No Greater Misfortune:

Arguing With American Academics

“No greater misfortune could happen to anyone than
that of developing a dislike for argument.” — Socrates

Part I: The Present Dispute Over Linguists and Usage

For about half a century now I have been involved, one way and another, in debates with academic experts in a number of disciplines. Sometimes my involvement has been very superficial, barely more than that of a spectator; more often, it has been quite intensive, with lengthy messages passing between me and my opponents, or appearing publicly in print or on the Web. The controversy I am currently engaged in has caused me to reflect on this lifetime of intellectual debate, and to formulate some general notions about debating with North American academics. (I limit myself to North Americans—citizens of Canada and the United States—because I want to be able to support my assertions with personal experience.)

The present essay is in two parts. In this first, I will respond to the messages I’ve received about my essay, “Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage,” as published in The Vocabula Review (TVR), September 2000. In the second, I go on to draw some conclusions from these and other personal experiences, and from the experiences of some others. (Please note that the limitations of e-mail have forced me to eliminate italics and a few other typographical niceties from this version, and to reword some statements slightly to regain the emphasis that would otherwise be gotten by italics. In quoting or citing this essay, therefore, please use the version appearing on the TVR Web site, which is the authoritative one.)


I assume in what follows that the reader has access to that essay, but some background will also be necessary to make clear what’s going on.


Pullum’s and Nunberg’s Letters


During the summer of 2000 I was invited by Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor of The Vocabula Review (TVR), to publish in that on-line periodical my essay, “Why Linguists Are Not to Be Trusted on Language Usage,” of which part had already been published by The Atlantic Monthly in 1997. In that essay I attacked some ideas expressed by Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of California Santa Cruz, and Geoffrey Nunberg, senior scientist at Xerox PARC and sometime professor of linguistics at Stanford University. In the highly abbreviated version of the paper published in the Atlantic, little or none of my criticism of Pullum remained, but as a matter of course I sent copies of the full paper to him, Nunberg, and other writers whose names were mentioned in it. I then had a lively correspondence with Pullum, and a brief but useful one with Nunberg. These debates-by-mail ended as such things usually do, with each of us adhering to the positions he’d started with, but they were nevertheless interesting, and civil—occasionally even cordial—in tone.


When TVR published the full paper, it was the first time that my criticism of some of Pullum’s work appeared in public, as well as a reappearance of my criticism of some of Nunberg’s. I did not think it necessary to inform either man in advance of this event; both had already had ample opportunity to comment on the full paper; both knew that I intended to publish it; both knew that they had not succeeded in changing my views. Nevertheless, both men learned of the publication immediately, and replied within a day, perhaps even within hours, of its appearance on TVR’s Web site.


Their replies were sent to me, with no copy to TVR, so they were evidently not meant for anyone’s eyes but mine, and I cannot reproduce them here, because publication of private letters is illegal without their author’s permission. It occurred to me to paraphrase these replies, and then key my own response to the paraphrases, and the editor of TVR accepted this idea, but I found it would not work. Paraphrase is the conveying of another’s substance in one’s own words, but neither Pullum’s nor Nunberg’s message has any substance; they are mere ad hominem attacks, with virtually no factual content. Trying to paraphrase them is trying to capture a fog in a butterfly net.


Pullum angrily points to one real error in my paper: I identified him there as both professor and dean, and I was wrong; he has not been a dean for some time. I apologize for this error, and hope that it is not so serious as to discredit my entire argument. Amusingly, Pullum goes on to make the very error he is so angry at me for making; he tells me that Nunberg was never a professor of linguistics, as I had said he was, and Nunberg, in his message, has to tell Pullum that I’m right; he, Nunberg, was indeed a professor of linguistics at Stanford for some time. Pullum’s error here would be too trivial to mention, except that he himself calls my description of Nunberg as a professor of linguistics “particularly significant.” So much for the substance of Pullum’s reply to me; the rest is fluff, and fairly nasty fluff at that; he refers to my “unedited whining and caviling,” accuses me of deliberate publication of falsehoods (he is referring chiefly to my characterization—my correct characterization—of Nunberg as a professor of linguistics), and offers a good deal more of such abuse and rant.


Pullum’s reply also makes one sweeping and undocumented charge; he claims that in the letters he sent me back in 1996, he corrected a number of errors in my paper, and that I have now irresponsibly published the paper without taking those corrections into account. In fact, Pullum criticized a number of points in my paper, but failed, in my judgment, to show that they were wrong. I told him so at the time, but he now writes as if he had demonstrated my errors beyond question, making it reprehensible in me to publish them without correction. In my view, there are no such corrections to be made (other than that of the grave error I committed in making him still a dean).


