February 3, 2007

Succulent truculence.

Mark agrees with Andrew about Maya's malapropism. But then he takes a closer look:
There are plenty of solecisms printed every day, and we comment on a small sample of them here on Language Log -- but Andrew Sullivan usually doesn't.

In fact, I'm not sure that he's ever commented on a grammatical point before, or indeed on any other question of usage that doesn't involve the interpretation of a politically-charged word like "islamist" (or "christianist", a term that Sullivan has done much to popularize)....

So it's hardly a stretch to guess that Andrew is truculent to Angelou because she is very much not of his political kind.

Some other conservative bloggers have reacted in similar ways. Thus John Derbyshire, apparently without a hint of irony, compared Maya Angelou to William MacGonagall under the title "Voice of the master" (NRO the corner, 2/2/2007).

Come on, you pundits. The analysis of word choice, sentence structure, and meaning is an honorable calling, and we linguists are always happy to have company. But if you're going to pounce on Maya Angelou's malapropism without saying anything about the alleged proliferation of Bushisms, or Tony Snow's misuse of "inveigling", or Lawrence Henry's odd use of "slurry", or any of the rest of the daily parade of politically-relevant points of usage, people might get the idea that your linguistics is really politics.
Okay, this is actually quite complicated.

1. Of course, for most political pundits, linguistics is probably going to be used as a weapon and aimed at targets of choice.

2. Some political pundits -- I include myself -- are interested enough in language to write commentary on the subject, and that commentary may stand apart from politics or be completely interwoven with political opinion. It varies.

3. Speaking of politics, Mark Liberman is himself making a political move of sorts. He's claiming sovereignty over the linguistics field. The implicit argument is that a scholarly domain belongs to the scholars, and that scholars are known by their neutrality. He is nice enough to say he's happy to have company though.

4. Sullivan may be choosing his targets based on politics, but Liberman hasn't proven it. He assumes -- because Sullivan calls himself a conservative? -- that Sullivan doesn't have Bush as a target -- but Sullivan is contemptuous of Bush. If you search for "Bushism" on Sullivan's blog, you can find him quoting a Bushism.

5. Attacking Maya Angelou may very well have nothing to do with politics. I mean, look at the quote Sullivan mocks:
The walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty, which she railed against valiantly all her public life, have not fallen, but their truculence to do so does not speak against her determination to make them collapse.
That writing style is incredibly annoying. Sullivan calls it "pretentiousness, self-righteousness and lame, exhausted metaphors." He's right! When you're reading something that bad and then you find a plain error, you're motivated to point out the error. The ridiculous reverence shown toward Maya Angelou -- reflected in the WaPo's nonexistent editing -- is one more thing that makes you want to pick on her. It's not necessarily politics.


The "she" in the Angelou quote is Molly Ivins, who died recently. After looking at that bad writing, you may want to refresh yourself with some really good writing.

UPDATE: Liberman responds and disagrees with my point #3:
Claiming sovereignty? On the contrary.

At the end of my LSA talk on "The future of linguistics", I did suggest that our field could learn from Linus Torvald's 1995 plan for Linux: "World domination. Fast". But the recipe for success, I argued, is inclusiveness. We ought to welcome the participation of anyone interested in speech and language, including Andrew Sullivan and Ann Althouse. (Who had some interesting things to say yesterday about "When one word is funnier than another".)
Well, sovereigns allow visitors.... on their terms.

I admit -- and I think my choice of words shows it -- that I was reading between the lines. Mark says maybe I didn't read well enough or maybe he should write more clearly, but I was looking for implications. While it's true that he could try harder to block implications, he can't -- even by appealing to my pride and casting aspersions on my reading ability -- stop me from speculating about the motivations of writers. I'm a law professor. I have to read judicial opinions all the time. The judges are constantly laying out their purported reasoning, and I'd be a fool to accept that at face value.

Another thing is that Mark edited the key paragraph after I formed an opinion about it and was in the middle of writing about it. The original version lacked the references to Snow and Henry and -- I believe -- ended with the words "people might get the idea that linguistics is really politics" (as opposed to "your linguistics").

The notion was -- and remains, though not as clearly -- that linguistics is a field of scholarship, an "honorable calling," and as such, it requires the exclusion of politics. I say this implicitly claims sovereignty over the field: I say what linguistics is, and it's something politics-free. You can come to my territory, but on my terms. If your use of linguistics is politicized, I claim the power to deport you. This is a political move, and it's not just the politics of the academy. It is an attempt -- albeit implicit -- to preserve the special authority of the expert in all sort of public dialogues.


Joe Baby said...

A perfect opportunity to replay a moment when SNL was grand.


Announcer: And now, Maya Angelou... for "Butterfingers".

Maya Angelou (David Alan Grier): The wind. The rain. The fire.

The Butterfinger.

Did the Caveman know your delicious goodness?
Did the Mayan Priest exhalt in your buttery crunchiness?
Did the slothful Mastodon, upon his extinction, declare,
"Don't lay a finger on my Butterfinger?"

Oh, you finger of butter!
You proud confection!
Sugar brown roasted peanuts,
fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose,
partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil.
Crispity, crunchity, peanut buttery--

I... give... myself... to... you.


Glad mantle of golden chocolaty hope upon my breast.


S said...

Indeed - why would one hold a celebrated professional writer to a higher standard of writing than a politician?

RWE said...

