I do not trust this Associated Press poll

"Who do you trust?" the Associated Press asks in an annual poll. It's a silly poll and every year it produces a silly article. This year's silly article was written by Alan Fram and Jennifer Agiesta: "AP-NCC Poll: Not much trust in major institutions."

This article is always fundamentally askew because it always finds and laments this lack of "trust." The AP should know better. They're journalists, after all, so distrust is their profession.

This is Rule No. 1 for journalists: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

That rule applies to the readers of newspapers just as surely as it does to their reporters and editors. A newspaper should never say to readers "Trust us, we're the authority," but rather, "We stand by every word we print. Test it for yourself."

There's a hint that the AP has started to forget this in one of its new questions in the annual poll. The AP asks if respondents trust "blogs" — then crows triumphantly when they find that most respondents don't.

That's an illiterate question. It's like asking "Do you trust magazines?" or "Do you trust books?" Well, which magazines? Which books?

People write things — by hand, on typewriters and computers. They write in books, newspapers, magazines and online. They write for the page, for the stage, for the screens large and small. They write for the Web. They write in spraypaint for passing motorists and in granite for future generations.

No one should start off trusting any of this writing. Check it out for yourself. As it checks out, you can begin to develop trust. The more something doesn't check out, the more distrust you should have. That's true for everything from the most prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals to newspapers to food critics to hobby bloggers to holy scripture. (Fundamentalists misread Paul as saying that the scriptures are beyond question. What he actually said was that they can withstand questioning. A universe of difference there.)

This year's article on the annual poll also included this confusing section discussing the Preamble to the Constitution:

The new survey found a souring sense of how well the government is
meeting six broad goals set by the preamble to the Constitution.

That would lead one to believe that respondents were asked to evaluate our government on: 1. forming a more perfect union; 2. establishing justice; 3. insuring domestic tranquility; 4. providing for the common defence; 5. promoting the general welfare and 6. securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

But the AP seems to be working from some other Preamble to some other Constitution:

The government got positive scores in three areas, though each had
dropped since the 2008 AP-NCC poll: making sure that people can pursue
happiness, that they feel safe and free and that they are shielded from
foreign and domestic threats.

But most said the government is
doing a poor job of helping everyone and not just special interests.
They were about evenly split over whether the government is making
America a better place and making sure all are treated equally.

The pursuit of happiness is certainly an ideal in line with the aims of the Constitution, but the phrase doesn't come from there. The Associated Press needs to brush up on its Schoolhouse Rock.

The most depressing aspect of this silly article is the quote Fram and Agiesta chose to summarize the views of all Americans:

"Does anybody have common sense anymore?" said Rosanne Favaloro, 53, of
Lebanon, Pa. "Is anybody worried about the middle-class family anymore? I
wonder."

No, she does not wonder. Rosanne Favaloro, 53, of Lebanon, Pa., seems to have stopped wondering years ago, replacing wonder in all its senses with the stale prefab nonthought of cliched indignation. Asked to participate in this poll, she, as Orwell put it, threw her mind open and let "the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences
for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at
need they will perform the important service of partially concealing
your meaning even from yourself."

Throughout the article, the AP laments the lack of trust in America's major institutions, but as I said earlier, a skeptical distrust isn't something to be lamented.

But I don't think distrust is what this poll really measures. I think what they're measuring, rather, is the level of free-floating, self-congratulatory offendedness. Their poll shows this narcissistic feigned indignation is on the rise.