If Pullum thinks otherwise, he can easily prove me wrong: he need only give me permission to reprint the letters in question, and let the world judge who was in the right on each point. A year or so ago, I asked both Pullum and Nunberg for permission to reprint their letters to me as part of a book I was planning; both refused. I offered to let them review the texts before I published them, to make sure they were accurate; I offered to let them clean up any minor blemishes, such as misspellings, grammatical solecisms, and the like; and finally, I offered each man the opportunity to write one final letter, which I would publish without comment, thus giving each of them the last word in his debate with me. Nevertheless, both men refused permission. Let the reader judge who is more likely to be supported by these letters.


I am even more disappointed with Nunberg’s reply than with Pullum’s. As readers of my paper will know, I went out of my way there to salute Nunberg for various admirable qualities, and my respect for him was further increased by my discovery that on his personal Web page, he calls attention to my Atlantic piece. So when I find him talking to Pullum (his message was not addressed to me, but to Pullum, with a copy to me) about my “willful errors” and “misquotations” (no specifics given), and see myself referred to as “an unfortunate guy who’s desperate for attention,” and not worth that attention, I am disappointed by Nunberg’s defection from accuracy and even simple civility. Of course the fact that he was addressing Pullum primarily, with copy to me just as an afterthought, may explain some of this; perhaps he would be talking a little differently if he were addressing me directly and privately.

One of the standard ploys in scholarly debates is the “I write more in sorrow than in anger” one; in this case, it is the simple truth. Nothing either man has said to me in his reply to my TVR appearance has had any effect on me other than to diminish my respect for him, and leave me feeling depressed at the inability of so many academics to deal with criticism without turning nasty and personal. I’ll enlarge on this theme in the second part of this essay.


Anshen’s Letter


Another reply to my TVR paper came from Frank Anshen, who is, I learn from the editor, Graduate Studies Director, Department of Linguistics, SUNY-Stonybrook. His letter may be found elsewhere in this e-mail message.


Mr Anshen offers two arguments explicitly, and one implicitly. I will respond to the explicit ones first.


On what Nunberg called the asymmetric negatives, he makes these points (I’ve recapitulated his points in the following bulleted items, with my response to each following on the next line.):

  • “Their number is small”
    What number, I wonder, would compel Mr Anshen’s respect? I have quite a collection of such animals, perhaps even enough to satisfy Mr Anshen; if he will specify a quantity, I will see if I can meet his requirements. The deeper question, though, is So What? What does the number of such beasts have to do with the issues Nunberg and I were discussing?

  • “They are often a subject of humor”
    What Mr Anshen means here, of course, is that their imaginary positive forms are often used humorously. And again, so what?
  • (paraphrase by MH): Unlike my other examples, “disinterested” has a positive form—and it can be decomposed into its constituent parts, which don’t support my meaning

    To begin with, it was Nunberg who asserted that “disinterested”, in what he calls “its older sense”—that is, the sense most good writers use it in today—had for all practical purposes no positive form. He told us that that sense is preserved “only in the fixed phrase interested party”. Out of charity, I refrained at the time from asking him if he had ever heard such phrases as “conflict of interests” or “in the interest of economy”, and if so, what he thought they meant.

    Yes, “disinterested” can be resolved into dis- and interested, and, says Anshen, when so decomposed it does not yield the opposite of the prescriptivist sense of the original word. But that depends on the meaning one attaches to the component “interested”; one of the living senses of that word yields exactly the required sense for the negative form.

    To ask what “interested” means, or can mean, is just another way of posing the question being investigated here; its answer is not an established fact to be used in settling the issue, but the very thing to be determined—Anshen is begging the question. In doing so, of course, he is only following in the footsteps of Nunberg, who similarly thought that “disgrace” was one of those disgraceful words whose senses “are not recoverable as the sum of their parts”; the lesson for both is that it’s well to consider the full range of meanings of the parts before pronouncing authoritatively on their relation to the whole.

    But Anshen shares another, more astonishing difficulty with Nunberg: neither of them can understand how people like me can “promote” the use of a word in a sense not based on decomposing it into its parts. This is remarkable: if there is a layman’s practice that linguists are as one in ridiculing, it is this one of trying to deduce what a word means from its parts. Along with its double, folk etymology, folk definition is the very mark of the rank amateur and the linguistic naïf, and has been almost laughed out of existence by the academic linguists. To hear professors of linguistics claim that terms must meet that long-derided criterion is like hearing a professor of physics claim to have invented a perpetual motion machine.

