Tag Archives: linguistics

The complexities of simple: What simple language proponents should know about linguistics [updated]

Send to Kindle


Part of this post was incorporated into an article I wrote with Brian Kelly and Alistair McNaught that appeared in the December issue of Ariadne. As part of that work and feedback from Alistair and Brian, I expanded the final section from a simple list of bullets into a more detailed research programme. You can see it below and in the article.

Background: From spelling reform to plain language


Simple (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

The idea that if we could only improve how we communicate, there would be less misunderstanding among people is as old as the hills.

Historically, this notion has been expressed through things like school reform, spelling reform, publication of communication manuals, etc.

The most radical expression of the desire for better understanding is the invention of a whole new artificial language like Esperanto with the intention of providing a universal language for humanity. This has had a long tradition but seemed to gain most traction towards the end of last century with the introduction and relative success of Esperanto.

But artificial languages have been a failure as a vehicle of global understanding. Instead, in about the last 50 years, the movement for plain English has been taking the place of constructed languages as something on which people pinned their hopes for clear communication.

Most recently, there have been proposals suggesting that “simple” language should become a part of a standard for accessibility of web pages along side other accessibility standards issued by the W3C standards body. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2012/easy-to-read/Overview. This post was triggred by this latest development.

Problem 1: Plain language vs. linguistics

The problem is that most proponents of plain language (as so many would be reformers of human communication) seem to be ignorant of the wider context in which language functions. There is much that has been revealed by linguistic research in the last century or so and in particular since the 1960s that we need to pay attention to (to avoid confusion, this does not refer to the work of Noam Chomsky and his followers but rather to the work of people like William Labov, Michael Halliday, and many others).

Languages are not a simple matter of grammar. Any proposal for content accessibility must consider what is known about language from the fields of pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and cognitive linguistics. These are the key aspects of what we know about language collected from across many fields of linguistic inquiry:

  • Every sentence communicates much more than just its basic content (propositional meaning). We also communicate our desires and beliefs (e.g. “It’s cold here” may communicate, “Close the window” and “John denied that he cheats on his taxes” communicates that somebody accused John of cheating on his taxes. Similarly chosing a particular form of speech, like slang or jargon, communicates belonging to a community of practice.)
  • The understanding of any utterance is always dependent on a complex network of knowledge about language, about the world, as well as about the context of the utterance. “China denied involvement.” requires the understanding of the context in which countries operate, as well as metonomy, as well as the grammar and vocabulary. Consider the knowledge we need to possess to interpret “In 1939, the world exploded.” vs. “In Star Wars, a world exploded.”
  • There is no such thing as purely literal language. All language is to some degree figurative. “Between 3 and 4pm.”, “Out of sight”, “In deep trouble”, “An argument flared up”, “Deliver a service”, “You are my rock”, “Access for all” are all figurative to different degrees.
  • We all speak more than one variety of our language: formal/informal, school/friends/family, written/spoken, etc. Each of these variety has its own code. For instance, “she wanted to learn” vs. “her desire to learn” demonstrates a common difference between spoken and written English where written English often uses clauses built around nouns.
  • We constantly switch between different codes (sometimes even within a single utterance).
  • Bilingualism is the norm in language knowledge, not the exception. About half the world’s population regularly speaks more than one language but everybody is “bi-lingual” in the sense that they deal with multiple codes.
  • The “standard” or “correct” English is just one of the many dialects, not English itself.
  • The difference between a language and a dialect is just as much political as linguistic. An old joke in linguistics goes: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  • Language prescription and requirements of language purity (incl. simple language) are as much political statements as linguistic or cognitive ones. All language use is related to power relationships.
  • Simplified languages develop their own complexities if used by a real community through a process known as creolization. (This process is well described for pidgins but not as well for artificial languages.)
  • All languages are full of redundancy, polysemy and homonymy. It is the context and our knowledge of what is to be expected that makes it easy to figure out the right meaning.
  • There is no straightforward relationship between grammatical features and language obfuscation and lack of clarity (e.g. It is just as easy to hide things using active as passive voice or any Subject-Verb-Object sentence as Object-Subject-Vern).
  • It is difficult to call any one feature of a language universally simple (for instance, SVO word order or no morphology) because many other languages use what we call complex as the default without any increase in difficulty for the native speakers (e.g. use of verb prefixes/particles in English and German)
  • Language is not really organized into sentences but into texts. Texts have internal organization to hang together formally (John likes coffee. He likes it a lot.) and semantically (As I said about John. He likes coffee.) Texts also relate to external contexts (cross reference) and their situations. This relationship is both implicit and explicit in the text. The shorter the text, the more context it needs for interpretation. For instance, if all we see is “He likes it.” written on a piece of paper, we do not have enough context to interpret the meaning.
  • Language is not used uniformly. Some parts of language are used more frequently than others. But this is not enough to understand frequency. Some parts of language are used more frequently together than others. The frequent coocurrence of some words with other words is called “collocation”. This means that when we say “bread and …”, we can predict that the next word will be “butter”. You can check this with a linguistic tool like a corpus, or even by using Google’s predictions in the search. Some words are so strongly collocated with other words that their meaning is “tinged” by those other words (this is called semantic prosody). For example, “set in” has a negative connotation because of its collocation with “rot”.
  • All language is idiomatic to some degree. You cannot determine the meaning of all sentences just by understanding the meanings of all their component parts and the rules for putting them together. And vice versa, you cannot just take all the words and rules in a language, apply them and get meaningful sentences. Consider “I will not put the picture up with John.” and “I will not put up the picture with John.” and “I will not put up John.” and “I will not put up with John.”

