Monday, April 28, 2008

Literary Criticism and the Sciences

My attention was recently pointed toward "The neuroscience delusion" by Raymond Tallis*, which reminds me of a few reasons I had when I decided to pursue linguistics over literature. At some point in the last half a century, schools of criticism began to resemble the state of Israeli politics as represented in Monty Python's Life of Brian. In the search for new schools of criticism, all sorts of other fields were plundered for whatever fresh ideas could be found, and quite often those ideas were incorporated in a misunderstood form. The most notorious case was chaos/complexity theory, but the misuse of Saussurean and Chomskyan linguistics seems to be getting attention lately, as recently mentioned over at Mr. Verb thanks to articles like "French Theory in America."

Its because of all of this that I've lately found myself avoiding the term "fuzzy logic" in conversation in preference for "paraconsistent logic" and/or "multivalued logic" when describing one current research interest. Sometimes it's better to be opaque than overstood.

(*The piece ends in an anti-reductionist bit. But I agree nonetheless with the sentiment that these critics do literature a disservice in the way that they borrow from neurology.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday Music: Tom Waits

"Chocolate Jesus." Tom Waits. Live on Letterman. Probably in 1999, part of the tour in support of Mule Variations.

This song sums up what I like the most about my favorite period in Waits' songwriting. I've never particularly enjoyed his earliest period, and while his Frank Trilogy (Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Frank's Wild Years) was undoubtedly a necessary step for him to reach the frame of mind that he found in the early 90s, there's something about these albums that kept me at a distance. I couldn't quite name it until I saw the film Big Time, wherein Waits takes on the role of performing the Frank character. I realized that these albums are a little too showy and over-the-top for my taste. Sometimes in a more Vaudevillian form, sometimes in the form of what feels like weirdness for weirdness sake.

To be sure, Waits has never lost those characteristics, but beginning with Night on Earth, Bone Machine, and The Black Rider, the aspects of Waits' music that I admire finally shine through. The arrangements and production techniques become more focused on servicing the song than simply providing atmospherics. The lyrics and instrumentation begin to reflect more influence from American folk musics.

Although Black Rider is probably my favorite because of the mythological influence of the libretto, I have to admit that Mule Variations probably captures those aspects the best with some great songs and some great performances. As does "Chocolate Jesus." Its a faux-gospel, light-heartedly looking at America's sometimes insincere religious expressions. In the Letterman performance, the band manages to combine the blues and ragtime with a distinctly non-traditional element (most apparent in the keyboard). Waits' use of the megaphone - far from its use to announce protest anthems in rock, a la R.E.M. - actually manages to add to the old-timeyness, by emphasizing the mids-heavy sound of old 78s.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Sunday Music: Antony and the Johnsons

"Fistful of Love" by Antony and the Johnson.

Antony Hegarty's music was another discovery of mine from last summer. Sometime near the beginning of last semester, I Am a Bird Now made its way onto my work computer. Like "Fistful of Love," his songs often begin delicate and quiet then crescendo into a soulful shout chorus - which is exactly the sort of album I need in the morning when I'm still sipping my second coffee. Before you notice you're no longer yawning, you're singing along and hoping not to be overhead in the next office.

The abused but optimistic narrator of "Fistful" reminds me of Throwing Muses, whose songs often describe dysfunctional or one-sided romances. I detect more than a touch of early Smiths influence in Antony's work, not only lyrically but also in the smart but understated arrangements. However, I fear Antony may prove a one trick pony: although he has a great sense of melody, his songs are mostly interchangeable. I hope his forthcoming album shows some artistic growth and proves me wrong on that.

Psychics and the Law

Via Daylight Atheism and Reuters.

UK law may change such that psychics/mediums/healers/etc may be prosecuted if they cannot demonstrate their abilities. About time, I say.

Quoth Ebonmuse:
No legitimate pharmaceutical company can claim its drugs can cure some illness unless it goes through multiple rounds of double-blind testing to prove this. Food companies can't claim their products can prevent heart disease unless there are well-designed studies to show it.