That is, indeed, lamentable.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/mmy mmy_working through the list one book at a time

    @Pius Thicknesse: <i. My grade 11 French teacher did make mention of Quebecois French and even had us start learning how to speak it – e.g "Ouais?" and things like that. He also pointed out that the French we learn in school is the Parisian standardized French and that they don't really speak that way in Quebec.
    My spoken French is Quebecois as it was the first language of all my French teachers in elementary school. At college I ended up being on a student’s thesis because it was about Cajun music around New Orleans and most of the people she interviewed spoke a French that was much closer to Quebecois French than the French the French professors at the college had studied.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/mmy mmy_working through the list one book at a time

    @Pius Thicknesse: <i. My grade 11 French teacher did make mention of Quebecois French and even had us start learning how to speak it – e.g "Ouais?" and things like that. He also pointed out that the French we learn in school is the Parisian standardized French and that they don't really speak that way in Quebec.
    My spoken French is Quebecois as it was the first language of all my French teachers in elementary school. At college I ended up being on a student’s thesis because it was about Cajun music around New Orleans and most of the people she interviewed spoke a French that was much closer to Quebecois French than the French the French professors at the college had studied.

  • http://isabelcooper.wordpress.com Izzy, The Reason We Can’t Have Nice Things, Ha Ha.

    Coyote: That too. And having to text people on a crappy mobile, I can sort of understand–which is why I don’t do conversations there, just the occasional “oh crap, running late” message. But when you have an actual keypad? Gaaah. Yes, “u” sounds like “you.” Way to figure that out, Sparky. We are not impressed.
    Of course, it bears noting that I am old and crabby, and would like These Damn Kids to Get Off My Lawn.

  • hapax

    I have been told in Quebecois, the phrase “hotte des focques” (= “basket of seals”) is pronounced exactly the same as the English phrase initialized as WTF.
    I suspect that this is nonsense, because whatever else their faults, the Quebecois do not speak ungrammatical nonsense French.
    Nonetheless, like Bad Janet, I continue to believe this factoid, simply because responding to the clueless with a quizzical look and “BASKET of SEALS!” makes Everything Right in hapaxland.

  • hapax

    And bey “focques” I totally mean “phoques”.
    I have no idea how an inoffensive Flemish surname wormed its way into my brain. :-(

  • http://profile.typepad.com/mmy mmy_working through the list one book at a time

    @hapax: responding to the clueless with a quizzical look and “BASKET of SEALS!” makes Everything Right in hapaxland.
    snerk, I almost spit my coffee over my computer as I read that.
    In addition to learning colloquial Quebecois in elementary school I also spent a time during my teens around migrant workers who spoke a type of French patois that seemed to consist entirely of imaginative ways of suggesting other people do things physically unlikely if not impossible to themselves and members of their families.
    None of those phrases ever showed up in any of my high school textbooks.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    @hapax: Quebecois, IIRC, is most notable for tending to drop some vowels and consonants, so you see more apostrophes indicating elimination of stuff (e.g, in standard French you’d write “j’ai” for I have, but “tu as” for you have, but I vaguely recall seeing things like “t’es” (which is shortened “tu es” – you are))
    All this is YMMV because it’s been a while for me. :)
    I suspect “hotte des phoques” requires quite a substantial… reworking, let’s say, of the pronunciation to make it sound like WTF.

  • Amaryllis

    I meant, I really did, to sit here quietly catching up without commenting on day-old comments. But mmy said: I think one of my frustrations with my students was their inability to usefully guesstimate and make reasonable ballpark extrapolations.
    And I say, Yes! You’re right! They can’t do it! (“young people these days, grumble, grumble…”) My daughter and many of her friends had a much harder time in their math classes than they needed to have, through sheer inability to recognize when an anwer was unreasonable. And they never could estimate their course grades or GPA’s in their heads, either.
    What do they teach them in these elementary arithmetic classes?
    Um, we now return you to wherever the thread has gotten to by now.
    (And I’m told that “gotten” is also outmoded to the point of being incorrect. Should that be “wherever the thread has got to”? No, that doesn’t sound right either. We now return you to the topic currently under consideration, then.)

  • http://jamoche.livejournal.com Jamoche

    Even Joyce didn’t write his correspondence like he wrote Finnegan’s Wake.
    Ah… no. It was a lot pornier and much more cringeworthy!