It seems to me that most plain language advocates do not take most of these factors into account.

Some examples from the “How to write in plain English” guide: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/files/howto.pdf.

Try to call the reader ‘you’, even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally. If this feels wrong at first, remember that you wouldn’t use words like ‘the applicant’ and ‘the supplier’ if you were speaking to somebody sitting across a desk from you. [emphasis mine]

This example misses the point about the contextuality of language. The part in bold is the very crux of the problem. It is natural to use a different code (or register) with someone we’re speaking to in person and in a written communication. This is partly a result of convention and partly the result of the different demands of writing and speaking when it comes to the ability to point to what we’re speaking about. The reason it feels wrong to the writer is that it breaks the convention of writing. That is not to say that this couldn’t become the new convention. But the argument misses the point.

Do you want your letters to sound active or passive − crisp and professional or stuffy and bureaucratic?
Using the passive voice and sounding passive are not one and the same thing. This is an example of polysemy. The word “passive” has two meanings in English. One technical (the passive voice) and one colloquial (“he’s too passive”). The booklet recommends that “The mine had to be closed by the authority. (Passive)” should be replaced with “The authority had to close the mine. (Active)” But they ignore the fact that word order also contributes to the information structure of the sentence. The passive sentence introduces the “mine” sooner and thus makes it clear that the sentence is about the mine and not the local authority. In this case, the “active” construction made the point of the sentence more difficult to understand.

The same is true of nominalization. Another thing recommended against by the Plain English campaign: “The implementation of the method has been done by a team.” is not conveying the same type of information as “A team has implemented the method.”

The point is that this advice ignores the context as well as the audience. Using “you” instead of “customers” in “Customers have the right to appeal” may or may not be simpler depending on the reader. For somebody used to the conventions of written official English, it may actually take longer to process. But for someone who does not deal with written English very often, it will be easier. But there is nothing intrinsically easier about it.

Likewise for the use of jargon. The campaign gives as its first example of unduly complicated English:

High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

And suggests that we use this instead:

Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

This may be appropriate when it comes to public debate but within the professional context of, say, policy communication, these 2 sentences are not actually equivalent. There are more “learning environments” than just schools and the “learning process” is not the same as having learned something. It is also possible that the former sentence appeared as part of a larger context that would have made the distinction even clearer but the page does not give a reference and a Google search only shows pages using it as an example of complex English. http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/examples.html

The How to write in plain English document does not mention coherence of the text at all, except indirectly when it recommends the use of lists. This is good advice but even one of their examples has issues. They suggest that the following is a good example of a list:

Kevin needed to take:
• a penknife
• some string
• a pad of paper; and
• a pen.

And on first glance it is, but lists are not just neutral replacements for sentences. They are a genre in its own right used for specific purposes (Michael Hoey called them “text colonies”.) Let’s compare the list above to the sentence below.

Kevin needed to take a penknife, some string, a pad of paper and a pen.

Obviously they are two different kinds of text used in different contexts for different purposes and this would impinge on our understanding. The list implies instruction, and a level of importance. It is suitable to an official document, for example something sent before a child goes to camp. But it is not suitable to a personal letter or even a letter from the camp saying “All Kevin needed to take was a penknife, some string, a pad of paper and a pen. He should not have brought a laptop.” To be fair, the guide says to use lists “where appropriate”, but does not mention what that means.

The issue is further muddled by the “grammar quiz” on the Plain English website: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/quiz.html. It is a hodgepodge of irrelevant trivia about language (not just grammar) that has nothing to do with simple writing. Although the Plain English guide gets credit for explicitly not endorsing petty peeves like not ending a sentence with a preposition, they obviously have peeves of their own.

Problem 2: Definition of simple is not simple

There is no clear definition of what constitutes simple and easy to understand language.

There are a number of intuitions and assumptions that seem to be made when both experts and lay people talk about language:

  • Shorter is simpler (fewer syllables, charactes, sounds per word, fewer words per sentence, fewer sentences per paragraph)
  • More direct is simpler (X did Y to Z is simpler than Y was done to Z by X)
  • Less variety is simpler (fewer different words)
  • More familiar simpler

These assumptions were used to create various measures of “readability” going back to the 1940s. They consisted of several variables:

  • Length of words (in syllables or in characters)
  • Length of sentences
  • Frequency of words used (both internally and with respect to their general frequency)

Intuitively, these are not bad measures, but they are only proxies for the assumptions. They say nothing about the context in which the text appears or the appropriateness of the choice of subject matter. They say nothing about the internal cohesion and coherence of the text. In short, they say nothing about the “quality” of the text.