Why should psychics and miracle-hawkers be held to a different standard? Why not make faith healers and psychic surgeons go through double-blind studies that track recovery rates? Why not put cold-readers and mediums to the test?
Taking the words right out of my mouth. I only hope prosecutors have enough foresight to bring in expert witnesses with experience.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Edenics update

Interestingly enough, it seems at least one person at Answers in Genesis disagrees with Mozeson. Link.

There are obviously some conclusions Wieland draws that I and most linguists would disagree with, but it is interesting to note the disagreement among creationists. I wonder how those who reject at least some of the methodology and dominant theories of historical linguistics and archeology resolve debates over the evidence?

Edenics (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 3)

The story of the tower of Babel is a rich and enchanting myth full of the conflicts between order and chaos and between the gods and humankind that characterize much Mesopotamian and Levant mythology. When one considers the amount of pre-scientific philological work that examined the myth, it is no surprise that even today many modern popular books on linguistics reference the tower (quite often on their covers). It's also no surprise that some within the contemporary creationist movement has sought to establish the historical accuracy and linguistic plausibility of the myth. Biblical literalism - in part or in whole - requires a Biblically-supportive linguistics as much as it requires Biblically compliant biologies and geologies.

While I cannot speak for the degree to which his work is accepted by the larger creationist community, Isaac E. Mozeson has stepped forward to fill the linguistics gap in modern creationist narratives. He has authored at least two books on the subject: The Word: The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English (1989) and The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language (2006). At present, I only have access to the first of these. I may acquire and review the second at a latter date. Mozeson also publishes articles at the website Edenics. While without the pages of data contained in The Word, the website offers his hypotheses in full detail for free if you wish to sample his writing before or after reading this post.

As its full title suggests, The Word sets out to demonstrate that English ultimately descends from Biblical Hebrew. Mozeson has later revised this hypothesis to say all languages descend from Edenic (the language spoken by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden), his apparent intention being to distinguish Edenic from Biblical Hebrew, which, as a result of several centuries of change, may not be identical to its ancestor. In deference to the revised theory, I will use the word Edenic throughout.

In The Word, Mozeson conflates two related but not identical goals. The first of these is that of the etymologist: Mozeson attempts to rewrite the conventional history of many English words to show that their original source is Edenic. Some of the etymologies suggest a direct relationship (or at least show no medial stage), and others suggest Edenic left its imprint on a language from which English has borrowed, which English is related to, or from which English has descended. Unlike some of the best etymological dictionaries, Mozeson provides only partial histories and no usage citations. While not a feature in most desktop dictionaries, the carefully gathered and dated citations in dictionaries like the Oxford English are part of what make them great references for historical linguists. These citations provide data on when a word was first recorded and on how a word's pronunciation or meaning has changed over time.

To the lay dictionary user, The Word's lack of detailed etymologies for each word may make economical sense, but this allows Mozeson to suggest etymologies that make little historical sense when the full history of each word is explored. For example, the word woman first appears in print as the wifman (c. 1000 CE). Mozeson gives the possible Hebrew cognates WREHEM 'damsel' or 'womb'. Obvious questions arise: where did the /f/ come from and where did it go? Where did the /n/ come from? To convince anyone of his alternative etymology, Mozeson needs to supply well documented answers. Likewise, while Mozeson admits the immediate New World language etymon for skunk, in suggesting that these descend from Edenic (cf. Hebrew tsakhun 'to stink'), he neglects the evidence that the Manhattan and Algonquian words are composed of independent morphological pieces. The final /k/ in skunk originates in an Proto-Algonquian word for fox that combined with a word for urination (šek). If the account is to be believed, the Edenic word was broken into unrelated pieces in Proto-Algonquian and then recombined just in time to be borrowed - in whole no less - by English.

