January 9, 2011

"[I]t's implausible that Prof. West doesn't know how to form the preterite of succumb..."

Sayeth the linguistics expert, Mark Liberman :
Thus, in my opinion, both Rush Limbaugh and Ann Althouse are piling on for political reasons or because they don't like Cornel West, just as Jacob Weisberg piled on to the Bushisms business.
Thus! I love the way the logical jump about what I (and Rush) did happens in an instant, but the effort to absolve Cornel West is so painstaking.

Thus! In my opinion, Mark Liberman is piling on for political reasons....
It's obvious that Prof. West meant "succumbed", and from the audio evidence, it's clear that he said something that can plausibly be transcribed as "surcame". What both Limbaugh and Althouse assume is that this is the result of an eggcorn, in which the basic verb succumb is re-analyzed as a combination of the prefix sur- and the stem come, and that the preterite of this imagined verb then inherits the irregular form come, to yield surcame.

This is a plausible thing to happen, in the abstract. But a quick Google search shows us that Prof. West has used the verb succumb and its preterite succumbed many dozens of times in his books; and no doubt many more times in his speeches and interviews.
No doubt? I have some doubt. All of the actual examples found by Liberman are in published books, not spontaneous speech. Professor Liberman has failed to consider an obvious hypothesis — that West's books are edited.

59 comments:

Pogo said...

"Liberman has failed to consider an obvious hypothesis — that West's books are edited."

Thus, Mark is pwned.

MrBuddwing said...

"Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar," I always say. (Well, me and Ben Franklin.)

Word verification: gatines.

chuck said...

Never bring no doubt to a lawyer fight.

TML said...

Another perfect Althouse bitch slap. How could this guy have failed to account for an editor? Amazing.

rhhardin said...

Preterites hang from the ceiling.

Pretermites are the ones on the floor. That's what West was using.

mesquito said...

Occam's razor compels me to conclude that Professor Cornel West is a howling buffoon and ignoramus who affirmative actioned his way to Ivy League tenure.

mesquito said...

But who axed me?

Pogo said...

Sometimes Althouse is like watching an old Perry Mason episode.

I half expect Liberman to show up and scream Yes! I did it! I was piling on for political reasons ...and I'm glad!

The Bush-or-Palin Doctrine is proof here of their being disingenuous. That is, if Bush-or-Palin had said the word surcame, the outcome would have been reliably different.

Pogo said...

Has Prof. West explained himself on this yet?

TML said...

Question: What the hell does this even mean?

What both Limbaugh and Althouse assume is that this is the result of an eggcorn, in which the basic verb succumb is re-analyzed as a combination of the prefix sur- and the stem come, and that the preterite of this imagined verb then inherits the irregular form come, to yield surcame.

How does he know what was assumed? Isn't HE assuming (in order to make his weak case)? And all the fancy-pantsy talk is nonsense. It might be "obvious" to him that West meant "succumbed", but it's not to me. Liberman is counting on us agreeing that "surcame" and "succumbed" are very close to each other "in the ear" and "on the tongue". That's not that case at all. I say that West was not even thinking of the word "succumb" at all. And what's all this "re-analyzed" mumbo-jumbo? Isn't that just another word for "failed to know the correct formulation"? And, to me, it's unclear whather he's describing what happened in West's brain as he was uttering the word or what's going on in Ann's and Rush's heads as they misinterpret what happened. This is because he follows up by saying, "This is a plausible thing to happen." What is a plausible thing to happen? Why isn't the simple answer that West is Oswald Bates, as many commenters have suggested? Surcame is a faux word that sounded correct and "erudite" in this guy's mind. So, I'll ask again, what does Cornel West actually know, if anything? Why aren't we allowing for the possibility that West is 100% a fraud and a charlatan and, yes, a mediocre intellect catapulted into academic fame because of far greater opportunism, hucksterism and the shameful bend-over-backwardsness of modern academe? Please. What a tool West (and Liberman) are.

Paco Wové said...

Just so that everyone is aware, Althouse is a racist for bringing this up. The Intarnets have spoken!

Pogo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pogo said...

