyrood? The Queen must have changed religions more often than anyone since the Thirty Years’ War.
    After more than a thousand years there are now literally millions of people who are descended from the Norman and Saxon kings
    Essentially everyone with any European ancestry at all. As further studies are done, the time back to the “identical ancestors point”, the moment when everyone now alive is descended from the same subset of the people alive then, keeps shortening: it’s now a few thousand years. The time back to the most recent common ancestor (through either male or female lines) is only about 2300 years by now, at least if you exclude the North Sentinelese and other uncontacted peoples. (The argument is straightforward: in each generation back you have twice as many ascendants, and when the number of ascendants exceeds the number of people then alive, then everyone alive then is the ancestor of all of us or none of us.)

  82. The argument is straightforward
    Well, not quite. You’ve got to remember that for long periods of time this lot mostly bred with their own relatives: cousins and whatnot. So someone in the royal family might have had only one grandfather instead of the customary two. Actually, even in normal family trees, if you go back a few generations you find common ancestors.

  83. marie-lucie says:

    In my own family there is an unusual (I think) feature: one of my father’s great-grandmothers had six daughters, spaced a few years apart. In time, the youngest daughter’s son married the oldest daughter’s granddaughter, who was only three years younger than him. They became my father’s parents. So my father’s ancestress was both his great-grandmother on his father’s side and his great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side.

  84. marie-lucie says:

    for long periods of time this lot mostly bred with their own relatives: cousins and whatnot.
    This was true with official breeding – intended to produced heirs to the throne. Unofficial breeding of royal males with ordinary women no doubt produced many more descendants.

  85. Who became a staple of historical romance novels.

  86. You’ve got to remember that for long periods of time this lot mostly bred with their own relatives: cousins and whatnot. So someone in the royal family might have had only one grandfather instead of the customary two. Actually, even in normal family trees, if you go back a few generations you find common ancestors.
    Well, exactly so! But it’s true for all of us, not just royals. Let’s step back about 50 generations to Charlemagne’s day, as I like to do from time to time. I am, as far as anyone knows, of European ancestry exclusively. Hypothetically I should have 2⁵⁰ or about 1.1 quadrillion ancestors living in the year 800.
    Of course that’s preposterous — only about 30 million people lived in Europe then — so every single person alive in that time is either my ancestor millions of times over through different lines of descent, or has no descendants at all.
    I’m not special in this respect, but Charlemagne is known to have descendants living today (including ex-President Bush) so all the European-descended people anywhere in the world are also his descendants. Including me. But then all we Irish are descended from kings anyway.

  87. Garrigus Carraig says:

    I stand corrected about accents changing during adulthood. The accents of my parents and brother seem to be stable, and their examples probably skew my perception.

  88. so every single person alive in that time is either my ancestor millions of times over through different lines of descent, or has no descendants at all
    There’s another consideration. m-l’s family is, I think, not so unusual; that sort of thing was typical up to the 20C (in Britain up to the industrial revolution, when poorer folk became more mobile). Most families probably bred within a small local circle for many centuries. Sadly that must limit the number of times I get Giotto, say, as an ancestor and bump up the number of times I’m related to some 13C East-Anglian wool stapler. On the other hand Giotto and his children were said by Vasari to have been fantastically ugly, so maybe it’s not all bad.
    m-l, you’re right, I forgot the bastards.

  89. Bathrobe says:

    The woolly interests are obviously still in the genes. You can take the boy out of the wool, but not the wool out of the boy. Or something like that.

  90. I have wool on my Australian side too.
    (Inserts pun about Claude Levi-Strauss genes).

  91. I forgot the bastards
    If these things obey the usual small-world laws (this is an actual branch of mathematics), we can expect that a few highly prolific people will serve to create links between almost all the groups.
    Indeed, in the 15th century the most recent common ancestor of humanity probably lived about 40,000 years ago, around the time Australia was settled. But we have done just enough mixing since then that the MRCA is now a much more recent person.
    Even I know that after 16 generations one is not bereft of human genes.
    Yes, otherwise we’d all have reclaimed our common chimpunity by now. What I meant was that if you look at one of your ancestors in the 16th degree, the probability that your variable genomic DNA (most DNA is non-genomic, most genes are identical in all humans) contains a piece of his that has been copied 16 times in the direct line of descent is tiny. In any case, DNA relatedness studies don’t look at the entire genome or anywhere close to it.

