Steven Pinker’s Dog Whistles

So. Steven Pinker.

Yeah I wrote about him way back in the day when I reviewed his book The Language Instinct and how it was garbage. But if linguistic nativism is your thing, then fine. You do you. Geoffrey Sampson presents a valid argument against Pinker’s claims and Pinker responded… never. Because The Language Instinct is still making that money yo.

But Steven Pinker has branched out now. And things have not gone so well. Scholars from other fields are learning that he’s kinda bad at scholarship.

So here’s a rundown of why you should not follow what Steven Pinker says or writes.

First up we got Pinker’s garbage tweet about words not having power. He links to an article in Quillette (which we’ll get to later). I’m not going to embed the tweet here, but I’ll quote it. Pinker says “The first insight of linguistics, going back to Plato, is that words are conventions, without magical powers. That’s being nullified by PC/SJW attacks on mentioning taboo words, even ironically or in works of art.” Many people pointed out how stupid this is and, indeed, it is very stupid. The first insight of linguistics? Even historians know more about linguistics than this. But what it’s really about is how Steven Pinker really wants to be able to say the n-word. Like really bad. And preferably with impunity, if that’s not too much to ask. Why does everyone have to be so uptight about Steven Pinker saying the n-word? iT’s jUsT a wOrD

Let’s not dwell on it because things get worse (somehow).

Pinker has published a book called Enlightenment Now. In the book, Pinker argues that the world is actually a better place than you think it is because of the Enlightenment. It’s too bad Pinker totally fucks up the scholarship in his book. As this article by Aaron R. Hanlon shows, Pinker doesn’t even know what the Enlightenment was all about.

History scholars staring to feel like linguists.

Do you think we’re done? We’re not done. (I wish we were done. Those three paragraphs alone were draining. On we go! Into the shit!)

Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is bad for other reasons. Here’s Samuel Moyn pointing out one of the problems:

Or take inequality. Sure, some perceive a rampant crisis in most nations, but it is all sort of boring and overblown, by Pinker’s lights. “I need a chapter on the topic,” he writes, apparently willing himself to push through his fatigue with the subject, “because so many people have been swept up in the dystopian rhetoric and see inequality as a sign that modernity has failed to improve the human condition.” In his cursory treatment, Pinker tries to downplay currently exploding levels of national inequality, by pointing out that global inequality is declining: Even if the gap between the richest and the rest in individual countries is widening, on a world scale inequality is falling slightly. Never mind that it is within their individual countries that most people are experiencing and responding to inequality, and wreaking havoc because of it. In any case, Pinker argues, it does not matter morally if some people get extremely wealthy, so long as poverty decreases.

Just as in his somewhat literal understanding of violence, Pinker simply cannot see something so straightforward as class rule, which has been massively reestablished in our time of inequality, with all the baleful effects it has had on politics. In a world in which the outsized gains of the rich allow them to live a separate existence from the rest—stooping only to buy elections with dark money and even induce populists to act in their interest—rage is not only an expected but also an understandable result. The fact that these forms of domination and hierarchy are features of the very modernity he wants to lionize is not a possibility Pinker pauses to contemplate. Each of his arguments on the subject is a way of saying he doesn’t think inequality is that important—even as populists across the world are reaping gains from the obvious conclusion that it is.

“But, Joe,” I hear you saying, “those are just scholars who know more about the Enlightenment than Steven Pinker. So what if he got some stuff wrong? It’s not like he’s a leading thinker in society!” He is a leading thinker in society. He learned how to get things wrong and not care about it in linguistics. Now he’s moved on to other fields and he also sucks at them. And he’s also an asshole about it. Here’s Jennifer Szalai:

Steven Pinker doesn’t just want you to be happy; he wants you to be grateful too. His new book, “Enlightenment Now,” is a spirited and exasperated rebuke to anyone who refuses to concede that the world is becoming a better place. “None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become,” he writes. “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.”

The world has become amazing for Steven Pinker, so why don’t you all just shut your pie holes, huh? You want another article showing that Pinker fucks up his argument? You got it! In fact, here’s two! Go nuts! Because this nonsense of Steven Pinker writing things and people paying for his hot garbage is getting tiring. Linguists knew it first. Sorry, historians. He’s yours now. (Please take him)

And here’s Jason Hickel asking Pinker to debate him. Hahahaha, good luck, bro. Call some linguists if you get Pinker to respond. Because he ain’t ever done that. But he still gets puff pieces in the Chronicle. I see you, Chronicle. Do better. Be more like Mehdi Hasan and don’t fall for Pinker’s bullshit.