Mozeson's second goal - which does not seem to be stated directly in The Word - is to demonstrate that Edenic is the mother of all human languages. I'm hesitant to be heavily critical on this issue with only The Word at hand because he makes no effort whatsoever to support this hypothesis in a convincing manner. However, considering the text of the foreward, I'm left believing Mozeson did feel he had sufficiently supported this claim with accepted methodology.
With all my idol breaking, I have remained too true to conservative linguistic rules to be be iconoclastic. I am grateful for my brief training in linguistics, and for the century of research into Indo-European roots that often made my discoveries possible. (p. 1)
Although inevitably related to the search for accurate etymologies, it is altogether a separate task to reconstruct proto-languages and earlier forms in a single language. Individual words may have widely divergent etymologies. That crag originated as a Welsh word for rock has no bearing on any other English word, but to claim that English (or any other language) descended from the same language as Hebrew requires an analysis that is concerned with details above volume. Primarily, it requires the identification of phonologically plausible rules that relate the oldest English words available to their Edenic sources. Words borrowed from other languages (whether they originated in Edenic or not) are simply distractions. Mozeson excuses himself from this level of detail in incredibly problematic ways.

In the introduction, he dismisses vowels from his analysis entirely.
Vowels are certainly interchangeable, and ought to be largely ignored when comparing words from different languages. In effect, Biblical Hebrew has no vowels; the vowel leters in English (A, E, I, O, and U) are chaotic contrivances that help to make English a nightmare to spell. (p. 7, see note at bottom*)
Being no phonetician, I could forgive Mozeson for expressing reluctance to examine vowels but to ignore them entirely is absolutely unacceptable, particularly when one is making such a radical claim. Vowel changes account for the majority of phonological change in language, and that is what Mozeson should be documenting: regular change in the sound system of Edenics that led to English. By leaving out an account of vowel change, he sidesteps a large chunk of the available data and leaves out a great deal of necessary explanation. True, he could tentatively convince others without closely examining vowels (as other historical theories have), but that is not what he says in the quote above: he thinks vowels are "interchangeable", arbitrary. I won't dwell on this point, but its importance cannot be overstated.

Thus, the majority of Mozeson's comparisons rest of similarities between consonants. Many of the most famous and successful hypotheses of 19th century historical linguistics concern consonants, but there is one key difference between these hypotheses and Mozeson's: they propose sets of changes that affect phonemes across all words in a language, Mozeson proposes changes that affect words. The confusion is clear when Mozeson cites one of the most famous 19th century linguists, Jacob Grimm, in support of his methods.
Grimm's Laws, established by the same Jakob Grimm (d. 1863) who brought us those grim and bloodthirsty fairy tales, allow linguists to compare and historically link all letters formed by the same part of the mouth. D and T are called dentals because the tongue must touch the teeth in order to make the sound. Just as M and N are interchangeable nasals or sounds made in the nose, so D, T and TH may be considered the "same" letter. (p. 6)
Again, that word "interchangeable." Neither Grimm's Law nor any other description of sound changes in Indo-European languages provide room to link just any sound with others produced in a similar place or manner. Grimm proposed a cycle of sound changes that affected the entire inventory of Germanic sounds. D and T didn't randomly interchange: Proto-Indo-European /d/ became /t/, just as all voiced stops became voiced stops, and /t/ became /th/ just as all voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives**.

Mozeson's lack of establishing regularity in sound change allows him to link various Edenic sounds to more than one English sound, and vice-versa. It broadens the possibility that he will find correlations: based on its place of articulation, the sound /d/ could be correlated with /t/, both /th/ sounds, and /n/. The same is true for nearly every sound in Hebrew (except only ayin and aleph, so far as I can see). Mozeson does not make all of these leaps, but he has not ruled them out either. This makes his theory unfalsifiable: there's no way for anyone to propose exceptions or identify inconsistencies.

