Archive for May, 2012

Babel No More

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is good (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it’s not so much that they might answer with something I didn’t understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody’s English is better than my everybody else’s language.

However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few “surge” languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls “hyperpolyglot.” His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define “hyperpolyglots” (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we’d be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)

That’s fine, but who cares.

My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. “If you read or hear that a certain person ‘can speak’ (or ’speaks’) a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical,” said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark’s claims: one colleague says, “I don’t think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them” (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of “knowing” a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I “know” Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven’t the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can’t keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

“The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting,” says one of Erard’s informants. “You can only prevent this by regularly studying” (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them “in blocks or spurts” (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

One view says: what matters is a person’s sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don’t need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. (163)

But clearly there’s a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.

The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can’t explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation. (164)

Indeed, some language “accumulators” are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can’t (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don’t), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] (“feel for language,” 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don’t make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don’t apply in every other (sometimes any other) languages. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that’s the way language go.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 28th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Walking the Walk

In her confused and querulous review of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars, Joan Acocella casts opprobrium on “anything goes” linguistic descriptivists. Such academics, she implies, carefully prune their own language of substandard usage, and reap the social benefits of good grammar. But they let their charges – the students and the general public – wallow in a morass of slovenly, uncorrected English.

[Hitchings] thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

No surprise here. 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.

Acocella taps into a theme current in much conservative criticism of educators. By giving up on drilling the young in “who and whom,” the argument goes, teachers are really oppressing them, under the guise of fostering their freedom and appreciating diversity. Meanwhile, these ivory-tower liberals wouldn’t be caught dead splitting an infinitive, and continue to enjoy the privileges that they deny their students. Liberals pretend to appreciate the great unwashed, but they themselves are never more than an hour out of the shower.

Some of this is just blanket “it’s all the fault of liberals” rhetoric, as when the old guard blames the New Deal for the Depression and the Great Society for urban poverty. Teachers, the complaint goes, must be to blame for ignorance. But there’s enough logic in Acocella’s remarks to merit some rebuttal. Do we do students a disservice by claiming that the double negative is a feature of their dialect, rather than a slatternly bad habit?

First principles first: the double negative really is a feature of a dialect. Suppose someone says to you: “He ain’t no fool.” You have two recourses: (A) you can scold her for using “ain’t,” which ain’t a word, and you can slap her again for saying that he ain’t no fool, which clearly, in the terms of symbolic logic, must mean that he is a fool, the opposite of the intended meaning. (The intended meaning that somehow came through loud and clear, despite the dialect.) Or (B) you can understand the sentence and answer in whatever way the subject’s degree of foolishness might require.

Now suppose someone says to you: “Il n’est pas un sot.” Again, there are several things you can say.

  1. “Hop off, frog.”
  2. “Je crois quand même qu’il est vraiment un sot!”
  3. “Huh?”
  4. “I’m sorry, but ’sot’ isn’t a word. In fact, none of your words are words. And by using a double negative – both ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in the same verb phrase – you’ve inadvertently said ‘He is not a fool, not,’ which means that he is a fool. You need to study critical thinking.”

I’d probably say (3) in real life, and think of (2) later that night while I was falling asleep. (1) might cause an international incident, so that’s out. But (4) is hilariously absurd. Nobody corrects someone else for using their own language. You may hate the idea of escargot; you may still be calling your frites “Freedom Fries”; but even so, the French have a right to their own language, don’t they?

The people we don’t think have a right to their own language are people who speak our own differently from the way we do. Nobody’s embarrassed by cousin René when he starts speaking French, or even speaking English with that killer accent of his. But we’re embarrassed all the time by the way cousin Larry speaks: by his nonstandard syntax (even if it’s the syntax of Shakespeare); by his nonstandard vocabulary; by his regional accent (even when he’s speaking perfectly standard English in that accent).

“Non-standard” dialects of English are complete languages in the way that French is a complete language; regional accents are complete phonologies in the way that standard French is a complete phonology. It ain’t lazy or stupid to talk the way my grandfather talked, it’s plain different. Yet we disparage dialects, often in terms as seething and tendentious as those Acocella uses to disparage Hitchings’ arguments.

Why should that be? It’s essentially a social-class prejudice; as Bernard Shaw put it, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him,” and so for Americans and Australians and Irish people, for any in-group fractured into smaller in-groups. We are more inclined to despise the language use of our fellow Americans the closer it is to our own; such situations make us more anxious. Hence Bill Cosby’s beef with Black English:

You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t…”

Hence the way my Slovak grandmother would despise other immigrant families in Chicago: not for speaking Slovak or Polish, in which she was fluent herself, but for speaking with accents, and displaying incomplete mastery of standard English inflections. “Listen to him!” she would say. “‘I was borned here.‘ He was born here, and he can’t even say ‘I was born here!’”