But friends, things get much worse. Steven Pinker promotes the website Quillette, which is website all about “free speech”. I’m putting that in scare quotes because it’s 2019 and you know what that means. Quillette likes to publish racists and sexists. They’ll even let these people publish anonymously because why should they have to own up to their bigotry? Steven Pinker has aligned himself with them. Even more so, Pinker said that campus rape is a “moral panic,” an “extraordinary popular delusion” and something akin to a witch hunt. And all because the rate of rapes on college campuses is not as high as it is in “the world’s most savage war zones”. Fuck you, Steven Pinker. Maybe you’ll listen to me because I’m also a straight white man. Steven Pinker has never had to cross the street on campus because he was walking alone and there were men walking toward him and he was worried about being attacked. Steven Pinker has never had to worry about what he’ll do while he’s out for a jog on campus and there’s a man running behind him – is he fast enough to outrun that man? Is he strong enough to overpower him? Are there enough other people around to hear him scream? Steven Pinker has never had to worry about having something slipped into his drink at a campus party. The only reason I know that women have to worry about these things is because they have told me. There are other things they have to worry about – things that neither me nor Steven Pinker have ever been forced to think about. And there are women who have been raped on campus. But Steven Pinker doesn’t care because there aren’t enough rape victims on college campuses as there are in some hypothetical war zone. Ugh. Get fucked, Pinker.

I can’t go on. I don’t want to. Go read this thread. And when someone cites Steven Pinker, tell them to get a real source for their claims. If he would act right, academia would take him seriously. If he would do actual scholarship, he wouldn’t be a problem. But every field he goes into rejects his claims. Why? Because he’s shit.

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Update on that F-K paper

Three months ago I posted about a paper in PLoS ONE called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches”. I noted that there are serious problems with that study. For the tl;dr:

After I posted on here, I also commented on the article with my concerns. The PLoS ONE journal allows commenting on their articles, but I’ll admit that my first comment was neither appropriate nor helpful. It was more of a troll than anything. The editors removed my comment, and to their credit, they emailed me with an explanation why. They also told me what a comment should look like. So I posted a grown-up comment on the article. This started an exchange between me and the authors of the article. Here’s the skinny:

1. The authors confuse written language with spoken language
2. The study uses an ineffectual test for written language on spoken language
3. The paper does not take into account how transcriptions and punctuation affect the data
4. The authors cite almost no linguistic sources in a study about language
5. They use a test developed for English on other languages

The authors tried to respond to my points about why their methodology is wrong, but there are some things that they just couldn’t argue their way out of (such as points 1, 2, 3 and 5 above).

Behind the scenes, I was talking with the editors of the journal. They told me that they were taking my criticisms seriously and looking into the issue themselves. In my comments on the paper, I provided multiple sources to back up my claims. The authors did not do in their replies to me, but that’s because they can’t – there aren’t studies to back up their claims. However, my last email with the editors of the journal was over a month ago. I understand that these things can take time (and the editors told me this much) but a few of the criticisms that I raised are pretty cut and dry. The authors also stopped replying to my comments, the last one of which was posted on April 9, 2019 (can’t say I blame them though).

So I’m not very positive that anything is going to change. But I’ll let you know if it does.

Short interview with Dr. Samy Alim

In the Pittsburgh City Paper, there’s a short interview with Dr. Samy Alim. You should read it. It’s called “” and it’s all about language and discrimination. It’ll give you a taste of what kind of research Dr. Alim has done. If you like what you read, then go check out his book (with Geneva Smitherman, another great linguist) called Articulate while Black: Barack Obama, language, and race in the U.S., about how Obama’s masterful use of language is representative of the relationship between race, language and education in the US. That book is excellent.

I can’t pick a favorite quote from the City Paper interview. Just go check it out: https://www.pghcitypaper.com/pittsburgh/the-linguistic-dominance-of-white-western-english-and-how-to-recognize-and-disrupt-it/Content?oid=14230061

The American Spectator tries to write about language

But their logic gets in the way

So, apparently the American Spectator is a conservative news magazine. Their About page doesn’t load on Opera (probably IE only), so I’m going off what Wikipedia tells me. While researching the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I came across a review in the American Spectator of John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax. Somehow the reviewer, John Derbyshire, claims that McWhorter is too progressive. I mean, I guess everyone is progressive compared to the American right…

But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about how to spot a bad article on language and/or linguistics. Here is the first paragraph of the Spectator’s review:

Chinese has an extraordinary number of verbs meaning “carry.” If I carry something on a hanging arm, like a briefcase, the verb is ti; on an outstretched palm, tuo; using both palms, peng; gripped between upper arm and body, xie; in my hand, like a stick, wo; embraced, like a baby, bao; on my back, bei; on my head, ding; on my shoulder, kang; on a pole over my shoulder, tiao; slung on a shoulder pole between two guys, tai….