From Paco Wove's link:
"Q: What do you call an African-American who's a full professor at Princeton, who graduated magna cum laud from Harvard and has published countless articles and over twenty books including an American Book Award winner and two best sellers, and who is one of the best known public intellectuals in America?"

A: A fraud.
West is a fraud. Harvard is a fraud. The American Book Awards are a fraud. "Public intellectuals in America" are frauds.

TML said...

OK, sorry, but this is bugging the shit out of me. Let's break this asshole's words down:

...in which the basic verb succumb is re-analyzed...

what he means by re-analyzed is apparently "got wrong" or "could not, on the fly, correctly compose the sentence in his head". "Re-analyzed" is an fancy egg-head excuse for "picking the wrong word" or, even better as Ann wrote, "straining for erudition." Indeed.

Next:

...a combination of the prefix sur-...

Like how my grandfather said "warsher" for "washer"? Liberman so blithely ascribes this substitution because it comports with his assumptions. But why is it plausible that West substituted "sur-" for "su-"? That makes zero sense unless you think it was a mispronunciation.

I get lost after this, frankly. But it seems to me that Liberman just cobbled together the lamest of faux, academic-weenie speak to help extricate West from his exposed ignorance. Liberman's reasoning makes no sense and feels so overly accommodating that I'm embarrassed for him.

If you read between that lines, it appears that all Liberman is saying, is a fancy, literal restatement of West's own mistake.

I'm deeply unimpressed with--and irritated by--this guy's explanation

jeff said...

Yes, but he is neither GW Bush or Sarah Palin, thus is given the benefit of doubt.

Maguro said...

Clearly, it was a botched joke.

Sixty Grit said...

He is the Donovan McNabb of professors. It is inconceivable that Professor West is as smart as his supporters think he is. And that word does not mean what he thinks it means.

DADvocate said...

Liberman has surcome to the absurd task of defending the indefensible. It's inconceivable to the intelligentsia that any one of them could have any intellectual faults.

It is implausible, but not impossible, which is why the neologism is significant. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, "...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth..."

Paddy O said...

I'm of the opinion that English is made to be adapted. So, Liberman fails, in my mind, because he tries to excuse the word choice.

Be bold. We must all surcome to the realization that English encourages us to add new words.

I try to make up at least one new word in each paper I write. I'm gunning for OED references in the distant future.

Oh wait, "gunning" was a bad choice of words. Now if some OED editor gets shot I'm going to get all sorts of people blaming me for ratcheting up the language wars and inciting physico-verbal violence.

Paddy O said...

Impenetrability! That's what I say!

Paco Wové said...

The vast quantity of electrons people are willing to expend snaggling over malapropisms never ceases to amaze.

MrBuddwing said...

I'm reminded of a very entertaining thread on Eugene Volokh's blog in which people owned up to misusing highfalutin' words over the years.

My cardinal sin: Misusing "bemused." I'd always wanted to believe it meant "lightly or wryly amused." Then I found out it's a synonym for "befuddled."

Word verification: weaps. Which is what I did when I finally looked up "bemused."

Roman said...

Cornel West is an educated idiot. He uses race to exempt himself from criticism; if you find fault with him you must be racist.

He exemplifies being credentialed without qualifications.

Anne B. said...

Or maybe West started to say "surmount," then changed his mind halfway through to say "overcome," and scrambled the word as a result. That's pretty much how "refudiate" came into being, isn't it?

Paddy O said...

Misusing "bemused." I'd always wanted to believe it meant "lightly or wryly amused."

I know what "nonplussed means". But I don't want it to mean that. I want it to mean unaffected. It doesn't. But I'm still not willing to admit it means "baffled, confused." I shake my fist at "nonplussed" every time I see it.

Oligonicella said...

rhhardin - excellent

Anarcissie said...

Much ado about nothing. Don't people have anything better to talk about than Cornel West garbling a couple of words?

Fritz said...

Misusing "bemused." I'd always wanted to believe it meant "lightly or wryly amused."

I know what "nonplussed means". But I don't want it to mean that. I want it to mean unaffected. It doesn't. But I'm still not willing to admit it means "baffled, confused." I shake my fist at "nonplussed" every time I see it.