The same thing is not always simple in all contexts and sometimes too simple, can be hard. We could see that in the example of lists above. Having a list instead of a sentence does not always make things simpler because a list is doing other work besides just providing a list of items.

Another example I always think about is the idea of “semantic primes” by Anna Wierzbicka. These are concepts like DO, BECAUSE, BAD believed to be universal to all languages. There are only about 60 of them (the exact number keeps changing as the research evolves). These were compiled into a Natural Semantic Metalanguage with the idea of being able to break complex concepts into them. Whether you think this is a good idea or not (I don’t but I think the research group working on this are doing good work in surveying the world’s languages) you will have to agree that the resulting descriptions are not simple. For example, this is the Natural Semantic Metalanguage description of “anger”:

anger (English): when X thinks of Y, X thinks something like this: “this person did something bad; I don’t want this; I would want to do something bad to this person”; because of this, X feels something bad

This seems like a fairly complicated way of describing anger and even if it could be universally understood, it would also be very difficult to learn to do this. And could we then capture the distinction between this and say “seething rage”? Also, it is clear that there is a lot more going on than combining 60 basic concepts. You’d have to learn a lot of rules and strategies before you could do this well.

Problem 3: Automatic measures of readability are easily gamed

There are about half dozen automated readability measures currently used by software and web services to calculate how easy or difficult it is to read a text.

I am not an expert in readability but I have no reason to doubt the references in Wikipedia claiming that they correlate fairly well overall with text comprehension. But as always correlation only tells half the story and, as we know, it is not causation.

It is not at all clear that the texts identified as simple based on measures like number of words per sentence or numbers of letters per word are actually simple because of the measures. It is entirely possible that those measures are a consequence of other factors that contribute to simplicity, like more careful word choice, empathy with an audience, etc.

This may not matter if all we are interested in is identifying simple texts, as you can do with an advanced Google search. But it does matter if we want to use these measures to teach people how to write simpler texts. Because if we just tell them use fewer words per sentence and shorter words, we may not get texts that are actually easier to understand for the intended readership.

And if we require this as a criterion of page accessibility, we open the system to gaming in the same way Google’s algorithms are gamed but without any of the sophistication. You can reduce the complexity of any text on any of these scores simply by replacing all commas with full stops. Or even with randomly inserting full stops every 5 words and putting spaces in the middle of words. The algorithms are not smart enough to capture that.

Also, while these measures may be fairly reliable in aggregate, they don’t give us a very good picture of any one individual text. I took a blog post from the Campaign for Plain English site http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/news/chrissies-comments.html and ran the text through several websites that calculate ease of reading scores:

The different tests ranged by up to 5 years in their estimate of the length of formal education required to understand the text from 10.43 to 15.57. Read-able.com even went as far as providing an average, coming up with 12. Well that doesn’t seem very reliable.

I preferred http://textalyser.net which just gives you the facts about the text and doesn’t try to summarize them. The same goes for the Plain English own little app that you can download from their website http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/drivel-defence.html.

By any of these measures, the text wasn’t very simple or plain at all. The longest sentence had 66 words because it contained a complex embedded clause (something not even mentioned in the Plain English guide). The average sentence length was 28 words.

The Plain English app also suggested 7 alternative words from their “alternative dictionary” but 5 of those were misses because context is not considered (e.g. “a sad state” cannot be replaced by “a sad say”). The 2 acceptable suggestions were to edit out one “really” and replace one “retain” with “keep”. Neither of which would have improved the readability of the text given its overall complexity.

In short, the accepted measures of simple texts are not very useful for creating simple texts of training people in creating them.

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Readability&oldid=508236326#Using_the_readability_formulas.

See also this interesting study examining the effects for L2 instruction: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/EJ926371.pdf.

Problem 4: When simple becomes a new dialect: A thought experiment

But let’s consider what would happen if we did agree on simple English as the universal standard for accessibility and did actually manage to convince people to use it? In short, it would become its own dialect. It would acquire ways of describing things it was not designed to describe. It would acquire its own jargon and ways of obfuscation. There would arise a small industry of experts teaching you how to say what you want to say or don’t want to say in this new simple language.

Let’s take a look at Globish, a simplified English intended for international communication, that I have seen suggested as worth a look for accessibility. Globish has a restricted grammar and a vocabulary of 1500 words. They helpfully provide a tool for highlighting words they call “not compatible with Globish”. Among the words it highlighted for the blog post from the Plain English website were:

basics, journalist, grandmother, grammar, management, principle, moment, typical

But event the transcript of a speech by its creator, Jean-Paul Nerriere, advertised as being completely in Globish, contained some words flagged up as incompatible:

businessman, would, cannot, maybe, nobody, multinational, software, immediately

Globish seems to based on not much more than gueswork. It has words like “colony” and “rubber” but not words like “temperature” or “notebook”, “appoint” but not “appointment”, “govern” but not “government”. But both the derived forms “appointment” or “government” are more frequent (and intuitively more useful) than the root forms. There is a chapter in the eBook called “1500 Basic Globish Words Father 5000″ so I assume there are some rules for derivation, but the derived forms more often than not have very “idiomatic” meanings. For example, “appointment” in its most commons use does not make any sense if we look at the core meanings of “appoint” and the suffix “-ment”. Consider also the difference between “govern” and “government” vs “enjoy” and “enjoyment”.