Obviously there is such a thing as incomplete knowledge of a language: just listen to me trying to speak anything but English, and you will get a vivid demonstration. But there are also people who move between or among the internally-coherent dialects of English with ease, and there are those who seem trapped within a certain dialect, never really mastering another. The former, the “code-switchers” as linguists call them, may owe their code-switching to innate ability, combined with accidents of birth and upbringing. The latter, however, monodialectal as well as monolingual, may be just as intelligent, just as capable of problem-solving, moral behavior, and philosophical meditation as those who move freely. It’s just that – to borrow Bill Cosby’s terms – they talk the same way on the corner as they talk in the house.

The pedagogical implications of these principles will have to wait for another blog post. But one thing is clear about what my colleague Jackie Stodnick calls “language-land”: it is a beautiful place, full of fluent speakers. It only starts to be ugly when we don’t perceive fluent speakers of dialects to be as intelligent, or as morally competent, as speakers of whatever currently passes for the standard in our language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 21st, 2012 |No Comments »

The Rules of Language

A desperately confused book review by Joan Acocella has touched off a flurry of corrective reactions from the online linguistics community, including two excellent posts by Mark Liberman at the blog Language Log. Acocella’s confusion is rooted in an inability to distinguish two meanings of the word “rule.” She goes ballistic over the fact that linguists disparage prescriptive usage rules, but at the same time insist that languages are structured by rules. Hypocrites!

I’ll use an analogy that I use in class. I stole it (with modifications) from Steven Pinker, but I’m not ashamed, because he probably stole it from somebody else.

The rules of language come in two varieties, like laws. You can break the laws of New York City, but you can’t break the laws of physics.

Think about this sentence: “You can’t turn right on red in New York City.” In one sense this is true. If you turn right on red in the Five Boroughs, the NYPD is empowered to write you a ticket. But in another sense, it’s absurd. You certainly can turn right on red in New York. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times – when the NYPD didn’t see it.

Now think of this sentence: “You can’t turn downwards in New York City, burrow through the pavement, and drive on subway tracks.” I think we can say with some confidence that you really can’t do that, except in a science-fiction movie. Cars can’t penetrate asphalt, at least not more than an inch or two, before they’re compelled to stop.

(Now, you might say that I’ve broken the rules for modal verbs in my examples. But that’s just a smaller example of my point. Everybody says “you can’t” when they mean “you may not,” just as everybody says “they” when they mean “he or she,” and just as they say “the White House” when they mean President Obama, or “It’s just what I needed” when their Aunt Melva gives them a crocheted toilet-roll cover for Christmas. Everybody understands what everybody else means extremely well in each of these linguistic situations.)

There’s a certain type of linguistic rule that you definitely can break, in the same way that you can turn right on red in New York. My neighbor broke several of these linguistic traffic laws yesterday in the course of explaining the deficiencies of the existing shelving in his wife’s sewing room.

“She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves of hers,” he confided to me.

Where do I begin. My neighbor used /e/ in the word “can’t” instead of /æ/. He used /n/ at the end of “nothing” instead of /ŋ/. He used the dreaded “double negative” – “can’t do nothing” – which some would insist works out to a single positive. He used “them” as a determiner in the noun phrase “them shelves,” instead of saying “those shelves.” And he used the pleonastic, periphrastic genitive “of hers,” instead of merely saying “her shelves.”

So what did I say in reply? “Please rephrase! I cannot understand your faulty grammar and phonetics!” Well, no. I said “That’s a shame.” Because after all, she coul’n't do nothin’ with them shelves.

My neighbor executed a possible but proscribed sentence in my hearing, analogous to a cabbie making a flawless right turn on red in front of me at 37th and Madison. I understood exactly what he was doing, and though I could have written him a linguistic ticket, I surely did not. To do so would have been to act like a grammar cop, and a particularly nasty cop at that, perhaps driven by a need to meet my quota of usage tickets. More importantly, to correct his “grammar” would have been to kill our neighborly relations. I would have underscored that I have an Ivy League PhD in English and that his terminal degree is a diploma from a Texas public high school. Not to mention the facts that (1) I damn well enough understood what he said; (2) my own grandparents, and I myself when I’m relaxed, woul’n't of said it different; and (3) he’s a hell of a lot more competent to fix a shelf than I am.

But what if my neighbor had defied the linguistic laws of physics? What if he’d said

“Do she shelves those with anything not can.”

I would (A) have stared at him amazed; and (B) dialled 911, because he was obviously having a stroke.