And that's one of the ways languages evolve. Through use (or misuse) words meaning change.

Michael said...

West tires to pack two words into ten, a simple thought into a paragraph, a ten minute presentation into an hour's rant. He is making it up as he goes, jamming whatever topic into the language of that part of the academy devoted to oppression. No wonder he makes up words as he goes.

bagoh20 said...

Oh, so this is what you can do with an advanced education? Best money I never spent. I hope all you people at least got laid in college. Or maybe I just don't understand that this is your sexy seduction talk. It's interesting to observe you strange creatures. It's like watching the monkeys at the zoo fling poo. I'm sure it very ritualistic and makes sense to them too.

William said...

How is it that Einstein can get away with a bad haircut, but Cornel West cannot?

EDH said...

Thus! I love the way the logical jump about what I (and Rush) did happens in an instant, but the effort to absolve Cornel West is so painstaking.

Thus! In my opinion, Mark Liberman is piling on for political reasons....


Indeed, Liberman goes to such pains to rehabilitate West's erudition because of what Althouse said about (mostly white academic) PC liberals, not because of what she said about West.

I do have some sympathy for West here, though, because I think PC folk have failed — over a long period of time — to give him the feedback that would have kept him from developing this absurdly inflated style of speech, with its danger of missteps like this, and the self-serious demeanor that makes his mistakes especially funny.

kcom said...

Paddy O: "I shake my fist at "nonplussed" every time I see it."

I'm with you ... and your furniture, too.

The Crack Emcee said...

Pogo,

West is a fraud. Harvard is a fraud. The American Book Awards are a fraud. "Public intellectuals in America" are frauds.

I find the unwillingness of many to even entertain the idea of a deeply ingrained fraud in/on America troubling. Why do you think so many are avoiding this obvious conclusion?

Is it because it's so obvious?

The Crack Emcee said...

Or is it because they don't want to admit they fell for it?

You can't appear intelligent until you're willing to do that, in my book.

Leo Ladenson said...

That's pretty much how "refudiate" came into being, isn't it?

No, it's not. Palin said on her TV show that she made a typo by hitting "f" instead of "p," but the reaction was so vociferous, that she simply went with the Shakespeare-invented-words-too bit and the rest is history.

george said...

I surcame once --- but I was young, foolish and drunk at the time.

harkin said...

On a Dec Bloggingheads dialogue (or rather a vacuous mutual love fest) with Robert P George, Dr West managed to mispronounce the words library, attentively and subsidiarity. Any critique of West was declared in the comments (of course) to be solely race-motivated....a comments section it should be mentioned where spelling mistakes and bad grammar employed by conservatives are routinely jumped on by the custodial clique.

Juba Doobai! said...

Sounds to me like this guy read my comment, copied it, and gussied it up with a bunch of high falutin' grammar that nobody uses with respect to English. Preterite? What? Is English now French? Then he gets pwned by Althouse. Dude! Dude! Dude! Everybody knows you academic types need editors when you write.

Jonathan said...

TML, I'm not all that familiar with the jargon either. It's not a big deal that it puts you off, but it is a massive failure of basic comprehension when you take the passage which does nothing more than jargonise Limbaugh/Althouse's argument, and say that Liberman is using the jargon to be "accomodating", when he's actually arguing the opposite.

The only "accomodation" is that Liberman doesn't agree that West necessarily thinks "surcame" is a "real word". He says it's more likely that it was a simple speech error, of the sort that nearly all of us make every day. For some strange reason, speech errors take on a whole new dimension when some doesn't like you to start with...

TML said...

Jonathan, Liberman says it's NOT an eggcorn. Then he goes on to "prove" it by citing written examples of West using "succumbed". Ann more than adequately does away with that argument. So what are we left with? Where's my massive failure of basic comprehension? The guy makes no sense.

Jonathan said...

Yes, he says it's not an eggcorn, but you "break down his words" about how it looked like it might have been an eggcorn. Yes, Liberman's "re-analyzed" did mean "failed to know" the standard formation of the word, but he wasn't trying to hide that, he was arguing against that interpretation of the mistake.