Mozeson also allows suspicious amounts of metathesis of consonants in support of his hypothesis. Metathasis is a linguistic phenomenon in which two or more sounds switch places. As mentioned on the Wikipedia page, in English this frequently happens around r's (e.g., when one says comfterble for comfortable). Some languages make use of metathesis for regular phonological or morphological reasons (e.,g., for inflection or to derive new words from old roots). In all cases, metathesis occurs for a reason, even in the English examples. Mozeson, on the other hand, offers no hypothesis to predict when one can expect to find it. Not only does this make his larger hypothesis less falsifiable, it also makes it overproductive to the point of vacuousness.

Without any specific mechanisms limiting the possibilities in sound change, it's no surprise that Mozeson is able to correlate many English words with Biblical Hebrew words: where there is no look-alike readily available, a small reordering or deletion dramatically increases the chance of finding one.

The foreword and introduction to The Word are full of Abrahamic ideology and jabs at linguists for failing to come to the same conclusions he has.
Because the majesty of Hebrew is only faintly visible in its offspring, it is no wonder that intelligent men can still maintain that most words are arbitrary and meaningless, or that language is the result of cavemen grunting. Of course, some of these same brilliant academicians will insist that a chimp at a typewriter will come up with a Shakespearian sonnet if given enough time (about eight billion years). (p. 4)
He even goes so far as to attribute the accepted account to racism because it separates 'white' Indo-European languages from Afro-Asiatic languages. He simply overlooks that this separation is based on both clear systems of sound changes within families and no clear connections across families despite years of trying. Instead, as with creationist argumentation, there are simply allegations of academics sweeping contrary evidence under the rug.
for the past several decades, Western historical linguists have been the proud Dr. Frankenstein creators of a proto "Indo-European" language that curiously favors the Germanic element. Who would research Hebrew as the root language when even the Ph.D's in Semitics hung Hebrew out on a limb called West Semitic? Nobody uncovered a clay tablet of Proto-Semitic, but surely, the argument went, Hebrew evolved from older more cumbersome languages. The de-evolution of words, and the ongoing corruption of humankind, was simply not considered. (p. 2)
There are no Proto-Semitic tablets because that language (if it existed) was spoken before the invention of cuneiform. Linguists do not seriously consider the "de-evolution of words" in most cases because living languages are constantly growing due to innovation and borrowing. The only languages we regularly see "de-evolve" or become measurably simpler are dying languages spoken in places like Central America where children no longer use the local language in all social contexts.

Like creationists insisting that a global flood is plausible without doing all the necessary math, Mozeson insists that Edenic is a possible ancestor for all human languages without doing the documentation and modeling necessary to demonstrate his case. I can only second what was suggested by Sabzi Aash in this thread:
This is my suggestion for Mozeson. It's the most logical thing to do and the fact that he hasn't done it can only be labeled "suspicious". Forget about English. Just prove that Aramaic or Phoenician or Ugaritic, or even Arabic, comes from Hebrew. These languages are so similar to each other that if one of them were the source of the others, it should be a cinch to demonstrate. If he could show that every linguist had gotten such a basic relationship wrong, that alone would turn the field on its head, and then he'd have a basis to go on to greater claims.
That this has not been done yet is as telling as the lack of paradigm-shifting research coming from the Discovery Institute.

* Biblical Hebrew, the spoken language, certainly has vowels. What Mozeson means is that the Biblical Hebrew written language is based on consonants (although it does have some vowel markings). Except in academia, its rare for new words to be coined based on writing conventions in another language. That Mozeson confuses spoken and written languages is rather telling of the poverty of his linguistics training.
** Other rules were at play. So my saying 'all' here overlooks some mostly-understood complications created by context and other concurrent changes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Music: Feist

Friday, I had front row tickets for Feist. Thursday, my apartment saw the arrival of a new instrument that happens to be identical to the glockenspiel in the video below. So who else could I pick this Sunday?

"I Feel It All" and a snippet of "The Park". Leslie Feist. Live on Jimmy Kimmel.

