Hey, guess what? Rich people are just like you and me. They just use different words for their crimes. On a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, journalist Oliver Bullough talked about all the ways that rich people around the world illegally hide their money. Around minute 36, Bullough talks about the euphemisms that rich people use when they fleece you:
GROSS: So if you’re a jurisdiction that has laws favorable to hiding money, you can’t exactly, like, advertise that. How does word get out?
BULLOUGH: You kind of can advertise it ’cause this is all done in – it’s all – everyone talks in euphemisms anyway. I mean, no one talks about hiding dirty money. You talk about, you know, asset protection or about – you know, no one talks about secrecy jurisdictions. You talk about confidentiality. You know, confidentiality and secrecy are the same thing, but they’re just – you’re putting a different spin on it. You know, you don’t talk about being a tax haven. You talk about avoiding fiscal friction.
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, I like that.
BULLOUGH: It is a – you know, you – no one ever talks about a bribe. You talk about a consultancy payment or possibly a facilitation payment.
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)
[Update June 5] Don in the comments pointed me to a piece in Current Affairs by Nathan J. Robinson which is a thorough take down of Pinker, his writings and his ideology. Well, almost every way – there’s not much in there about how Pinker also sucks at linguistics. If you want something less acerbic than what I’ve written here, then check that article out. But if you want the really despicable stuff Pinker has written, read on and check that piece out later.
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.
The hot takes: 1. The article confuses written language w/ spoken language 2. Uses a test for written language on spoken language 3. Punctuation. How does it work? 4. Almost no linguistics sources. Hmm. 5. Uses a test for English on other languageshttps://t.co/QlizHYeUf7
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.
In the PittsburghCity 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.
Whatever those two books are, neither of them hold a candle to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This book is heavy. The history related by Dunbar-Ortiz is raw and you need to know about it if you want to call yourself an American. Let’s get into it.
David Brooks has an opinion piece in the New York Times called “Speaking as a White Male…”. It’s about identity politics and it features the usual headscratcher ideas that we have come to expect from the Times‘ opinion page, including this nonsense right here:
Brooks’ column may be full of the stuff that only white dudes could ever think of, but I want to look at one particular thing that he says:
Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?
Brooks’ choice of words is telling (“rise up”, “Latina”, “queer”, and “Jew”), but I’m not going to get into that here (or just yet). I can’t remember hearing anybody rise up in conversation and say “Speaking as a(n) X”. So I thought I’d have a look at the SPOKEN section of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see if we can find this phrase. The data in the SPOKEN section of COCA comes from transcripts of news shows. Not all of it is entirely spontaneous, but it’s good enough for what we’re looking for. Here’s a search for “SPEAK as _at*” (that is: all forms of the lemma speak, followed by the word as, followed by an article):
The first thing we can see is that speaking as a is the most common form of this construction, but that it seems to be trailing off in usage from the 1990s to 2017. On top of that, 63 hits are not that much (48 hits for speaking as a + 15 hits for speaking as an = 63). Let’s take a look at the two most common constructions.
Of those 63 hits, 35 fit the form that Brooks used. I’m excluding examples like “I’m not speaking as X” or “I was speaking as X” or when the speaking as X was put into the person’s mouth, such as in this example from NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! Show:
Peter Sagal: And speaking as an esteemed historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, do in fact, in your scholarly opinion, the Yankees suck?
Doris Kearns Goodwin: Without a question.
Peter Sagal: Thank you.
Of the 35 hits that are similar to the form Brooks made up, most of the words that appear after speaking as a(n) are unique, so most of them appear only once. Some favorites of mine are
Speaking as a(n)
old-time criminal defense lawyer
reporter who missed that story
There are 2 hits each for Speaking as a followed by woman, individual, and mom. The words Latina, queer or Jew do not appear in the search results. There is, however, one example of speaking as a homosexual and one example of speaking as an Israeli dove. So two out of three ain’t bad?
What’s going on here, then? My guess is that Brooks inflated the number of times he has heard Speaking as a(n) X to suit his argument. It’s probable that he has heard it a couple of times, but he makes it seem like it’s an everyday thing. Of course, maybe just hearing speaking as a queer person once is one too many times for some people.