Yet, Globish supposedly avoids idioms, cultural references, etc. Namely all the things that make language useful. The founder says:

Globish is correct English without the English culture. It is English that is just a tool and not a whole way of life.

Leaving aside the dubious notion of correctness, this would make Globish a very limited tool indeed. But luckily for Globish it’s not true. Why have the word “colony” if not to reflect cultural preference? If it became widely used by a community of speakers, the first thing to happen to Globish would be a blossoming of idioms going hand in hand with the emergence of dialects, jargons and registers.

That is not to say that something like Globish could not be a useful tool for English learners along the way to greater mastery. But it does little for universal accessibility.

Also we need to ask ourselves what would it be like from the perspective of the users creating these simplified texts? They would essentially have to learn a whole new code, a sort of a dialect. And as with any second language learning, some would do it better than others. Some would become the “simple nazis”. Some would get jobs teaching others “how to” speak simple. It is not natural for us to speak simply and “plainly” as defined in the context of accessibility.

There is some experience with the use of controlled languages in technical writing and in writing for second language acquisition. This can be done but the universe of subjects and/or the group of people creating these texts is always extremely limited. Increasing the number of people creating simple texts to pretty much everybody would increase the difficulty of implementation exponentially. And given the poor state of automatic tools for analysis of “simplicity”, quality control is pretty much out of reach.

But would even one code/dialect suffice? Do we need one for technical writing, govenment documents, company filings? Limiting the vocabulary to 1500 words is not a bad idea but as we saw with Globish, it might need to be different 1500 words for each area.

Why is language inaccessible?

Does that mean we should give up on trying to make communication more accessible? Definitely not. The same processes that I described as standing in the way of a universal simple language are also at the root of why so much language is inaccessible. Part of how language works to create group cohesion which includes keeping some people out. A lot of “complicated” language is complicated because the nature of the subject requires it, and a lot of complicated language is complicated because the writer is not very good at expressing themselves.

But as much complicated language is complicated because the writer wants to signall belonging to a group that uses that kind of language. The famous Sokal Hoax provided an example of that. Even instructions on university websites on how to write essays are an example. You will find university websites recommending something like “To write like an academic, write in the third person.” This is nonsense, research shows that academics write as much in the first as in the third person. But it also makes the job of the people marking essays easier. They don’t have to focus on ideas, they just go by superficial impression. Personally, I think this is a scandal and complete failure of higher education to live up to its own hype but that’s a story for another time.

How to achieve simple communication?

So what can we do to avoid making our texts too inaccessible?

The first thing that the accessibility community will need to do is acknowledge Simple language is its own form of expression. It is not the natural state we get when we strip out all the artifice out of our communication. And learning how to communicate simply requires effort and practice of all individuals.

To help with the effort, most people will need some guides. And despite what I said about the shortcomings of the Plain English Guide above, it’s not a bad place to start. But it would need to be expanded. Here’s an example of some of the things that are missing:

  • Consider the audience: What sounds right in an investor brochure won’t sound right in a letter to a customer
  • Increase cohesion and coherence by highlighting relationships
  • Highlight the text structure with headings
  • Say new things first
  • Consider splitting out subordinate clauses into separate sentences if your sentence gets too long
  • Leave all the background and things you normally start your texts with for the end

But it will also require a changed direction for research.

Further research needs for simple language language

I don’t pretend to have a complete overview of the research being done in this area but my superficial impression is that it focuses far too much on comprehension at the level of clause and sentence. Further research will be necessary to understand comprehension at the level of text.

There is need for further research in:

  • How collocability influences understanding
  • Specific ways in which cohesion and coherence impact understanding
  • The benefits and downsides of elegant variation for comprehension
  • The benefits and downsides of figurative language for comprehension by people with different cognitive profiles
  • The processes of code switching during writing and reading
  • How new conventions emerge in the use of simple language
  • The uses of simple language for political purposes including obfuscation

[Updated for Ariadne article mentioned above:] In more detail, this is what I would like to see for some of these points.

How collocability influences understanding: How word and phrase frequency influences understanding with particular focus on collocations. The assumption behind software like TextHelp is that this is very important. Much research is available on the importance of these patterns from corpus linguistics but we need to know the practical implications of these properties of language both for text creators and consumers. For instance, should text creators use measures of collocability to judge the ease of reading and comprehension in addition to or instead of arbitrary measures like sentence and word lengths.

Specific ways in which cohesion and coherence affect understanding: We need to find the strategies challenged readers use to make sense of larger chunks of text. How they understand the text as a whole, how they find specific information in the text, how they link individual portions of the text to the whole, and how they infer overall meaning from the significance of the components. We then need to see what text creators can do to assist with these processes. We already have some intuitive tools: bullets, highlighting of important passages, text insets, text structure, etc. But we do not know how they help people with different difficulties and whether they can ever become a hindrance rather than a benefit.