There isn't much to be said about Feist that most in-the-know music fans haven't already heard. She gets her share of nay-sayers, particularly among some recording enthusiasts who dislike the odd mix of close-mic'd and room sound that characterize both Let It Die and The Reminder. The alternation between the baroque pop and the understated acoustic ballads seems particularly suited for enchanting both the average listener and the indie cynic.

I was a late comer to Feist. Broken Social Scene released their first album in 2001, when the music world was still in the grips of the mindless pop music that the end of the 90s had ushered in. I was firmly convinced that I was never going to hear a new rock band I'd like and more or less quit looking. That attitude changed in time to hear Feist last spring during the buzz that The Reminder started generating upon its release.

An ex once criticized me for having a double standard with pop music. I like both the simple (Violent Femmes, Morphine) and the heavily orchestrated (Belle and Sebastian, Tortoise), but I complain about anything that I perceive as falling in-between. Most middle ground comes off as being either not genuine or not creative enough. Although I wouldn't call her studio albums sloppy, Feist represents the sort of pop music that captures both of those sides: a sort of careful simplicity. Deliberate understatement in wide open chords, interweaving counter melodies, and lush harmonic extensions all where appropriate. I'm not sure how much of that is Gonzales and the rest of the band and how much is Feist herself, but the end product is beautiful.

The show Friday night was fantastic. Feist had a visual artist in her company who created shadow images on a large screen behind the band.

If you like that sound too, I recommend you check out not only more Feist (including this KCRW performance), but Gonzales's "Solo Piano" album.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Descent of Languages (Pseudolinguistics and Ideal Languages, Part 2)

This is part two in a series that began here with a general account of two common types of argumentation one encounters when dealing with pseudoscience. Before I begin debunking some specific historical linguistic accounts, I thought I might need to explain in some form what historical linguistics is all about (or at least, explain a little bit about some of what it's about...).

Since at least the days of Classical Greek grammarians, people have been aware of similarities between languages. Although others had attempted to systematically demonstrate the resemblance between two or more languages, Sir William Jones is most often credited with inventing the idea of using such comparisons to reconstruct a proto-language, a theoretical ancestor to modern languages known only through the evidence it left in its descendants.

All spoken languages change. One has only to listen to Beowulf or The Lord's Prayer translated into Old English to realize that the English spoken today hardly resembles the English spoken in the 10th or 11th Centuries. While change in language is often brushed off as corruption or degeneration, what is truly surprising about language change is how regular it can be, particularly when it is below the level of salience. We all note the introduction of words like truthiness or email, but few of us notice how the vowels in our speech subtly change decade to decade, generation to generation. The differences between languages that are related by a common ancestor are not entirely accidental: with careful study, one can rules that underly the relationship between words in each language that represent the changes those languages underwent since they split.

When the Roman empire fell, Latin speakers in France, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere were left disconnected from one another to varying degrees. Over time, the Latin spoken in these places diverged from the Latin that had been spoken in 5th Century Rome and earlier. While pure-blood Romans may have considered these divergences a result of the Celts and other inferior races attempting to speak the glorious Latin tongue, linguists can note a great deal of regularity in the changes that took place. That is, far from being chaotic or purely random, the changes follow rules. Consider the following sets of words.
Latin Italian Spanish Portuguese French gloss
capra capra cabra cabra chèvre goat'
/kapra/ /kabra/ /kabra/ /shevr/
caru caro caro caro cher dear'
/karo/ /karo/ /karu/ /sher/
caput capo cabo cabo chef head, top'
/kapo/ /kabo/ /kabu/ /shef/
caro/carn carne carne carne chair meat, flesh'
/karne/ /karne/ /karne/ /sher/
canis cane can cao chien dog'
/kane/ /kan/ /kaw/ /shien/
Forgetting the spellings and concentrating on the pronunciations (given in italics below each word), one can create a set of rules that produce the modern form from the Latin ancestor. For example, whereas all of the other languages maintained the /k/ sound at the start of each word, modern French has a sound like English /sh/. Likewise, where other languages have mostly maintained at least some vowel in the second syllable (even if changing /o/ to /e/), French has lost all of these vowels entirely. While the internal consonants of Italian are mostly faithful to the Latin original, Spanish and Portuguese have regularly changed the /p/ sounds to /b/. If you've never studied phonetics, try saying "puh buh puh buh..." aloud to yourself to see how similar these sounds are. (You might want to wait until no one's looking. Don't worry, all linguists have been there.) The difference lies in whether the vocal cords vibrate. Today, linguists know that in a context between two vowels or other voiced sounds, there is a tendency for sounds like /p/ to shift to their voiced counterpart over time.