The scant results from the search could also indicate that the data in the corpus doesn’t include speech from enough people who identify as a Latina, queer or Jew. That is probably true (these people need to be represented more on our news shows), but I also think that people do not need to say speaking as a(n) X because often in conversation a person’s identity is known by the participants. Think about it: would any of your friends or family members unironically say speaking as a(n) X? When people are being interviewed, their identity is often spelled out before the interview starts. And of course there are many other ways to indicate aspects of your identity in conversation without saying speaking as a(n) X.
I don’t recommend you read Brooks’ column (read this instead). It’s bad. It’s by a white guy who claims he doesn’t understand identity politics. Come on, David. You have a column in the New York Times. You get it. You just don’t want to. If you really need some help, give up your column and hand it to a Latina person, or a queer person, or a Jewish person. Then sit back and read what they have to say. I guarantee it won’t “Speaking as a(n) X…”
Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change starts off by spelling out one of the difficulties in linguistic research and communicating it to the public:
In many areas of culture or technology, some older people will embrace and welcome the new. But in thousands of sociolinguistic interviews, no one has ever been heard to say, “I really like the way that young people talk today; it’s so much better than the way we talked when I was young.” Most of us adhere to what one may call the Golden Age Syndrome: the belief that language once existed in a state of perfection, and any change is a decline from that state, to be resisted. (p. viii)
This really is the first and greatest of hills that linguists need to get over in order to talk about language to the public. I wouldn’t be surprised if linguists also have to get their undergrad students over this hill. So it’s good that Labov starts by surmounting this hill because the majority of the book is about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and other non-standard varieties or dialects (linguistics pro-tip: non-standard does not mean substandard, it just means “not at all or not as highly privileged as the standard”). It’s also good that Labov is the one writing this book. He is a legend in the field of linguistics and his writing is clear and direct.
Chapter 1 is a bit of a primer on linguistics. It tells non-linguists what they need to know to read this book and it summarizes the arguments of each chapter. It begins with something that might be shocking to many non-linguists:
People tend to believe that dialect differences in American English are disappearing, especially given our exposure to a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass media […] This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong. (pp. 1-2)
I made reference to this idea in a previous post and Labov is right that (some) people think everyone sounds more similar today than they did 10, 20, or 50 years ago – even though the opposite is true. I’m happy to say that Dialect Diversity does an excellent job of showing why American dialects are diverging. The CliffNotes version is: people do speak differently than they did when you were a kid, but their dialects are actually more different than they were back then and they are different in different ways. (I’m not good at CliffNotes. Read the whole book)
At the end of chapter 2, Labov makes an excellent point about our knowledge of language and what we do with it.
Most importantly, the (ING) variable [pronouncing the g in running vs. no pronouncing it in runnin’] is a prototypical example of orderly heterogeneity. It does not interfere with communication: we know that working and workin’, dunking and dunkin’, mean the same thing. Furthermore, the variation of (ING) works for us to establish levels of formality and informality and in any given context, the level of –in’ also tells us something about the social status of the speaker. In a word, we understand (ING). That does not prevent us from attacking Sarah Palin for “dropping her g’s.” Public rhetoric about language is always several stages removed from reality. Because we understand what (ING) is all about, we can always pick it up and use it as a club to beat our opponents on the head and shoulders with, linguistically speaking. (p. 16)
So even though people understand what is being said – and why it is being said in a certain way – we still can’t get over criticizing others (especially women and minorities) for the language that they use. The (ING) variable is even more perfect because everyone – everyone? Yes, everyone – uses it in at least some cases.
I have no notes on chapter 3 except that it is very interesting. Fun even. I guess it was too fun for me to stop and take notes 🙂
Chapter 5, “The Politics of African American English” discusses the divergence of Black and White English in America and how this is affecting African American literacy (the divergence is described in chapter 4). One of the most eye-opening passages in this book comes even before Labov talks about the Ebonics controversy (which Labov was right in the middle of). Labov writes about the ways that researchers have tried to influence the methods of teaching students who are native AAVE speakers.
