Friday, June 25, 2010

Language Chicken or Social Historical Egg: and "Language is Thought"

John McWhorter:

Is English Special Because It's "Globish"?//TNR

Most of the mainline reviews of Robert McCrum’s Globish – of which there have been so many so fast that I am in awe of his publicity people -- are missing what is fundamentally wrong with the book. Herewith one linguist’s take on this peculiar book, within which all evaluators seem to perceive a certain fuzziness, but few are catching that it is based on an outright error of reasoning and analysis – as well as an infelicitous volume of downright flubs.

McCrum starts with the well-known fact that English is now the world’s de facto universal language. Some months ago I spent a week in Papua New Guinea (long story), and found myself for the first time in a situation where English was genuinely of no use beyond hotel counters and university folk. The fact that I could have my first experience of this kind as a relatively well-travelled person of 44, and only in as distant and isolated a location as New Guinea, is graphic indication that the old days are gone. Berlitz books used to stage dialogues where Mr. Smith has to order food in German if he goes to Berlin – that’s now antique; the hotel clerk often speaks English better than Mr. Smith nowawdays. English is everywhere – or, closer to it every year.

But McCrum is taken with a notion that there is something about English itself that has gotten it to this point. He knows on a certain level that this is a delicate proposition, and early on, poses the question “Is this revolution a creature of globalization, or does global capitalism owe some of its energy and resilience to global English in all its manifestations?”

He only means this as a rhetorical sort of “question,” though, because deep down he likes the idea that English is somehow inherently handy, fundamentally “universal” as he puts it here and there. That is, McCrum is not just describing the English takeover – he wants to celebrate his native tongue. He gives it away with this money quote, oddly contradictory but serving as a gateway to the body of the discussion: “Language, it cannot be stressed too strongly, is intrinsically neutral, but it is no contradiction to claim that English – by virtue of its origins and history – is unique.”

But is it? In a way that made it particularly likely to spread? How is English “unique” such that when it was a cluster of divergent dialects we now term Middle English, spoken by a mere few million on a wet little island 800 years ago, we could have picked it out as ripe for becoming the new Latin? This is the argument that McCrum wants to make, but the fuzziness aside, he lacks the scope of data to seriously evaluate the point he’s making.

Never mind overall that a considerable proportion of the text is breezy recapitulation of English and American history with brief asides about implications for the development of English (or not – we get a good three pages on the Magna Carta when it was written in Latin). Reviewers are not making clear enough to readers that over half of Globish is not really about language at all. Globish reminds us that Henry V died of dysentery, but does not get to things such as whether or not the Founding Fathers talked like Masterpiece Theatre characters (hint: they didn’t, really).

And never mind the endless misinterpretations and downright solecisms. The Anglo-Saxons had “an oral culture, favoring understatement and wit” – I was unaware that understatement and wit were more likely among illiterates, such that literate cultures are more given to boisterous humor and slapstick. Or, apparently in Old English it was hard to convey “subtle ideas without the use of cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus like frumwoerc (= creation), from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work.” Oh – clumsy barbarisms in German like Weltanschauung, Dasein and Schadenfreude?

I’m afraid, also, that the Great Vowel Shift was not caused by increasing literacy (“Ah, finally some time to sit down with a good book ... hm, it’s time to start shaking up these damn vowels”), and most people acquainted with the mountainous literature on the Shift would be loathe to dismiss the oeuvre as “hocus pocus” as McCrum does. I have no idea what McCrum means in saying that Old English’s “irregular prepositional structures became standardized,” and last time I checked, Cornish was not Gaelic. The book is shot through with this kind of thing -- God knows how many false factoids it is spreading through the reading public.

But the central problem is that McCrum’s sense that English is somehow uniquely “direct” and “universal” and therefore well-suited to bestride the world is false. In two ways.