Sure, it's not completely impossible that West was corrected by an editor every time "succumbed" appears in his writing, and is still ignorant. However, it's not "fail[ing] to consider" that hypothesis to simply jump to the more obvious one that it was a speech error which he would be able to correct himself if he heard the recording.

I wouldn't bother commenting if I didn't know one too many people in real life who jump on every speaking error when it suits them, ignoring the fact that we all make those sort of mistakes regardless of the sort of language used and our grasp of it.

Rod said...

Oh, caint we alls just git along? Heavens to mercy! You people with your highfalutin' grammer just gives the willies!

Youall out to prove that this West guy is an ignoramous? Shoot! I coulda told ya that. His use of facts and logic is proof of that dern much. You don't needa be pickin on his pronuceachun of words to take him down.

Fen said...

And yet another Credentialed Idiot impales himself on his own wit.

Dr Liberman, how much did you pay MIT to educate you?

Chad Nilep said...

"The Bush-or-Palin Doctrine is proof here of their being disingenuous. That is, if Bush-or-Palin had said the word surcame, the outcome would have been reliably different."

In fact, President G.W. Bush did the same thing that Professor West did -- made a mistake while speaking -- and was treated as badly. (Actually, worse: there were entire books published ridiculing the president's supposedly poor speech.)

Professor Liberman consistently refuted the critics of President Bush's speaking, just as he is arguing with this criticism of Professor West's.

Christy said...

Anarcissie, are you saying West is the Dogberry of Intellectuals?

Katherine said...

The failure here, is to admit defeat by making excuses and trying to weasel. In my household, if someone mis-speaks and gets called on it or asked "Is that really a word?" The answer is always "It is now.".

mrkwong said...

I came, I saw, I conked her.

- Og

Linda Seebach said...

There's an awful lot of assumptioning going on around here. (Or should I say assumptionating?) "Liberman has failed to consider . . ." now, how would anyone other than Liberman know what he did, or didn't, consider? All we can know is that he didn't mention that hypothesis, not why.

Liberman says he has "no doubt" about whether Cornel West also uses the preterite of "succumb" correctly in non-edited work; Althouse says she does have some doubt. Well, people do have differing degrees of confidence about doubt -- and about how much doubt is reasonable -- as both lawyers and linguists know. Such differences of opinion are not errors of fact.

Then we have the commenters who assume that Liberman is such a determined supporter of Cornel West (for political reasons) that he'd defend him no matter what. Even if it were true, you'd have no way of knowing. But I very much doubt it -- and I bet I have better evidence on the matter than you do, having read the group blog Language Log faithfully for years and years. (About as long as I've read Althouse.)

One may think West is a total charlatan (as I do; I tried to read one of his books once and just gave up because it made no sense) and yet think that it's silly to fuss over "surcame." I'm fussing over the fuss, let me make that clear. I despise Obama, but not because he once referred to the "57 states." It was a speech error, no more.

Funny, though.

Then there are the commenters who disparage Liberman because they think he's just obscuring simple things with "jargon." Folks, there's jargon and jargon. There's the pretentious kind that seeks to obscure banal opinions with big words -- that would describe West's writing, I think -- and then there's the kind of jargon used by scientists to make precise distinctions that aren't expressed in common speech. Oh, say, physicists who talk about "isotopes of uranium" instead of just saying "stuff."

I mean, some uranium stuff blows up and some very similar stuff doesn't; what's the dif?

Linguistics is a very technical field. (I was a grad student in linguistics, at Minnesota 1988-92, before being lured away by a job offer in journalism.) Linguists writing mostly for other linguists, as Liberman does at LL, reasonably use the technical vocabulary of the field. Liberman does more research over breakfast (that's an in joke) than most people ever do. So it's irritating that people weigh in without bothering to see what he said, or cherry-picking quotes.

Not that he needs me to defend him.

Ameryx said...

It seems to me that Dr. Liberman's explanation only makes matters worse. Wouldn't a "correct" re-analyzing of "succumb" yield "subcome"? Dr. West, in his statement, scores Pres. Obama for yielding too quickly. If the neologism "surcome" means anything, it means "overcome": the opposite of what Dr. West was saying.