To do this [giving children who speak AAVE the capacity to understand and use both AAVE and standard English], it is generally agreed that contrastive analysis is helpful: putting the two systems side by side and showing the learner how they differ. […] Contrastive analysis thus depends on and develops knowledge of both systems, for both children and teachers. It is generally understood that knowledge of other groups and different cultures reduces hostility and prejudice toward them. Our sociolinguistic studies find the strongest prejudices against minority groups among those people who have had the least contact with (and the least knowledge of) them. Nevertheless, efforts to use contrastive analysis in the teaching of reading have brought forth a series of political firestorms of increasing intensity which have defeated one program after another. (p. 73, bolding mine)
The sentence I put in bold is shocking and depressing and maddening all at once. But maybe more important is the fact that contrastive analysis sounds logical. It’s no wonder that idiots killed it. Never underestimate people’s desire to force others to speak like them and only like them. Teachers have the power to accept or delegitimize students’ speech and they should be careful with how they use this power. The reason this matters is because it denies kids an education. Labov shows on the following pages that people who said AAVE is “bad English”, “slang” and “ignorant and careless speech” – that is people who did not know what they were talking about, and did not know the linguistics behind AAVE – were able to shape the debate and force unproven and unhelpful teaching methods onto already marginalized children:
The same political reaction to the recognition of AAVE by the school system can be observed in a series of controversies that followed [the negative and uninformed reaction, published in the NAACP’s The Crisis, to early research on AAVE]. In case after case, efforts to use linguistic knowledge of AAVE for contrastive analysis were reported and condemned as programs for teaching children to speak a corrupt brand of English. The idea that African American children spoke a coherent dialect of their own was consistently rejected […] (p. 74)
Labov then goes on to show how complaints about AAVE, or Ebonics, are usually thinly veiled admissions of racism. The dialect is used as a publicly acceptable way to disparage all black people; linguistic discrimination being the last allowable act of bigotry in high-minded liberal corridors. The examples he lists are vile and I don’t want to repeat them here, but in something any linguist could see coming a mile away, the people trying to satirize AAVE end up showing that they do not know how AAVE works. To these Labov only writes “Here again one can see the distance between public discussion and linguistic reality” and calls these hot takes “uninformed reaction[s] masquerading under the ‘helmet of wit’”. They are this but they are worse than that. People who stopped studying math in high school don’t make claims about how math should be taught. But people with high school English under their belt feel comfortable in pedant-splaining to others how language should be taught.
After this Labov shows why linguistic knowledge is important in teaching – through the efforts made by him and other researchers once they were given room (and funding) to develop successful methods for teaching children who speak non-standard varieties such as AAVE. Labov and his colleagues developed contrastive analysis books to help children learn to read. If you’re wondering why those books were written in standard English, it’s because of the teachers’ reactions. Labov says
The battle for the recognition of AAVE in the classroom […] might be won, but it would be a long and expensive battle, waged at the expense of children who could have learned to read under a more realistic approach. The approach that has been taken in The Reading Road and Portals [the material developed by Labov and colleagues] is to provide contrastive eanalysis for the teachers rather than for the students. (pp. 92-93)
Linguists who try to point out that all dialects are rule-governed and that no dialect is better than any other dialect and that non-standard does not mean substandard often receive a sneer from language peevers, “Then why did you write your book in Standard English? Hmmm?” It’s for the people who are not proficient in dialects other than Standard English. The dialect of Standard English is something people can easily acquire because there are more than enough resources out there to teach it. The materials on non-standard dialects are a fraction of what there is for the standard dialect. Books are written in a dialect, by the way. It just happens to be the slang of prigs.
The last two chapters in Dialect Diversity in America take a look at the long history of the shifting dialects in the United States, specifically the Northern Cities Shift. Labov stretches his thesis across almost 200 years of history and ties it to the political switcheroo made by the Republican and Democratic parties. I’ll admit that these chapters lost me a bit, as I found some of the claims a bit more hard to grasp than in the previous chapters. I’m not doubting that Labov has done his research, I just think that the arguments in Chapters 7 and 8 didn’t seem as iron clad as the arguments in earlier chapters. I think, however, that people who are more into sociology, anthropology, politics and/or history than they are into linguistics might find this part of the book is their favorite. This book was, after all, written for non-linguists. If anything, it takes linguistics out of the research lab and applies it to the real world.
I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American dialects.
Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012) is available from the University of Virginia press for $19.50. There is apparently an online collection of audio to accompany the book, but I did not review these (I got my copy of the book from the library and I can’t remember seeing a reference to the online audio. Maybe it’s in the 2014 edition). You can find a glowing review of Dialect Diversity in America by the distinguished linguist John Baugh here. (PDF for those behind the paywall).