The benefits and downsides of elegant variation for comprehension, enjoyment and memorability: We know that repetition is an important tool for establishing the cohesion of text in English. We also know that repetition is discouraged for stylistic reasons. Repetition is also known to be a feature of immature narratives (children under the age of about 10) and more “sophisticated” ways of constructing texts develop later. However, it is also more powerful in spoken narrative (e.g. folk stories). Research is needed on how challenged readers process repetition and elegant variation and what text creators can do to support any naturally developing meta textual strategies.

The benefits and downsides of figurative language for comprehension by people with different cognitive profiles: There is basic research available from which we know that some cognitive deficits lead to reduced understanding of non-literal language. There is also ample research showing how crucial figurative language is to language in general. However, there seems to be little understanding of how and why different deficits lead to problems with processing figurative language, what kind of figurative language causes difficulties. It is also not clear what types of figurative language are particularly helpful for challenged readers with different cognitive profiles. Work is needed on typology of figurative language and a typology of figurative language deficits.

The processes of code switching during writing and reading: Written and spoken English employ very different codes, in some ways even reminiscent of different language types. This includes much more than just the choice of words. Sentence structure, clauses, grammatical constructions, all of these differ. However, this difference is not just a consequence of the medium of writing. Different genres (styles) within a language may be just as different from one another as writing and speaking. Each of these come with a special code (or subset of grammar and vocabulary). Few native speakers never completely acquire the full range of codes available in a language with extensive literacy practices, particularly a language that spans as many speech communities as English. But all speakers acquire several different codes and can switch between them. However, many challenged writers and readers struggle because they cannot switch between the spoken codes they are exposed to through daily interactions and the written codes to which they are often denied access because of a print impairment. Another way of describing this is multiple literacies. How do challenged readers and writers deal with acquiring written codes and how do they deal with code switching?

How do new conventions emerge in the use of simple language? Using and accessing simple language can only be successful if it becomes a separate literacy practice. However, the dissemination and embedding of such practices into daily usage are often accompanied by the establishment of new codes and conventions of communication. These codes can then become typical of a genre of documents. An example of this is Biblish. A sentence such as “Fred spoke unto Joan and Karen” is easily identified as referring to a mode of expression associated with the translation of the Bible. Will similar conventions develop around “plain English” and how? At the same time, it is clear that within each genre or code, there are speakers and writers who can express themselves more clearly than others. Research is needed to establish if there are common characteristics to be found in these “clear” texts, as opposed to those inherent in “difficult” texts across genres?

All in all, introducing simple language as a universal accessibility standard is still too far from a realistic prospect. My intuitive impression based on documents I receive from different bureaucracies is that the “plain English” campaign has made a difference in how many official documents are presented. But a lot more research (ethnographic as well as cognitive) is necessary before we properly understand the process and its impact. Can’t wait to read it all.

Send to Kindle

Pseudo-education as a weapon: Beyond the ridiculous in linguistic prescriptivism

Send to Kindle
Teacher in primary school in northern Laos

Teacher in primary school in northern Laos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us are all too happy to repeat clichés about education to motivate ourselves and others to engage in this liminal ritual of mass socialization. One such phrase is “knowledge is power”. It is used to refer not just to education, of course, but to all sorts of intelligence gathering from business to politics. We tell many stories of how knowing something made the difference, from knowing a way of making something to work to knowing a secret only the hero or villain is privy to. But in education, in particular, it is not just knowing that matters to our tribe but also the display of knowing.

The more I look at education, the more I wonder how much of what is in the curriculum is about signaling rather than true need of knowledge. Signaling has been used in economics of education to indicate the complex value of a university degree but I think it goes much deeper. We make displays of knowledge through the curriculum to make the knowledge itself more valuable. Curriculum designers in all areas engage in complex dances to show how the content maps onto the real world. I have called this education voodoo, other people have spoken of cargo cult education, and yet others have talked about pseudo teaching. I wrote about pseudo teaching when I looked at Niall Ferguson‘s amusing, I think I called it cute, lesson plan of his own greatness. But pseudo teaching only describes the activities performed by teachers in the mistaken belief that they have real educational value. When pseudo teaching relies on pseudo content, I think we can talk more generally about “pseudo education”.

We were all pseudo-educated on a number of subjects. History, science, philosophy, etc. In history lessons, the most cherished “truths” of our past are distorted on a daily basis (see Lies My Teacher told me). From biology, we get to remember misinformation about the theory of evolution starting from attributing the very concept of evolution to Darwin or reducing natural selection to the nonsense of survival of the fittest. We may remember the names of a few philosophers but it rarely takes us any further than knowing winks at a Monty Python sketch or mouthing of unexamined platitudes like “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

That in itself is not a problem. Society, despite the omnipresent alarmist tropes, is coping quite well with pseudo-education. Perhaps, it even requires it to function because “it can’t handle the truth”. The problem is that we then judge people on how well they are able to replicate or respond to these pseudo-educated signals. Sometimes, these judgments are just a matter of petty prejudice but sometimes they could have an impact on somebody’s livelihood (and perhaps the former inevitably leads to the latter in aggregate).