    The very example we are dealing with here tells us why decomposition cannot be the basis of definition: “interested” has two chief meanings, so the attempt to reason our way from it to a unique meaning for “disinterested” is thereby doomed to failure; it all depends on which of the positive meanings you start with. And to answer Anshen’s final question: the reason why the “prescriptivist” sense of the word—that is, the sense in which almost every careful writer today uses it—is worth preserving, and contributes to precision in usage, is that it has a meaning not borne by any other word in the language, while the sense that Nunberg and Anshen want for it is already provided for very nicely by uninterested. Why give up a unique and valuable capability for an unneeded synonym?

On making one’s opponent prove a negative

Mr Anshen reminds us that no one can prove a universal negative; true, but irrelevant—I made no such demand. Dwight Bolinger, Steven Pinker reports with satisfaction, told Auden that even in a world where all prescriptive rules were obeyed, mugging would continue at the same rate. I questioned Bolinger’s authority for making such a statement. I do not profess to know what the incidence of mugging would be in so radically different a world, but Bolinger does profess to know, and has no hesitation in telling one of the greatest poets of our time, in heavily condescending tones, where to get off. I questioned Bolinger’s omniscience by saying that, for all he or I or anyone knew, a world of rigid usage-rule obedience might be one in which criminality would diminish; and this, Mr Anshen claims, means that I have asked Bolinger to prove a universal negative. No, I merely pointed out that Bolinger had made an assertion he couldn’t possibly support.

On being short of time and energy

Since Mr Anshen is kind enough to remind us to beware of the “make your opponent prove a negative” ploy, even though no such ploy is deployed in my piece, I want to return the favor by calling attention to another ploy, one that actually appears in this debate—specifically, in Mr Anshen’s letter. In saying “I have time and energy to comment on only two points,” Mr Anshen lets us know that he is a person of great busyness and importance, and implies—more ominously—that he could, if only he were not so pressed by important business, point to other shortcomings in my piece. If, as common sense would suggest, Mr Anshen chose the two strongest of his arguments for the brief message that his limited time and energy allowed him, we can only wonder what marvels he could have offered if he had had more of both resources at his disposal.

Holderness’ letter


Another letter came from Mike Holderness, profession and affiliation not given, and is likewise reproduced elsewhere in this message. I’m afraid that it’s going to take me many more words to straighten out Holderness’ tangled mass of confusions than it took him to create it, but there’s no help for it; messes are much more easily created than cleared up.


Holderness begins by identifying the controversy my paper is about as the “eskimo-words-for-snow” controversy, and charging me with failing to mention its two most interesting features. He is wrong on the first point; the central issue of my paper is the authority of linguists on questions of language usage. (If the reader wonders why all the debate seems to be about how many words the Eskimos have for snow, rather than what I say my essay is about, I will add here only that I wonder, too; I will deal more fully with this question in Part 2 of this essay.) And if I did not mention either of the points he thinks the most interesting, that is because I do not consider them to be such.


He goes on to tell us that “for most of those who actually care about the dispute, it is one over the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”—I don’t know how Holderness has determined this, unless he has taken a quick poll of everyone interested in the dispute, but let that pass—and that the “eskimo-words-for-snow canard” is in turn deployed in support of this hypothesis. (I assume from the context that the “canard” Holderness has in mind is the belief that Eskimos have a great many words for snow, and I will so use the term while dealing with his letter, but my own view is that the canard is the opposite belief—that they don’t have many words for snow.) Deployed by whom, I wonder? Not by me, since I am guilty of having failed even to mention the hypothesis. But in any case, why should even someone who is taken in by the canard—that is, believes that Eskimos have many words for snow—be committed to the S-W hypothesis? Even if it is often used to buttress that hypothesis—I have never seen it so used, but let us assume that Holderness has seen many such instances—it does not necessarily lead to that or any hypothesis.


Holderness goes on to state that anyone who accepts the hypothesis must accept that prescriptivists, in seeking to control language, seek control over reality, or at least over society. I am tempted here to say yes, Holderness is right on this point: we prescriptivists form a vast international conspiracy that seeks to control the world by such ruses as persuading everyone to use “disinterested” in the sense we favor. And indeed there may be a truth in Holderness’ charge, though not exactly the one he had in mind; in championing the prescriptivist meaning of “disinterested”, I may also be trying to convince people of the reality of disinterestedness, perhaps even of the value of being disinterested—and to that extent, I am attempting to control reality and society. Perhaps this makes me a tyrant-in-training; I will be glad to let the reader judge.