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    Quebecois, IIRC, is most notable for tending to drop some vowels and consonants
    That was the impression I got from listening to a Quebecois taxi driver in Ottawa. My mother speaks good French and was chatting away to him (and he perked up no end when he discovered she was up for a French conversation), but my French est pire, helas, and I had terrible difficulty understanding what he said – but I could get the gist of what she said, and when we’d visited Paris together I’d managed the gist of what people said there. The explanation, presumably, is that I’d been taught Parisian French. It seemed to me that the Quebecois dialect had a tendency to swallow consonants and nasalise vowels so they sounded more similar to each other (closer to the schwa sound, I think), so to my embarrassment I really couldn’t sort one syllable from another when he talked. When my mum hopped out on an errand, I ended up with a lot of ‘Je suis desolee, je ne vous comprends pas’ until he gave up and waited for the nice Irelandaise lady to return so he could have a proper conversation again.
    Hearing accent in a language not your own is a curious business. Watching Jean de Florette I could just about hear the different pronunciation of words ending in N (the word ‘lapin’ is used a lot, for instance, and the Provencal accent doesn’t nasalise the ‘-in’ in quite the same way), but that was about it. Doubtless there were lots of other things, but they were beyond me.
    Have I told this story? A charming French teacher of mine (English woman who taught French, that is) recounted how she spent her gap year in France improving her conversational French, and then went for a university interview with what turned out to be a terrifyingly chic French (as in ‘from France’) don, who gave her a cold look and a poem to read aloud. Well, my teacher threw herself into it with her best pronunciation learned abroad and great emphasis (not knowing that a French academic would favour a more deadpan style of reading), and when she finished, the professor raised a cool eyebrow and drawled,
    ‘Your reading is interesting. But you speak with the accent of a Marseilles whore.’
    My teacher had indeed picked up an accurate version of the local accent in her year in France. She was not aware while studying it that it was an unfortunately low-prestige accent…

  • Amaryllis

    And then Karen said: I’ve always thought that real oppression consisted of restricting access to knowledge; learning was the best way to eliminate oppression.
    Which reminded me…I’ve been reading Dreams in Time of War* by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He quotes a song popular in his elementary school, at a time when Kenya was moving away from traditional society and struggling to create a modern African country:
    If these were the times of our ancestors,
    My father, I would ask you for the feast due to initiates,
    Then I would ask you to arm me with a spear and shield,
    But today, Father, I ask you for education only.
    Our herd of bulls is gone,
    Our goats depleted,
    I will not ask you for a banquet,
    My father, all I ask for is education.
    *…which I picked up because it was well-reviewed as a childhood memoir by a prominent writer who lived in interesting times, as they say. But now, of course, I realize I’ve been seduced into Kenyan anti-colonialism!
    Hah.
    …shutting up again.

  • http://city-of-ladies.blogspot.com Rebecca

    Some of the things y’all are naming as characteristics of Quebecois French are things I always just assumed were slangy French, as I’ve seen/heard them used all over the place – I first heard “Ouais” from a fellow student who’d spent time in Paris and never been to Canada, and “t’es” seems really frequent everywhere.
    However, I’ve never really been exposed to Quebecois, and all I know about it is “Au Quebec on se park dans le stationnement, en France on se stationne dans le parking.” And I have a friend who picked up French while studying at McGill, so when he went to France this past summer I teased him because (I said) everyone would think he sounded like a hick.

  • http://isabelcooper.wordpress.com Izzy, The Reason We Can’t Have Nice Things, Ha Ha.

    Jamoche: Oh, for sure. Heh. But easier to read without contorting your brain–at least in the same way.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    My understanding (being not a Francophone, a Quebecois, or a linguist of any type) is that Quebecois French owes a great deal to the dialect of French spoken in and around Normandy, combined with the isolating effect of being surrounded by les Anglais, and thus not evolving in the same way as French as she is spoken in France. Thus, it is a distinct regional dialect not greatly changed from the 1600s.