First of all, to the extent that McCrum is taking this from English being light on conjugation suffixes (in the present, just little third-person singular -s) and not having gender (no el sombrero for hat but la luna for moon as in Spanish), you can’t claim that this makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. Russian started as a homely, unwritten Slavic dialect, but is currently spoken by 280 million people, speaking a vast array of indigenous languages natively. Yet Russian is murderously complex – three genders, verbs of pitiless complexity, assorted sounds that are tough to produce, squishy word order, unpredictable accent on words, and on and on. (Of those who have reviewed the book in big venues, I am aware of only TNR’s own Isaac Chotiner as touching on a comparison like the Russian one in his New Yorker review.)

Russians, too, are given to chauvinistic claims about their “great and mighty Russian language,” in which case one could posit that the complexity of the language makes it “mighty” as well as maximally clear. This would make, in the end, about as much sense as claiming that English has gotten around because it’s relatively easy to learn. Both English and Russian have spread the way they have because they were the languages that happened to be spoken by powers that happened to acquire vast amounts of territory.

There is a discussion to be had as to why England (plus America) and Russia have had such lasting influence – but the reasons are about sociohistory and geography, not conjugation. We know this because if there were any meaningful linguistic argument, England and Russia would neatly cancel one another out. Arabs, too, might be perplexed to hear that a language has to be easy – “direct,” as McCrum often has it – to be a vehicle of empire. As anyone who has tried to master it will attest, Arabic is a tough one for foreigners. Yet the region is unrecorded that scoffed “We shall not use this Arabic tongue, as it be too difficult on the tongue to serve as a language of conquest!”

Then McCrum errs in a second way. He misses that to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around. This was even part of English’s history – when Scandinavian Vikings occupied England starting in the eighth century, they produced Old English in a stripped-down fashion just as many of us have produced French and Spanish in classrooms. There were so many of the Vikings that kids heard as much English of this kind as “real” Old English, and in a culture with little schooling or media, this “funny” English became the only English.

McCrum knows this – but misses that it upends his paradigm. The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” – they made it easier by picking it up. To the extent that McCrum may suppose that it was this that kicked off English’s “accessible” phase, we return to Arabic and Russian – universal in their ways despite being un-Vikinged. Sanskrit, Cree, Tagalog and other complex languages also seem to have gotten around – the whole construct McCrum builds just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, the world over, languages are on the easy side because they happen to have been imposed on a lot of adult foreigners. The lingua franca in Papua New Guinea, for example, is Indonesian, which delights the learner in having no gender, no conjugation, and no Chinese-type tones. I was getting around after about 48 hours as a result, surely sounding pretty goofy but getting stuff done regardless – something you just can’t pull off in two days in Finnish or Greek. But that ease is no accident – Indonesian has been imposed on speakers of hundreds of languages of the Malay Archipelago for over two millennia. That kind of thing sands a language down. Anyone who today said that Indonesian is spoken by 165 million because of its “universal” and “direct” structure would have the cart before the horse in a major and obvious way. As does McCrum. You can even imagine a book on Indonesian taking this tack about Indonesian being destined to spread – which would sound, to Western ears, quaintly boastful and parochial. We would immediately suspect that it was the spread that made Indonesian so handy. There’s no difference with English.

Why does all of this matter? Because Globish reinforces some questionable ways of thinking about language. I’m not going to say “dangerous” for drama’s sake – just questionable. Inaccurate, frankly – in a way that ends up clotting up discussions about other things.

One is that a language represents a way of thinking, that to speak a certain language is to have your thoughts channeled in certain directions. People adore this idea – you know, such as that the Hopi language has no tense marking and reflects their cyclical sense of time, as promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. I have watched audiences audibly purr when a linguist suggests that something about the way speakers of an indigenous language put their words together suggests something about Their Way Of Thinking, such as one case where we were to suppose that a Native American group were especially fond of slurping and sucking on things!).