In the same cases, the French has replaced /p/ with /v/ and /f/. If you take the time, you might try a similar experiment with alternating these sounds with /p/ and /b/ and noting the contexts where French uses one or the other.

Given access to modern Italian, Spanish, and French, a well-trained linguist with no knowledge of Latin could in time construct a large number of Latin words by identifying the similarities and differences between the modern words and using their knowledge of universal tendencies in human language. There would be gaps in their knowledge (the intricacies of the noun class and case system, unpreserved verbal declensions), but the amount that could be reconstructed would still be impressive.

This process, called the comparative method, is what we attribute in part to William Jones. European linguists of the 19th century were able to reconstruct many languages that were never written, including much of proto-Indo-European, the language believed to be ancestor of most European languages, Persian, and Sanskrit. In some ways, it is very similar to what geneticists can now do with genomes when analyzing the relationship between species (indeed, biological metaphors underly many discussions of language families). Changes can be analyzed in part because, like genes as a unit of biology, phonemes and other linguistic units behave in ways that we can approximate with models that assume a great deal of regularity or rule-like behavior between generations.

Like pure descent-with-modification in biology, there are many well-known complications to the comparative method. As their equivalent of viral or bacterial DNA in the human genome, languages are hosts to borrowings from other languages that can, over time, completely obscure that language's relationship to its genetic sisters. (If you've never noticed how many English words are derived from French, Greek, and Latin roots, you may want to open a dictionary and see for yourself how great a change borrowing can impose on a language.) Like biological species, when a language is spoken over a large area, changes can be slow to spread from one population to another. The great deal of modern sociolinguistics is focused on directly observing how changes spread across geographic and class boundaries in real time or by reconstructing past trends. More often than not, these exceptions prove the rule in that they affect languages in fairly predictable ways, even if the rules that govern them are more statistical and less definite than those identified in comparative reconstruction.

Although the degree of evidential and theoretical strength behind any reconstructed proto-language is always changing, as is true of all scientific statements, the trust linguists place in any model depends upon the methodology used to reach it. As I'll attempt to demonstrate in future installments, pseudolinguistic claims often attempt to borrow the look and feel of historical linguistic argumentation and the comparative method without actually borrowing its methodology.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Nova: Cracking the Maya Code

The Nova special on the decipherment of the Mayan writing system is now available at their website. It comes recommended from me, for whatever that's worth.

Looking at modern day graffiti, I sometimes wonder what future societies will think when they dig up examples. It will probably take as much effort on the part of archaeologists/linguists as the equally creative Mayan system has taken us. Thankfully, Spanish hasn't completely replaced Mayan languages and the phonetic clues were still available.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sunday Music: Joanna Newsome

"Peach, Plum, Pear" - Joanna Newsom. Live in 2004.

Newsom's performances on harp, piano, and harpsichord won me over immediately. The accompaniment makes great use of layered rhythms unlike anything in popular music outside of more adventurous funk. Her songs are as much reminiscent of Philip Glass and other minimalist composers as the African kora music Newsom sites as an influence.

