|(Ryan Huddle for The Boston Globe)|
Getting under the surface
Two studies explore words in their natural habitat, with the first looking at how language changes over time and the other detailing what our pronouns say about us
John McWhorter, a former fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is fond of making analogies from the natural sciences to clinch his arguments. “What Language Is’’- his new “tour for all language lovers’’ - is an odd book that promises a broad, gregarious overview of the field of linguistics but feels more like a tour of one person’s grudges. McWhorter compares himself to a diver, swimming alongside the languages he purports to describe, while the rest of us stare at language from the shore of our own ignorance, “laying jellyfish out on the rocks.’’
But we all use language, for a variety of purposes, every day. In that sense we’re all “under water,’’ to use the terms of McWhorter’s inadvertently apt analogy. If you get a PhD in linguistics, aren’t you the one staring clinically from the shore? That’s a good thing: Would we want to read a guide to marine life written by a fish?
This book is full of fascinating tidbits about Persian and Pashto (though it is weirdly technical in parts - there are charts and graphs on most pages), the click dialects of Africa, the glories of Archi and Akha. McWhorter compares his view of languages to natural selection, and quotes Darwin:
“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are, evolving.’’
If languages are really like organisms in every regard, no one would quarrel that they are most beautiful when left alone, doing only what comes naturally. Why would you ever try to corral these magnificent creatures, when they are naturally so beautiful and wonderful?
It isn’t hard to see the flaws in this analogy. If languages evolve, isn’t grammar just part of the process? Isn’t “correct’’ English - the kind enforced by stern-faced elders - to be understood as equally the product of natural selection? And doesn’t the application of Darwin to human culture raise uncomfortable problems? When BP moves a pipeline by a couple miles and wipes out a Pakistani village, scattering its residents and killing off its dialect, that’s not natural selection?
Language changes over time; to say it “evolves’’ is quite another matter. Change is not evolution, certainly not Darwinian evolution. Nor does language progress in any straightforward way, riding comfortably the passing of time. We don’t speak Shakespeare’s English, but whenever we read Shakespeare, forms long lying dormant in written English get a second chance to enter spoken English. Individuals who grow up in nonliterary environments - I was one - routinely shape their spoken English in relation to written language, particularly literary language. Shakespeare is one of the writers who taught me how to talk, and I don’t speak like an Elizabethan.
If McWhorter had his way, I might never have encountered Shakespeare in the form we know him: He has suggested that Shakespeare be translated into contemporary English prose, posing, as it does, such huge problems for aural comprehension. How do we figure out what counts as “contemporary’’ English when, for example, the words “cater’’ and “epileptic’’ among thousands of others, were invented by this Shakespeare person? I’d like to know.
Conversely, if organisms were like language, the average dinner party thrown in the Boston suburbs would include a lovely Neanderthal couple from Framingham and an elderly neighbor who was a Pierolapithecus catalaunicus. Language keeps around its old life forms: Literature could be described as having been invented for this sole purpose.
McWhorter’s book promises planetary range, but it is a tour of a game reserve.
. . .
There is an amazing old Sesame Street animated short called “Capital I.’’ In it, little men who live in a giant gold I, emerging from a door at its base, polish their big “I’’ all day: “We all live in a Capital I,’’ goes the tune. Boy, do we: And Sesame Street understood both the joys and the risks of that condition.
Now James W. Pennebaker, a social psychologist who uses computational linguistics, has written a book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,’’ which quantifies what Sesame Street knew years ago. If you say “I’’ a lot, friend, you’d might as well give up now: Pennebaker argues that poets who overuse this dreaded pronoun are more suicidal than those who didn’t. He also found that women talk more about other people, while men talk more about “concrete objects’’ (Jet Skis? Camaros?) For this reason, men use more articles, women, more third-person pronouns.
The table comparing the pronoun use of King Lear vs. that of Rudolph Giuliani is unforgettable. But this book is distinguished for at least one thing: introducing perhaps the worst method of literary criticism ever devised. Using a copyrighted process called “Language Style Mapping,’’ two literary couples were tracked through the development of their writings. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, true blue lovers that they were, show remarkable pronoun similarities throughout the whole course of their marriage. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had a good thing going for a while, too. But we know what happened to Plath: She started saying “I’’ too much.
Dan Chiasson’s latest book of poetry, “Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon,’’ was published last year. He teaches at Wellesley College