But even while I bend over backwards to grant him a point, Holderness takes the wind out of my sails by saying that the S-W hypothesis is almost entirely discredited among philosophers and linguists, which turns everything he’s said so far into a collapsed soufflé; the hypothesis that I unaccountably failed to mention, it turns out, is one that serious students of language no longer believe, if they ever did. Might it be, then, that my failure to mention it was no failure at all, but simply an avoidance of the irrelevant?


My next failure is my presumed ignorance of the fact that Inuit, like other Eskimo languages, is an agglutinative one, with its corollary that “word” has a somewhat different meaning when applied to it than it does when applied to inflecting or synthetic languages. (In the interest of precision, I note that the Eskimo languages are generally considered to be polysynthetic, not pure agglutinative languages.) But the issue here is not whether those constructs of the Eskimo languages that denote varieties of snow and ice are words in the same sense as the words of analytic and inflecting languages.


Almost everyone involved in the Eskimo snow vocabulary controversy has talked about those constructs as words, but it is of no importance whether they are technically words or not (and “word”, like virtually every other common word that has become a term of art, is at the limit itself controversial, even without bringing in the typological distinctions that Holderness is raising). What one side is asserting, and the other denying, is that there are many more fixed constructs or fixed locutions in the Eskimo languages for snow and related phenomena than in the languages of the temperate and equatorial zones.


Of course any idea about snow that the Eskimo languages can convey by means of such a construct could also be conveyed in, for example, English—but it would take in general many more English constructs than Eskimo-language constructs, and it would take the English-speaker much longer to frame his utterance, since he would have to improvise, while the Eskimo wishing to convey the same idea would be able to reach for a ready-made tool. And this fact is readily understandable, I think; it’s rather more important for an Eskimo to be able to say quickly “That ice you’re standing on is the kind that splits suddenly when the tide turns, as it’s doing right now” than it is for the typical Alabaman.


Holderness’ final jibe at “people who claim an interest in language but are unwilling to think beyond their preconceptions” is well taken, but it’s a little embarrassing to hear it said so publicly; self-accusatory remarks like that should be reserved for the analyst’s couch or the confessional.


Harbeck’s letter


Finally, a letter from James Harbeck, also reproduced elsewhere in this message. He begins by calling my piece “interesting”, but evidently did not find it interesting enough to comment on any of its major points; like Holderness and another letter writer (Paul Denham) who I answered privately, he really wants to tell me that most Canadians don’t use the word “Eskimo” any more, and implies that it’s a little uncouth to use that term. He is so helpful—telling me the derivation both of that term and its preferred equivalent, and even how to pronounce the latter—that I feel a little churlish in rejecting his suggestion, but I believe I have good reason to. I will save time by quoting what I wrote to Paul Denham on the same subject:


I hope it is apparent from my essay that I had no intention of disparaging the people I've called "Eskimo" and you call "Inuit"; I note that Geoffrey Pullum freely uses "Eskimo" in his book, as does Ms Patkotak, who is Public Information Officer for the North Slope Borough in Barrow, Alaska, and who would seem to be, judging by her name, an Eskimo herself, or married to one. (She refers to the community she is speaking for as an "Inupiat Eskimo" community.)


Certainly there is an important difference between Canadian and American usage at work here -- understandably so, since the Eskimo population of Canada is much larger, both absolutely and proportionately, than that in this country. But I think there is also a smaller, but not negligible, difference between academic and lay usage here; the academic community seems to be, for whatever reason, much quicker to adopt new usages in matters like this.


The question of what name to call people of other cultures or nationality than one's own is not, I think, to be settled simply on the principle of "that's what they call themselves"; in general I think the most sensible position is that taken by C. S. Lewis when he was reproached for using "the Scotch" to refer to the people who call themselves "Scots" -- he pointed out that he was not writing in Scots, but in English, and that "Scotch" was the standard word in his own language.


I know that there is no disrespect in my mind when I use the term "Eskimo," but if it appears in future that the term has come to convey that attitude in the minds of most educated people, I will of course drop it, and use whatever the appropriate word is. Incidentally, I recall reading somewhere that the terms "Eskimo" and "Inuit" are not strictly synonymous; that is, not all the Arctic peoples we think of as Eskimo are Inuits. Ms Patkotak's use of "Inupiat" to qualify "Eskimo" seems to confirm this. If you can, please enlighten me on this point.


        <END PART 1>

Article Footnotes

1 Bryan A. Garner, “A Texan Fowler?” English Today 64 (Cambridge U.P., October 2000), pp. 3-10, at 4.