In contrast, her voice had to grow on me, as seems to be the case for most fans. She's toned down the squeak in her voice on her latest album and live, but I can still see how giving her a chance takes the same sort of leap that listeners have to take with Tom Waits, Shane MacGowan, and Billie Holiday. (I chose the live version above rather than the official video in part because the live version does not feature the bizarre overdubs of the album version.)

I chose her this week because among the "New Weird Americ"a/"Freak Folk" scene Newsom stands out has having both a debt to traditional/folk music and a unique vision. Her pairing with Van Dyke Parks on Ys is natural and obvious. Whereas the 60s counter-culture adoption of folk music more or less updated old blues and country with a hip but musically uninteresting rock beat, Parks actually used the vocabulary of traditional Americana to express new musical ideas without "dumbing down" the music by placing it over a steady four rock rhythm. In the same way, while many other current folk rock bands simply play folk with an updated indie aesthetic, Newsom appears to be on the verge of creating something truly wonderful and new. Where others pile layers of traditional instruments on top of a guitar-bass-drum arrangement, Newsom works her magic into the melody and rhythm of the song itself.

If you want to read more, here's an interview from 2006 and another more recent one.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Standard Languages and the View From Outside

There has been some back and forth over at Language Log on standard varieties of languages, their value, and this piece by James J Kilpatrick. In particular, this post by Mark Liberman got me thinking about how standard varieties of a language are actually used in relation to "nonstandard" varieties.

The degree to which standard forms are shared cultural norms could be debated. Certainly by imposing themselves in the mainstream media, standard varieties are at least accessible by nearly all of us, but the value that is attached to the variety isn't as universal. When a variety is not used locally, there's a tendency for it to become the subject of parody and ridicule at the local level. Sometimes the ridicule is directed at the speakers, sometimes at the perceived pompousness of the standard variety. Being able to express oneself eloquently is not the same thing as having something to say, and in communities where nonstandard varieties are spoken, standard varieties often bear an association with hot air.

When someone insists that using standard varieties leads to greater comprehensibility, I'm always reminded of the way British English is used in Irish literature from early in the last century and, in particular, the great, late Flann O'Brien, who had an amazing gift at parodying different registers. His books are littered with language that could have been lifted directly from academic papers from the early 20th and late 19th centuries. Here's a footnote from his novel The Third Policeman concerning a theory of the fictional philosopher De Selby.
Not excepting even the credulous Kraus (see his Do Selby's Leben), all the commentators have treated de Selby's disquisitions on night and sleep with considerable reserve. This is hardly to be wondered at since he held (a) that darkness was simply an accretion of 'black air', i.e., a staining of the atmosphere due to volcanic eruptions too fine to be seen with the naked eye and also to certain 'regrettable' industrial activities involving coal-tar by-products and vegetable dyes; and (b) that sleep was simply a succession of fainting-fits brought on by semi-asphyxiation due to (a). Hatchjaw brings forward his rather facile and ever-ready theory of forgery, pointing to certain unfamiliar syntactical constructions in the first part of the third so called 'prosecanto' in Golden Hours. He does not, however, suggest that there is anything spurious in de Selby's equally damaging rhodomontade in the Layman's Atlas where he inveighs savagely against 'the insanitary conditions prevailing everywhere after six o'clock' and makes the famous gaffe that death is merely 'the collapse of the heart from the strain of a lifetime of fits and fainting'. (more here)
O'Brien's work contains parodies of rural Irish culture as well (notably in The Poor Mouth, whose title alludes to adopting a lower class's speech), but it's hard to imagine his flights into De Selby's pseudoscientific fancies working in any variety of English other than a standard one. I don't have references at hand, but one can find examples of language varities being used to in some of the writings of Joyce, Donleavy, and, while not Irish, even Wodehouse, thinking in particular of the various moralizing aunts and uncles.