S hits the nail on the head. Seeing "truculence to" written by someone who makes her living stringing words together is different than seeing George Bush screw up.

Zeb Quinn said...

Some political pundits -- I include myself -- are interested enough in language to write commentary on the subject, and that commentary may stand apart from politics or be completely interwoven with political opinion. It varies.

It's not necessarily just political pundits or punditry. It's the lawyer in you. First year legal research & writing pretty much permanently inculcates fledgling lawyers right from the get-go with the importance of precision in the use of words.

But then, on the other hand, artists like Maya are allowed broad license to be inventive.

Ann Althouse said...

Zeb: I didn't say I was interested in language because of politics. I have been interested in language all my life and started out blogging in 2004 with an aversion to politics.

Also, about Angelou. Maybe she can be more inventive because she's an artist, but the claim of being an artist should actually require you to be a better writer than others. So she can be unusual, but not bad.

Naked Lunch said...

Eeech. I'll take The Nation's passionate obit from people who knew Ivins over the Free Press version. Lost in all this is Molly Ivins was a great writer in her own right.

Now here is a proper eulogy- Adios, El Tanko.

Maxine Weiss said...

"The walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty, which she railed against valiantly all her public life, have not fallen, but their truculence to do so does not speak against her determination to make them collapse."


Although hatred still exists, nothing can diminish her life-long fight against it.

---Prune the deadwood, Maya.

Peace, Maxine

Paco Wové said...

...Molly Ivins was a great writer in her own right.

Especially when she had Florence King helping her out.

(Really, other than that, Ivins was a pretty good writer... in the early years, at least. But N.L. is such an ass that the urge to tweak is irresistable.)

CB said...

And any time is a good time for a Simpsons quote:

Kent: Alright, does anyone have a question for our panel that's not about how much money they make?

[Audience's hands go down]

Lenny: [at microphone] Uh yeah, I'm a techno-thriller junkie, and I'd like to know, is the B-2 bomber more detectible when it rains?

Kent: Oh, what do you think, Tom Clancy?

Clancy: Well, the B-2--

Lenny: No, I was asking Maya Angelou.

Angelou: The ebony fighter awakens, dabbled with the dewy beads of morn. It is a mach-5 child, forever bound to suckle from the shriveled breast of Congress.

Lenny: Oh, Maya, you're a national treasure!

dearieme said...

At least she didn't say "reticence" for reluctance. Still, it was God-awful, wasn't it?

Zeb Quinn said...

I never had a problem with Molly Ivins' writing, per se. I had a different problem with her. Illustrative was her coining and promulgating the name "Shrub," itself borne out of its own brand of prejudice and cruelty.

As for Maya the artist, there's a big difference between poetry and prose. Poets are allowed to disregard all rules. That said, serious poets I know, and I know many, people who endlessly struggle with not only the art and craft, but also with the mechanics in pursuit of perfection, don't consider Maya to be a great poet, or even particularly good. The key to her notoriety is not so much how she writes, but much more what she writes about.

Naked Lunch said...

Paco, you certainly aren't going to tweak me by sending me to a website conceived from the loins of some ex commies for crying out loud. I would say AEI has a bad track record, but that would imply they have a track record. Besides, I'm untweakable, as I'm free of any rusty dogmatic chains of religious or party affiliations. I've always been one to stray from the herd, and I know that can terribly annoying.

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

"scholars are known by their neutrality"

Funny even without the comedy "K"!!!!

Seriously, is it just me or does Maya Angelou get a condesending pass on verbose BS because it fits in with the (racist) stereotyoe of the 2dollar word using "orator" of the type that's been around since Amos n' Andy?

See: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, most rap stars....

Maxine Weiss said...

Dr. Maya Angelou:

The original "Clean" Negro.

And, so articulate too!

Peace, Maxine

JorgXMcKie said...

Anyone who didn't recognize Molly Ivins' own "walls of ignorance and prejudice and cruelty" must have shared them. I frequently enjoyed her writing, but I never mistook her for anything but a fierce partisan.

And I was guessing that Maya Angelou just wanted to make sure she isn't going to be insulted by anyone calling her 'articulate.'

db said...

Kinda reminds me of one of my favorite Simpson's quotes: “Welcome to the sacred order of the Stonecutters who since ancient times have split the rocks of ignorance which obscure the light of knowledge and truth. Now let's all get drunk and play ping pong!"

Oh, how the Simpson's writing staff can truculently castigate styli of pretentiousness when necessitated by buffoonery...

Sorry, I couldn't help myself.

John Cowan said...

I do not understand various commentators' references to "prejudice". It is not prejudice to look at a public official's record and judge him to be a bad (or good) public official; that is merely a judgment, not a pre-judgment. It is partisan to call Bush a bad President; it would be partisan prejudice to call him a bad President merely because he is a Republican, without further evidence. Someone who presents evidence of a specific person's character based on their actions is not thereby prejudiced.

As for the Fancy Talk tradition in African-American life, it can be satirized in a racist way, but to assert its existence is not at all racist. Several of the black Congressmen elected from Southern states during Reconstruction were clearly practitioners of this rhetorical (and oratorical, without scare-quotes) tradition, as a look at their speeches will show. However, I doubt if Angelou's use of "truculence" (if it is indeed her use at all; we don't really know) is an instance of this tradition.

Jeff said...

"truculence" is a perfectly cromulent word because it embiggens any speaker!