Note: I have looked at some history and biology textbooks and they often offer a less distorted portrayal of their subject than what seems to be the outcome in public consciousness. Having the right curriculum and associated materials, then, doesn’t seem to be sufficient to avoid pseudo-education (if indeed avoiding it is desirable).

The one area where pseudo-education has received a lot of attention is language. Since time immemorial, our ways of speaking have served to identify us with one group or layer of society or another. And from its very beginning, education sought to play a role in slotting its charges into the linguistic groups with as high a prestige, as possible (or rather as appropriate). And even today, in academic literature we see references to the educated speaker as an analytic category. This is not a bad thing. Education correlates with exposure to certain types of language and engagement with certain kinds of speech communities. It is not the only way to achieve linguistic competence in those areas but it is the main way for the majority. But becoming “educated speaker” in this sense is mostly a by-product of education. Sufficient amount of the curriculum and classroom instruction is aimed in this direction to count for something but most students acquire the in-group ways of speaking without explicit instruction (disadvantaging those who would benefit from it). But probably a more salient output of language education is supposed knowledge about language (as opposed to knowledge of language).

Here students are expected not only to speak appropriately but also to know how this “appropriate language” works. And here is where most of what happens in schools can be called pseudo-education. Most teachers don’t really have any grasp of how language works (even those who took intro to linguistics classes). They are certainly not aware of the more complex issues around the social variability of language or its pragmatic dimension. But even in simple matters like grammar and usage, they are utterly clueless. This is often blamed on past deficiencies of the educational system where “grammar was not taught” to an entire generation. But judging by the behavior of previous generations who received ample instruction in grammar, that is not the problem. Their teachers were just as inept at teaching about language as they are today. They might have been better at labeling parts of speech and their tenses but that’s about it. It is possible that in the days of yore, people complaining about the use of the passive were actually more able to identify passive constructions in the text but it didn’t make that complaint any less inaccurate (Orwell made a right fool of himself when it turned out that he uses more passives than is the norm in English despite kvetching about their evil).

No matter what the content of school curriculum and method of instruction, “educated” people go about spouting nonsense when it comes to language. This nonsense seems to have its origins in half-remembered injunctions of their grade school teacher. And because the prime complainers are likely to either have been “good at language” or envied the teacher’s approbation of those who were described as being “good at language”, what we end up with in the typical language maven is a mishmash of linguistic prejudice and unjustified feeling smug superiority. Every little linguistic label that a person can remember, is then trotted out as a badge of honor regardless of how good that person is at deploying it.

And those who spout the loudest, get a reputation of being the “grammar experts” and everybody else who preemptively admits that they are “not good at grammar” defers to them and lets themselves be bullied by them. The most recent case of such bullying was a screed by an otherwise intelligent person in a position of power who decided that he will no longer hire people with bad grammar.

This prompted me to issue a rant on Google Plus, repeated below:

The trouble with pseudo educated blowhards complaining about grammar, like +Kyle Wien, is that they have no idea what grammar is. 90% of the things they complain about are spelling problems. The rest is a mishmash of half-remembered objections from their grade school teacher who got them from some other grammar bigot who doesn’t know their tense from their time.

I’ve got news for you Kyle! People who spell they’re, there and their interchangeably know the grammar of their use. They just don’t differentiate their spelling. It’s called homophony, dude, and English is chock full of it. Look it up. If your desire rose as you smelled a rose, you encountered homophony. Homophony is a ubiquitous feature of all languages. And equally all languages have some high profile homophones that cause trouble for spelling Nazis but almost never for actual understanding. Why? Because when you speak, there is no spelling.

Kyle thinks that what he calls “good grammar” is indicative of attention to detail. Hard to say since he, presumably always perfectly “grammatical”, failed to pay attention to the little detail of the difference between spelling and grammar. The other problem is, that I’m sure that Kyle and his ilk would be hard pressed to list more than a dozen or so of these “problems”. So his “attention to detail” should really be read as “attention to the few details of language use that annoy Kyle Wien”. He claims to have noticed a correlation in his practice but forgive me if I don’t take his word for it. Once you have developed a prejudice, no matter how outlandish, it is dead easy to find plenty of evidence in its support (not paying attention to any of the details that disconfirm it).

Sure there’s something to the argument that spelling mistakes in a news item, a blog post or a business newsletter will have an impact on its credibility. But hardly enough to worry about. Not that many people will notice and those who do will have plenty of other cues to make a better informed judgment. If a misplaced apostrophe is enough to sway them, then either they’re not convinced of the credibility of the source in the first place, or they’re not worth keeping as a customer. Journalists and bloggers engage in so many more significant pursuits that damage their credibility, like fatuous and unresearched claims about grammar, so that the odd it’s/its slip up can hardly make much more than (or is it then) a dent.

Note: I replaced ‘half-wit’ in the original with ‘blowhard’ because I don’t actually believe that Kyle Wien is a half-wit. He may not even be a blowhard. But, you can be a perfectly intelligent person, nice to kittens and beloved by co-workers, and be a blowhard when it comes to grammar. I also fixed a few typos, because I pay attention to detail.