Whoa! That’s a lotta verbs! I counted 11 and the reviewer wasn’t even done listing them. But hold on a second. How many verbs for carry does English have? According to Thesaurus.com, at least 39.

carry - thesaurus

What gives? Well, this is a bad way to start out an article on language. It’s called the “X words for snow” meme or cliché (aka a snowclone), after the claim that Eskimos have some large number of words for snow, which is supposed to mean that they have some better (or at least different) conception of snow than English speakers.

If you think about it for a second though, you can see why this idea is nonsense. First, languages divide and combine words differently. So whereas English doesn’t have a single word for ice hockey, Finnish does (it’s jääkiekko, literally a compound noun of jää “ice” and kiekko “puck/hockey”). But English speakers in Canada seem to have as firm a grasp on what ice hockey is all about as Finnish speakers in Finland. The inverse of the trope above is called the “No words for X” meme.

Second, what really counts as a word meaning “carry”? I could skate the puck into the zone in hockey or run the ball into the end zone in American football. In both cases I would be “carrying” the puck or the ball, but would you consider “carry” as part of the meaning of skate or run? I doubt it. Context can fill in a lot in language. And some languages might have a grammatical marker that means “carry” – so not a word word, like the word “word,” but a morpheme that you can attach to other words, as English does with –ed to indicate the past tense. Or think about how French forms a negative using the “word” pas, which comes from the word meaning step, but is now required to grammatically form the negative (so much so that you can leave off the negative particle ne in French, but not the pas).

Third, if it’s true that speakers of a language have some better conception of something because their language has a bunch of words for it, then surely that only works for the speakers who know those words. It doesn’t matter how many words Chinese has for “carry” – if a Chinese speaker doesn’t know those words, then they are useless. You can can sometimes fill in the blanks based on context, but this idea places too much importance on the words of a language and removes other factors relevant to language, such as speakers’ pragmatic and semantic knowledge or skills. (I have to also say that it’s interesting that the reviewer in the Spectator doesn’t say which dialect of Chinese he’s talking about. I know from reading about Chinese that there isn’t really one Chinese language and that some of the dialects are farther apart than Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. I guess he’s talking about Standard Mandarin Chinese? If you know more, leave a comment.)

There are other reasons that the Spectator’s opening paragraph is nonsense, but that should get you started. If you want to know more, McWhorter’s book delves into this topic, as well as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The reviewer in the Spectator tries to engage with McWhorter’s claims, but falls flat by saying things like the differences in language are “biological in origin,” that the differences in the ways language marks things cannot be chance, and that McWhorter is a “fanatically extreme egalitarian protesting too much,” something I don’t think anyone except the American right would or could accuse him of.

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture

Prof. Terttu Nevalainen held her farewell lecture at the University of Helsinki on April 5. The place was packed and I want to share some observations from the day.

Terttu was introduced with the words “You can’t work in language variation and change without being familiar with Terttu’s research.” That isn’t hyperbole, it’s an understatement. Continue reading “Prof. Terttu Nevalainen’s farewell lecture”

A Language Map of the United States

There a new and interactive map of the languages spoken in the United States. It’s at http://languagemap.us/ and it’s pretty fun to play with. The data comes from the US Census Bureau so you can zoom in on counties. Neat!

Over on r/linguistics, the creator answered a few questions. And there’s an FAQ on the main page.

What is the grammar of thankyouverymuch?

 tl;dr – From a functional perspective, thankyouverymuch is an evaluative adjunct (a type of stance adjunct) according to Downing & Locke because it is “attitudinal, reflecting the subjective or objective attitude of the speaker towards the content and sometimes also towards the addressee” (2nd ed.; pp. 73-74, 234). According to the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, thankyouverymuch is an attitude stance adverbial, which “convey an evaluation, or assessment of expectations” of the speaker’s attitude toward the proposition (p. 384).

From a discourse perspective, Blommaert (2005) would probably see thankyouverymuch as a performative element and a way for speakers to mark an orientation to what they have just said. But I’m not great at discourse analysis, so please tell me more in the comments.

Finally, syntactically, thankyouverymuch is a finite clause.

Read more to see a deeper analysis Continue reading “What is the grammar of thankyouverymuch?”