Standard varieties can also be incredibly inappropriate for many situations. Could you imagine if Mark Twain had written the following?
Those readers who are not acquainted with the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will be no more acquainted with this author. However, no prior knowledge will be necessary for enjoying the volume you now read. The forenamed book was authored by Mr. Mark Twain, who endeavored and succeeded in narrating those events with veracity but was no less tempted by embellishment than all men are at one time or another.
The point is also illustrated in this old Budweiser commercial. An epilogue to their "Whazup!" series (my apologies if this stirs up memories better left unstirred).

Like any other choice in language use, works in standard varieties are not always interpretted as "straighforward" or "universal" by all audiences. That's what good writers need to understand more than the peculiarities of any single variety.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Diversity and Framing

On the framing issue, Chris C. Mooney has asked Where do we actually disagree? I think this is an important question, but maybe not in the way Mooney intended.

Science functions through disagreement. Sometimes we like to consider science as the sum of all our not-yet-falsified theories. Other times we like to focus on the abstract methodology that shapes all of our research. But at its core, science requires disagreements for it to function properly. A scientific theory gains value the more it survives intense scrutiny. When we talk about interpreting science for the public, we need to remember that the scientific narrative is a history of disagreements.

Where I disagree with Mooney and the other framers is in this (unstated?) assumption that there is one right way to reach the general public or any particular segment of the public. Education and communication do not work so neatly. Certainly we can hope to improve our methods by dialogging about them, but we will always need diversity in our approaches to reaching out. If we are all doing our part toward the public understanding in our own ways (and being reflective in the process), we might be able to reach a broader portion of the public simply through the diversity of our own voices. Shutting out voices runs contrary to one of the greatest lessons society can learn from science: diversity and openness work.

Maybe its the way that the framing issue has erupted (and the way Myers and Dawkins are targeted), but in my mind it seems like the framing arguments require we hold back on our already limited diversity. Certainly, a great communicator needs to tailor their message's form to the audience, but sometimes audiences find their communicator rather than the other way around. If we want to be true to our message, we need honesty and we need to encourage others to do their own thing.

I think the disagreements we have as scientists could play an important part in public understanding of science. One of the key problems we need to overcome is the misconception that we are all socially-awkward bearded old men in white coats. We know that scientists are not unified, neither intellectually nor culturally. Even within our areas of specialty, we disagree strongly and loudly with one another at every conference we hold. One failing of popular science sources is that these real debates do not often reach the public, who are instead given debates between scientists (or spokespeople for us, like Gore) and deniers with little to no role in resolving the controversy outside of media or politics. We need to get our real disagreements out there, as best we can, and show people how consensus is reached so that the next time we need to emphasize the consensus on an issue the public understands how long and involved the process was that got us there.

Somewhat tangentially: An unresolved issue I have with the framing position is that the frames audiences love most are too often bad for the message. How often have you turned on the TV and seen a programme on UFOs, crop circles, Big Foot, etc., and been disappointed by the lack of skepticism or consideration of real evidence? The public's desire for mystery and controvery makes these shows much less informative (often bordering on the disinformative). In the same way, the popular science frame of underdog research team versus Big Science actually undermines the public's understanding of how scientists work. I'm sure Nesbit, Mooney, and others don't want to spread disinformation, but we need to realize that accepting the frames already provided to us by the media/public can be counterproductive.

We need new narratives, and likely, we need narratives unlike any that have been worked to death since the Akkadian was up-and-coming slang. If such a thing can even be found.

I admit, I have no witty solutions or suggestions. I'm among those geeky white middle-class former Nader-voters who have given up on commercial media. Although I understand there are a few good shows out there (like Mythbusters, apparently), I personally can't imagine working with the news or documentary networks in their present state. The internet provides more diversity in opinion and more information. It's unfortunate that a medium so well-suited to the scientific narrative is as demographically limited as it is. I can only hope that those who work with groups outside our current reach let the rest of us know what we can do to help.

(Also, read SES for a more positive look at the framing issue in relation to African American communities.)

This post has been edited for clarity since posted. - BH, April 2, 8:09est