  • Art

    But also, aren’t all of these dialects rather than languages? I mean, by those terms Standard English is a dialect as well, but still, acrolects and basilects are variants of the same language rather than languages in themselves, right? (It’s been a while since I studied this as an undergrad, but isn’t that the case?)
    It’s a fuzzy distinction. It’s really better to say that “dialect” is a term for a relationship a language has with another language, rather than something a thing can be “instead of” a language.
    The problem comes with the definition of one specific dialect of a language family as the “real” version of the language. There are many dialects of the language family we call “English” (which is itself a member of a larger language family, West Germanic). These include AAVE, Scots, Downeastern, “Valley Girl”, and, of course, Standard English.
    Each one of these is itself a “language”. “English” itself cannot be instantiated except as a specific dialect of English, be that dialect the “standard” one or not.
    But AAVE is a complete language in and of itself, just as Standard English is. The relationship the two have to each other is “dialects of the same language”, but to say that AAVE is a mere “dialect of” Standard English is misleading and a way of expressing cultural superiority. If AAVE happened to be the acrolect and Standard English the basilect, then people would instead be saying Standard English is a “dialect of” AAVE — and the value-neutral way to say it is that they are both simply dialects of one overarching family known as “English”.

  • Art

    The problem seems to be that kids raised with only Ebonics have trouble converting to Standard English, which they need desperately to function in different social circles– but on the other hand, kids raised with only Standard English only face mockery if they wind up in a neighborhood where Ebonics (*my GOD that feels unnatural, it really bothers me, ’round here we just say Ghetto and I know that’s damned inaccurate but Ebonics is such a /weird/ word) is the primary language.
    One of the worst things about the “Ebonics controversy” was the staggeringly ill-thought-out neologism “Ebonics”. It sounds silly and it doesn’t actually make sense. (Someone unthinkingly wanted to use the word “phonics” even though what “Ebonics” was about had very little to do with phonics, i.e. with the specific way letters are represented as sounds. This *is* very different between Black English and standard American “broadcaster” English, but it is far from the most important difference that the Ebonics curriculum was meant to address — most of us have much more of an issue with dealing with the syntax and word base used by other dialects than with understanding each other’s accents.)
    Linguists use “AAVE” or “African-American Vernacular English” as a technical term. In common usage I think the best solution is to just call it “Black English”, which is the term chosen by the authors of “Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English”, a wonderful book on this subject that I heartily recommend.
    There are black folk who will take exception to this terminology because it may seem to imply that black people can’t or won’t speak Standard English (cf. Bill Cosby’s middle-class rants about how rappers need to “speak English”) but I oppose their perspective and believe there is nothing inherently shameful about the fact that the black community in the United States has its own dialect any more than there is about various regions in England having various dialects (is “Estuary English” insulting to people who live near the estuary?), so whatever.

  • Art

    I, for one, enjoy being able to understand an article written by people from regions that speak a completely different dialect of Portuguese, Spanish or English than the one I’m used to.
    I don’t deny that the imposition of a lingua franca has all kinds of benefits. People wouldn’t do it otherwise. I do point out that it is always a culturally biased act and an act that fundamentally creates a privileged and unprivileged class. Franco standardized language in Spain by making the language of his home region, Castilian, “official” and banning education in others, which is still a source of extreme bitterness among many Andalusians. One can find the same history in China with the various emperors suppressing writing systems that were linked to languages they didn’t want spoken (cf. the movie Hero, of all things).
    It’s generally nice to have a lingua franca. It’s *really* nice to have the lingua franca just happen to be the language you’re familiar with. For minority groups for whom this is not the case, it’s often not very nice, and frequently becomes a handicap on the population that reaches the point of cultural destruction (which is why, for instance, the Welsh have fought so hard to keep Welsh a living language, as do the Quebecois with Quebecois French).
    This isn’t anything new in history — the imposition of languages by a conqueror or hegemon is old as dirt. And I’m not actually proposing any great alternatives, since most of the proposed alternatives involve creating an artificial constructed language that’s equally difficult for everyone to learn, and for obvious reasons this tends to fail horribly.
    But I’m just asking that people be aware that this is what imposing an existing language as a lingua franca entails — it is something that fundamentally creates a barrier of privilege, and if you, like most commenters around here, have a problem with barriers of privilege, then that should be something to give you pause.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    I’m finding the discussion of linguistics to be equally as enthralling as the discussion of cooking knives earlier! This, right here, is what keeps me coming back.