My issue is not that I believe that linguistic purism and prescriptivism are in some way anomalous. In fact, I believe the exact opposite. I think, following a brilliant insight by my linguistics teacher, that we need to think of these phenomena as integral to our linguistic competence. I doubt that there is a linguistic community of any size above 3 that doesn’t enact some form of explicit linguistic normativity.

But when pseudo-knowledge about language is used as a n instrument of power, I think it is right to call out the perpetrators and try to shame them. Sure, linguists laugh at them, but I think we all need to follow the example of the Language Log and expose all such examples to public ridicule. Countermand the power.

Post Script: I have been similarly critical of the field of Critical Discourse Analysis which while based on an accurate insight about language and power, in my view, goes on to abuse the power that stems from the knowledge about language to clobber their opponents. My conclusion has been that if you want to study how people speak, study it for its own sake, and if you want to engage with the politics of what they say, do that on political terms not on linguistic ones. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t point out if you feel somebody is using language in a manipulative or misleading ways, but if you don’t need the apparatus of a whole academic discipline to do it, you’re doing something wrong.

Send to Kindle

RaAM 9 Abstract: Of Doves and Cocks: Collective Negotiation of a Metaphoric Seduction

Send to Kindle

Given how long I’ve been studying metaphor (at least since 1991 when I first encountered Lakoff and Johnson’s work and full on since 2000) it is amazing that I have yet to attend a RaAM (Researching and Applying Metaphor) conference. I had an abstract accepted to one of the previous RaAMs but couldn’t go. This time, I’ve had an abstract accepted and wild horses won’t keep me away (even though it is expensive since no one is sponsoring my going). The abstract that got accepted is about a small piece of research that I conceived back in 2004, wrote up in a blog post in 2006, was supposed to talk about at a conference in 2011 and finally will get to present this July at RaAM 9).

Unlike most academic endeavours, this one needs to come with a parental warning. The materials described contains profane sexual and scatological imagery as employed for the purposes of satire. But I think it makes a really important point that I don’t see people making as a matter of course in the metaphor studies literature. I argue that metaphors can be incredibly powerful and seductive but that they are also routinely deconstructed and negotiated. They are not something that just happens to us. They are opportunistic and random just as much as they are systematic and fundamental to our cognition. Much of the current metaphor studies is still fighting the battle against the view that metaphors are mere peripheral adornments on the literal. And to be sure the “just a metaphor” label is still to be seen in popular discourse today. But it has now been over 40 years since this fight has been intellectually won. So we need to focus on the broader questions about the complexities of the role metaphor plays in social cognition. And my contribution to RaAM hopes to point in that direction.


Of Doves and Cocks: Collective Negotiation of a Metaphoric Seduction

In this contribution, I propose to investigate metaphoric cognition as an extended discursive and social phenomenon that is the cornerstone of our ability to understand and negotiate issues of public importance. Since Lakoff and Johnson’s groundbreaking study, research in linguistics, cognitive psychology, as well as discourse studies, has tended to view metaphor as a purely unconscious phenomenon that is outside of a normal speaker’s ability to manipulate. However important this view of metaphor and cognition may be, it tells only a part of the story. An equally important and surprisingly frequent is the ability of metaphor to enter into collective (meta)cognition through extended discourse in which acceptable cross-domain mappings are negotiated.
I will provide an example of a particular metaphorical framing and the metacognitive framework it engendered that made it possible for extended discourse to develop. This metaphor, a leitmotif in the ‘Team America’ film satire, mapped the physiological and phraseological properties of taboo body parts onto geopolitical issues of war in such a way that made it possible for participants in the subsequent discourse to simultaneously be seduced by the power of the metaphor and empowered to engage in talk about cognition, text and context as exemplified by statements such as: “It sounds quite weird out of context, but the paragraph about dicks, pussies and assholes was the craziest analogy I’ve ever heard, mainly because it actually made sense.” I will demonstrate how this example is typical rather than aberrant of metaphor in discourse and discuss the limits of a purely cognitive approach to metaphor.
Following Talmy, I will argue that significant elements of metaphoric cognition are available to speakers’ introspection and thus available for public negotiation. However, this does not preclude for the sheer power of the metaphor to have an impact on both cognition and discourse. I will argue that as a result of the strength of this one metaphor, the balance of the discussion of this highly satirical film was shifted in support of military interventionism as evidenced by the subsequent popular commentary. By mapping political and gender concepts on the basic structural inevitability of human sexual anatomy reinforced by idiomatic mappings between taboo words and moral concepts, the metaphor makes further negotiation virtually impossible within its own parameters. Thus an individual speaker may be simultaneously seduced and empowered by a particular metaphorical mapping.
Send to Kindle

Why Chomsky doesn’t count as a gifted linguist

Send to Kindle

Somebody commented on the Language Log saying “of course [...] Chomsky was a massively gifted linguist” http://j.mp/9Q98Bx and for some reason, to use a Czech idiom, the handle of the jar repeatedly used to fetch water just fell off. Meaning, I’ve had enough.

