Getting Basics Wrong (and Page 112).

David Adger’s TLS review (paywalled, sorry) of a book by Daniel Cloud begins:

The Domestication of Language offers a proposal about the general principles that lead to words having the meanings that they do. These principles, which Daniel Cloud takes to be akin to those that underlie the domestication of crops or livestock, involve speakers engaging in a more or less rational and deliberate process that prunes away certain terms for certain concepts over time. Just as farmers might choose to propagate plants with the best yield, or hunters might breed the most loyal dogs, communities of speakers choose to use and teach words which best support their culture.

You probably have your doubts already, and they will only be reinforced when I tell you that Cloud is a philosopher with no background in linguistics. That in itself wouldn’t be worth reporting — the world is full of bad books about language written by people with no background in linguistics — but what leads me to post about it is the fact that the reviewer is an actual linguist, who does a polite but thorough demolition job:

Cloud simply doesn’t draw, in his arguments, on any of the vast amount of linguistic work on language structure and language change, choosing instead to use analogies with the evolution of species. In his references I counted maybe four pieces that could charitably be called works in linguistics, and these serve to back up passing comment in the book, rather than to provide evidence for a proposal. I’m not just cavilling here because I’m a theoretical linguist. The lack of discussion of language, in a book ostensibly about language, matters. It has an impact on both the novelty and the consistency of the argument.

Much of the book’s discussion of the social shaping of language is old hat. Traditional and modern studies in historical linguistics and sociolinguistics have proposed principles that govern how word meanings change, and these principles explain a huge range of actual facts. […] Just as perplexing, especially since this is the focus of the book, is the absence of discussion of work on word meanings (what linguists call lexical semantics). […] Things are just as bad when we turn to language acquisition. […] On top of this, when Cloud does discuss language, he gets many basics wrong.

My hat is off to the TLS for assigning the review to someone qualified to do the job, and I am allowing myself to hope that their example will be more widely followed.

Also, I can’t resist quoting the (always pleasing) NB column on the back page, which begins:

At last! A literary prize based on principles as sound as those of our own All Must Have Prizes Prize, for authors who have never won a prize. The Paris-based Prix de la Page 112 is what it says it is: an award for the best page 112 in a new book. On March 30 [2016], at the restaurant Roger la grenouille on Rue des Grands Augustins, a jury will select the winner from a list of ten page 112s and present him or her with a cheque for €112. The shortlist includes Roulette russe by Bruno Bayan, En attendant Bojangles by Olivier Bourdeaut, Le Dernier Amour d’Attila Kiss by Julia Kerninon and Giratoire by Dominique Paravel.

Established in 2013, the prize is inspired by Woody Allen’s film Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Eliot, played by Michael Caine, presses a book on his sister-in-law Lee, with whom he is in love. “Don’t forget to read the poem on page 112. It reminded me of you.” The book is E. E. Cummings’s Collected Poems […]. The administrators of the Prix de la Page 112 are not interested in Cummings; the criterion for entry is based on their observation that round about p112 a book is liable to lose energy. “The reader is apt to neglect p112. That’s why we chose it”, they say. “If a book has a remarkable p112, then we are permitted to hope that the novel in which it appears will be remarkable from beginning to end.”

I picked off my shelf one of my touchstones, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai (see this wildly enthusiastic LH post from 2003, which I stand behind enthusiastically), and turned to p. 112, which begins:

He thought about it for a while & at last he said Help?
I said Good. And this? ὁπ
And he said Hop.
ὁτ. Hot! ἱτ. Hit! ἰτ. It? ἁτ Hat! ἀτ At! ἁτε Hate! ἀτε Ate!
And I said Brilliant!
And he said This is easy!

And I say Case closed! The prize is valid, and the book makes its greatness clear, ἁτ and all.


  1. Até, rather. Which is what one has just done chez Roger la grenouille.

  2. Aeolus

  3. I am always charmed how such arcane seemingly-Politik-frei ruminations tend to recapitulate latter-day politics-lite.

    A fortuitously-on-purpose neoliberal explanation of semantic drift, I daresay.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    I just learned that Walter Lippmann wrote a book called Drift and Mastery. From the master’s title I think I always already have the drift, so I won’t bother to read it.

  5. Helen DeWitt has a new book coming out in May!

  6. Now, that’s what I call good news!

  7. It turns out (in a followup NB column) that the “cheque for €112” was an error: “In fact, there is no money.” J.C. adds the comment: “Perfect.”

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