“Do she shelves those with anything not can” is a totally impossible rearrangement of an otherwise standard English sentence. No English speaker has ever uttered it, unless in the furthest grips of neurological impairment. It breaks linguistic rules that lie deep within our brains.

And that’s what linguists mean by “the rules of language.” The rules that discourage people with Ivy League PhDs from saying “She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves” are conscious, socially prescribed rules, much like rules of traffic, or fashion, or indeed of literary style. (In fact, in some works, “she cain’t do nothin’” might be great literary style.) The rules that prevent anyone at all from saying “Do she shelves those with anything” are unconscious, second-nature features of knowing a language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 14th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Robert Browning



Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812; today is his 200th birthday.

Like many readers’, my first exposure to Browning was “My Last Duchess.” It is probably the most-orally-interpreted poem ever written, and for good reasons, despite its omnipresent familiarity.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

That’s Robert Browning in seven lines: indirection, allusiveness, verbal economy, dizzying facility with English rhyme and meter. That may be the first time anyone has ever associated “verbal economy” with Robert Browning, but I mean it in the sense that he typically packed an impressive range of meanings and ideas into few words. At the same time, he wrote countless words, so that his poems include vast stretches of hard going. Of his early long poem Sordello, he famously said late in life: “When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.”

With his usual perverseness, Ezra Pound claimed that Sordello was a masterpiece. Most readers prefer Browning’s dramatic monologues: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” In these expansive, intricate poems, characters review their lives, offering realizations, rationalizations, obfuscations, and rueful observations – behaving, that is, much like real human beings, if real human beings could speak effortless blank verse. Effortlessness is the famous theme of “Andrea del Sarto”:

I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less.

Verse came so easily to Robert Browning that he may have feared the fate of Andrea del Sarto. But his achievements were massive and important. They culminated in The Ring and the Book, one of the great Victorian novels, almost unread today. It’s complicated, it has an obscure historical setting, its effects are operatic and grand, and it’s in verse: you can see why people read Dickens instead. But The Ring and the Book is a milestone of incipient postmodernism. Several observer-participants tell the story of a murder. They have different interests at stake, different memories, and different styles: where does the truth reside? Almost a century later, Rashomon would become shorthand for fictions dependent on the perspective of multiple observers – but Browning had figured out how to do the Rashomon thing on a grander scale, and long before.

Even while he was making a considerable living as a professional poet, and drawing critical acclaim, Robert Browning saw his literary reputation overtaken by his celebrity. When he and Elizabeth Barrett married in 1846, they became the Brangelina of the Victorian literary world. Barrett was the better-known poet then, would write at least one poem far more famous than any of her husband’s, and would, like him, write a great verse novel that nobody reads – or at least, nobody read Aurora Leigh for a long time, till feminist critics captivated by its themes and its sheer readability vaulted it past The Ring and the Book in reputation and canonicity. For much of the 20th century, though, the Brownings were known mainly from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and from mandatory memorization of “My Last Duchess” or “How do I love thee?



And from Max Beerbohm’s devastating cartoon of the long-widowed Robert “taking tea with the Browning Society.” The poet survived his wife by many years, writing the whole time, enjoying salon superstardom, but becoming less and less relevant to late-Victorian art and intellectual life. Robert struck his acquaintances as shallow and not all that smart – the contrast he posed to his extremely sharp poetry puzzled observers and led them to discount his intelligence. Henry James even wrote a story, “The Private Life,” about the discrepancy between Browning the person and Browning the poet. It’s not that either Browning ever quite became a joke, but that both, and their relationship, were sentimentalized out of significance. They were the kind of writers that, if you had unlimited money, you might build an incongruous shrine to in the middle of Texas. To love the Brownings, by the 1960s, was a sure sign of middlebrow aesthetic inertia.

And that’s a shame. It’s a shame now largely redeemed in the case of Elizabeth, who now figures as a major poet and major voice for feminist and progressive causes; but even that recuperation seems to cast a bit of shadow on her husband, whom we suspect was probably doing something to enmesh her in patriarchy. There’s little evidence for that – she wrote Aurora Leigh during their marriage – but there’s little evidence that Robert was as progressive as Elizabeth. He was no Thoreau; he wasn’t even George Eliot, for that matter. He was a writer with an incredible verbal gift, who had the even rarer gift of recognizing a “poetic moment” and conveying it with deft obliqueness. “Memorabilia” is perhaps the best example of this gift: a poem so slight that it can pass unnoticed, and once noticed, it seems to be unable to pay attention to what it’s about. But that’s only until you see that being unable to pay attention is the nature, and the minor-key tragedy, of an ephemeral existence. That minor tragedy has never been better evoked.

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 7th, 2012 |1 Comment »