I think we should stop thinking of Chomsky as a gifted linguist. He was certainly a gifted mathematician and logician still is a gifted orator and analyst of political discourse (sometimes putting professionals in this area to shame). But I honestly cannot think of a single insight he’s had about how language works as language. His main contribution to the study of language (his only one really) was a description of how certain combinatorial properties of English syntax can be modeled using a particular formal system.  This was a valuable insight but as has been repeatedly documented (e.g. Newmeyer 1986) its runaway success was due to a particular historical context and was later fed by the political prominence of its originator. Unfortunately, everything that followed was predicated on the model being isomorphic with the thing modeled. Meaning all subsequent insights of Chomsky and his followers were confined to refining the model in response to what other people knew about language and not once that I can think of using it to elucidate an actual linguistic phenomenon. (Well, I tell lie here, James MacCawley who worked with GB – and there must have been others – was probably an exception.) Chomsky’s followers who actually continued to have real insights about language – Ross,  Langacker, Lakoff, Fillmore – simply ceased to work within that field – their frustration given voice here by Robin Tolmach Lakoff:

[Generative approaches to the 'science' of language meant] “accepting the impossibility of saying almost everything that might be interesting, anything normal people might want or need to know about language.“ (Robin Tolmach Lakoff, 2000, Language War)

So who deserves the label “gifted linguist” defined as somebody who repeatedly elucidates legitimate language phenomena in a way that is relevant across areas of inquiry? (And I don’t mean the fake relevance followers of the Universal Grammar hypothesis seem to be finding in more and more places.)

Well, I’d start with MAK Halliday who has contributed genuine insights into concepts like function, cohesion, written/spoken language, etc. Students on “linguistics for teachers” courses are always surprised when I tell them that pretty much all of the English as first or second language curriculum used in schools today was influenced by Halliday and none by Chomsky – despite valiant efforts to pretend otherwise.

But there are many others whose fingerprints are all over our thinking about language today. The two giants of 20th century linguistics who influenced probably everyone were Roman Jakobson and Charles Fillmore – neither of whom established a single-idea school (although Jakobson was part of two) but both were literal and metaphorical teachers to pretty much everybody. Then there’s William Labov who continues to help shift the “language decline” hypothesis on which much of 19th century philology was predicated. And, of course, there are countless practicing linguists who have interesting things to say about language every day – one needs to look no further than the contributors to the excellent Language Log. I don’t want to list any others of the top of my head lest I forget someone important, but here some of my favorites:

My personal favorite linguist has long been Michael Hoey whose “lexical priming” hypothesis deserves more discussion and a lot more following than it has received. I got a real chill of excitement reading William Croft’s “Radical Construction Grammar”. It is probably the most interesting and innovative view of language that has come about since de Saussure.

Most of my thinking about language has been influenced by George Lakoff (so much I translated his thickest book into Czech – http://cogling.info) and Ronald Langacker who could both be said to be ‘single-theory’ thinkers but are actually using this theory to say interesting things about language rather than using language to say interesting things about their theory.

I have said to people at one point or another, you should read one of these linguists to understand this point about language better. I have never said that about Chomsky. Not once. I have said, however, you should read this thing by Chomsky to understand Chomsky better. (Not that it always helps, I’ve come across a book called Structure of Language whose authors’ sparse reference list includes all of Chomsky’s books but who refer to his work twice and get it wrong both times.) There is no denying Chomsky’s multi-disciplinary brilliance but a particularly gifted linguist he is not. He is just the only one most people can think of.

BTW: Here’s why I think Chomsky’s wrong. But that wasn’t really the point. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s largely irrelevant to most people interested in language, and the sooner they realize they’re wasting their time, the better.

Send to Kindle

I write like… a new more sophisticated stripper name?

Send to Kindle

Making connections between ourselves and other people no matter how arbitrary, is an incredibly popular communal as well as private activity. The many algorithms for generating one’s stripper, mobster or some other kind of name have graduated from napkins in bars to Facebook apps and now proper quantitative analysis of text samples. But deep down they’re still the same. Is there a space here for hacking? Can we take this natural tendency, take it apart and put it back together again? Use it for good or for ill? I suppose most social engineering is the hacking of propositional frames, but are there explicit hacks of figurative language and thought? It’s certainly powerful enough when you find out that based on the About page here:

I write like
Vladimir Nabokov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Just like with horoscopes, jumping on the connection gravy train is not easy to avoid. Mappings immediately started forming in my head: like with Nabokov, English isn’t my first language; like with Nabokov, I occasionally find my writing a bit tedious. But of course, taking a piece of writing from another blog, I find I also

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Drat, I was kind of getting used to the Nabokov simile. Ok, maybe I have a certain feel for the macabre and a book of the 12 different Czech translations of the Raven was one of my favorites… But just when I ought to quit while proverbially ahead, I paste a few paragraphs from my academic writing and find…

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

And I had to look this guy up! Simile fail!

NB: I wonder if they occasionally put up comparisons like Dr Seuss or complete nimrod.

Send to Kindle