The problem is that this view of language just doesn’t go through. Whorf, for the record, was a fire inspector by day and apparently knew Hopi about as well as I know Indonesian, as Hopi has plenty of time expressions. There are plenty of people who insist that the Language is Thought idea is valid, but few have engaged the counterarguments, usefully summarized by Steven Pinker (I, too, have pitched in in this vein).

To be sure, there is solid work being done today by well-informed people showing subtle thought patterns determined by language. People whose language marks table as feminine are more likely to imagine a cartoon table as talking with a high voice than English speakers are (that one is from Lera Boroditzky at Stanford). But this is neither “culture” nor a “world view.” Any Spaniard we met who was going around thinking of tables as chicks, plain and simple, would be someone we’d cross the street to avoid running into.

There is some of this kind of thing in McCrum rhapsodizing about how English’s “transactions urge us ceaselessly to engage our imaginations, and express them, on a global scale.” I can’t say that I have ever felt my language that way. And I am quite sure I’d be reluctant to tell a speaker of, say, Turkish that his language encourages him to use his imagination less than mine does.

And what can potentially follow from this exaltification of English on the basis of accidents of its history is a sense that its consumption of the world’s smaller languages is somehow appropriate. Sure, McCrum understands the dangers and sorrows of how many of the world’s languages are dying at the hands of a few big ones, especially English. But from his text, a reader can come away with a sense that the language I am writing in is, in all of its “accessibility,” “universality,” and “directness,” not to mention its stimulation of the imagination, somehow foreordained to replace all of the less vivid, frustratingly indirect “idioms” hanging around out there.

To wit, there is, despite McCrum surely not intending this, a discomfittingly Darwinian cast to Globish. It reminds me often of old-timey books purporting to be about the Languages of the World in which “language” really means Europe, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese and maybe Persian, Turkish and Hindi, with everything else – i.e. the other 6000 languages of the world – depicted as distant diorama figurines. If you really take in the awesome variety among the world’s languages – ones with only three verbs, ones with almost two hundred sounds, ones with only eight, ones where one word covers what we need a sentence for, ones where the basic word order is object-verb-subject, ones where there really are more exceptions than rules, ones with a hundred genders, and so on – then the idea that there is anything especially anything about little English becomes as hopeless as rhapsodizing over the aptness and universality of a squirrel. It may get around, but it’s just one thing out of many.

Between the fostering of the myth that a language can make a people imaginative, the encouragement of a sense that English is a “realer” language than others, and the endless booboos, Globish is inaccurately covered where the implication is that it is a legitimate argument shakily rendered. It is as authoritative an argument as a book I could write on how squid are the world’s coolest animals. It is, despite innocent intentions, a jolly misfire – and for reasons far beyond mere ones of form.

Me (briefly):

Mr. McWhorter, there's a really stale joke about World War 11: that if it wasn't for Churchill, we'd all be speaking German now. I guess that very bad joke expresses part of the point you're making against McCrum's thesis about the inner nature of English making it the world's de facto lingua franca. On this issue, we can say which came first: the language chicken or the social historical egg. I think you devastatingly have the best of this argument.

I also liked your taking on as "inaccurate" the idea that "... a language represents a way of thinking, that to speak a certain language is to have your thoughts channeled in certain directions." It seems clear why McCrum would want to talk up that idea as a building block for his main argument. They fit together. And you land a wicked blow to such notions as:

"... the Hopi language has no tense marking and reflects their cyclical sense of time, as promulgated by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the 1930s. I have watched audiences audibly purr when a linguist suggests that something about the way speakers of an indigenous language put their words together suggests something about Their Way Of Thinking...

But one digression from the main argument of your post, if I might. You encapsulate the rejected just above as "Language is Thought". I don't take that encapsulation to include something I have always thought, that if you can't say "it" (or otherwise represent "it" symbolically") you can't think "it" or understand "it". If what I have always understood holds water, then it seems to me that language is thought, but in a conceptually different sense than the idea that the inner nature of a particular language informs thought, or world views, in a particular way.

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