  92. the probability that your variable genomic DNA contains a piece of his that has been copied 16 times in the direct line of descent is tiny
    Ok, but it’s much greater than my chance of winning the lottery (I don’t do the lottery).

  93. Me either. It’s a tax on stupidity, and I try to avoid (not evade) taxes whenever possible.

  94. mollymooly says:

    I don’t think mollymooly was suggesting they did; I assumed it was just free association.
    Ish. “storm in a teacup”:”tempest in a teapot”::”drop in the ocean”:”drop in the bucket”.

  95. Noetica says:

    this lot mostly bred with their own relatives: cousins and whatnot
    The way I heard it, this Lot bred with his own daughters. But that was in another country / And besides, both wenches are dead.

  96. Ryan Bloom just posted a ridiculous defense of the Acocella worldview on his Page Turner blog on the New Yorker website. Apparently management is going to double down, rather than respond to reasoned criticism.

  97. Pinker just posted an anti-New Yorker diatribe in Slate. The main point seems to be that prescriptivists and descriptivists are theoretical abstractions, not found in pure form in reality.

  98. marie-lucie says:

    MOCKBA, I don’t agree that Pinker’s piece is a “diatribe”, like Joan Acocella’s. He is not insulting the prescriptivists. And I would not characterize the main point like you do. He is arguing against the totally misinformed, hostile characterization of descriptivists by “language mavens” who have no idea what linguists are talking about.
    I like his back-formation “iptivists”.

  99. Trond Engen says:

    … or rather, he’s laying out the facts of the field, as described by both him and Rickford, and deriding the New Yorker for not giving a damn. Given that the New Yorker wouldn’t publish Rickford’s factual correction, I think he’s remarkably civil.

  100. M-L, I liked Pinker’s piece and the “iptivist” label too, and I was just as puzzled by Acocella’s article and the magazine’s refusal to publish corrections. Still there is no question for me that despite outward civility, Pinker is overreaching and overgeneralizing, especially as he concludes that the journalists are just an ignorant bunch drawn to real and made-up controversies but not giving a flying damn about the truth.
    Of course Pinker got a point about schematism and one-sidedness of “iptivisms” but it doesn’t make the “iptivism dimension” disappear. It’s as if one would say that absolute zero temperature doesn’t really exist and therefore we should stop measuring temperatures. It’s more like, Acocella’s thermometer’s broke.

  101. jamessal says:

    Given that the New Yorker wouldn’t publish Rickford’s factual correction, I think he’s remarkably civil.
    Amen. I couldn’t believe it when I read the letters they did publish instead of Rickford’s: one from a high profile intellectual with some actual linguistic training (Pinker), two from know-nothing native speakers with strong, fatuous opinions about English. Balanced, you know.

  102. And even the Pinker letter was so specific in its complaints you’d have no idea what a piece of garbage the article was.

  103. jamessal says:

    Yeah, he should have brought a gun to that fight — a sawed-off. He should have sprayed vicious bon mots at all and sundry: maybe at least shame a few readers for gobbling up that garbage, if not any writers or editors.

  104. jamessal says:

    There’s a place even in intellectual discourse for vitriol, and that was it.

  105. Pinker’s letter to the NY was disappointing. His Slate piece had some of what I had hoped to see in the letter.

  106. Trond Engen says:

    This thread is being taken over by spammers. Could it be The New Yorker trying to silence us? Everybody look for dots over the vowels!

  107. Bathrobe says:

    No need for paranoïa.

  108. John Cowan says:

    Doubtless this question will seem utterly unintelligible to many

    The whole purpose of Languagehat is the discussion of questions that are unintelligible to many!

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