Dr. Liberman is, in effect, saying that Dr. West doesn't know the difference between sub- and sur-. That may be the most demeaning interpretation of Dr. West's remark so far.

lucid said...

It is just amazing how unable we have become to say something critical about an African-American without it being the occasion for all kinds of attacks on the motivations of the critics.

Affirmative action is an insidious influence on our ability to talk and to think about issues of race, and to form a decent integrated community.

MathMom said...

William @11:48 am:

How is it that Einstein can get away with a bad haircut, but Cornel West cannot?

Einstein provided the world with something of value. Therefore, his haircut is not an issue. He left his footprints, cast in concrete.

I don't know that Cornel West's haircut is at issue, but it is very likely that when he shuffles off his mortal coil, his footprints will be more like those in sand at the beach. Unfortunately, while he lives, he causes a net loss in the collective IQ of those who listen to him.

WV: hembles. When I think of Einstein's accomplishments, it hembles me.

Anthony said...

Anne B. - your explanation would make much more sense had West used "surcame" to mean the opposite of what he obviously intended it to mean. (A commenter over at LL made the same point.)

Ann - you've overlooked Liberman's strongest evidence that West was stumbling over other words, too, rather than malforming the past tense of "succumb": only two or three words after "surcame", he starts to say "early" when he means (and corrects himself) to say "easily".

And as neither Liberman nor his commenters mention, it's not that uncommon for people to be able to write perfectly well, getting the correct word down on paper (or screen) on the first try, yet stumble all over themselves in extemporaneous speech. Bush's speeches generally read better than they sound, even if you aren't predisposed to dislike a Texas accent.

Tex the Pontificator said...

"Surcame" is funny, and I got a chuckle from it. Such chuckles are all the more enjoyable when the person uttering the malapropism is intellectually condescending, as West seems to be.

But let's don't go much farther than that. We all say stupid things from time to time. I sometimes flub what I mean to say, and I think I am a reasonably articulate person. I think some of the commentary is unnecessarily mean spirited.

Jonathan Silber said...

…Ergo, when Liberman wrote the word
"eggcorn," he obviously meant to write the expression "egg cream."

Gheuf said...

TML, I think you're picking the wrong part of Liberman's blog post to disagree with. In his post, he argues that there are two possible reasons why West made the mistake: 1. he really thinks that is the past tense of the word, 2. it was a slip of the tongue.

The first thing he does is to examine idea 1. What would it mean if West thought that "surcame" was the past tense? It would be an "eggcorn", in the sense that West would be thinking that "succumb" was made up of "sur" plus "come", just as some people think "acorn" is made up of "egg" plus "corn".

Next he rejects the idea of the eggcorn and goes for option 2, slip of the tongue.

There are several ways to disagree. You could argue that West's mistake really was based in an "eggcorn." Or you could argue that West's mistake was neither an eggcorn nor a slip of the tongue, but some third thing Liberman never even thought of. But simply to dispute what the definition of an "eggcorn" is is not an interesting objection.

Gheuf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gray said...

In 1905, Einstein published papers on Brownian motion, relativity, mass/energy equivalence, and the photoelectric effect; arguably the 4 most important works in physical science and mathematics in the 20th century. He later published the theory of general relativity, before having a relatively (no pun intended) disappointing academic career from the 1920s on. He was an outspoken opponent of tyranny in Europe and staunch advocate for world peace. Cornel West has served as an advisor to Rev. Al Sharpton's presidential campaign, recorded with John Cougar Mellencamp, and appeared in "The Matrix." To be fair, West is 57 and Einstein lived to 76, so perhaps there is still time for West to meaningfully contribute to humanity. Nevertheless, I would submit that Einstein has earned a pass on the haircut.

Chandra said...

I realize that jumping on bandwagons is super fun, but Prof. Liberman is just as likely to pick apart such accusations from left-wingers directed to the right (you can easily Google his numerous posts questioning the validity of "Bushisms") as vice versa. He is interested in the language, not the politics. Sorry to burst your self-congratulatory bubbles.