  • http://jakobknits.blogspot.com Jake

    Hapax: My qualifications are that I lived in Quebec for six years, many of my friends are still French Canadians, I worked in an environment that was 50% French Canadian for a while even after I left Quebec, and I speak French reasonably fluently. I can tell you with some reliability that in français québécois “hotte des phoques” would sound, not exactly like “what the fuck” but rather, like what a French Canadian with a pronounced accent would sound like if they were to say the English phrase “what the fuck.”
    Unfortunately, I must inform you that “hotte des phoques” doesn’t actually mean “basket of seals” but rather “the seals’ basket.” “Basket of seals” would be “hotte de phoque,” which still sounds rather like WTF as said by a French Canadian.

  • http://jakobknits.blogspot.com Jake

    *ahem* “Basket of seals” is “hotte de phoques.”

  • http://colorlessblue.blogspot.com colorlessblue

    I just have two wishes: no misplaced commas and keep the whose.
    (Seriously, it hurts physically. I’ve stopped reading books because of misplaced commas, even if it was error on the translation only. I can’t deal. And now I have an uncle who won’t write me anything after I said this in front of him because he’s afraid I’ll find any.)

  • P J Evans

    @ Coyote
    I see I had it sort of backwards. But then it isn’t a version of English I use – I’d have to run it by one or another co-worker to get it right.

  • Brad

    @Kit: My teacher had indeed picked up an accurate version of the local accent in her year in France. She was not aware while studying it that it was an unfortunately low-prestige accent…
    After WWII, for some strange reason, the GIs preferred to learn Japanese from young Japanese women. Which led to instances of hulking foreign brutes speaking unexpectedly daintily.

  • http://colorlessblue.blogspot.com colorlessblue

    *hugs and cuddles and loves the metric system forever*
    I’m not afraid of the conversion maths, but I can never remember how many inches in a foot and ounces in a pound, for example. It’s just evil.
    Most knitting patterns I use are from USA, though, so everything comes in yards and inches, and my rulers are mostly in metric. The other day, I was away from home and needed to knit 8 inches. I needed to know if I was close to the end, and said on Twitter something like “colorlessblue wonders how big 8 inches are.” My friend replied: “Take one David Tennant and subtract 2 inches.”

  • http://city-of-ladies.blogspot.com Rebecca

    After WWII, for some strange reason, the GIs preferred to learn Japanese from young Japanese women. Which led to instances of hulking foreign brutes speaking unexpectedly daintily.
    I’ve heard this story, but about a businessman with a Japanese wife who taught it to him before he went to Japan on business. It’s not the accent there, IIRC – it’s the actual words used.

  • P J Evans

    @ colorlessblue
    8 inches is about 20 cm; it’s 1 inch = 2.5 cm, pretty nearly.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Pius Thicknesse

    1 inch is defined as 2.54 cm by whatever standards-setting body wrote it up.

  • http://colorlessblue.blogspot.com colorlessblue

    The problem back then wasn’t the conversion, it was how to know if I had knit enough without having a ruler. I ended up solving it by knitting 2 iPods minus a bit.

  • ako

    As far as I can tell, the sentence “Who do you trust?” doesn’t actually appear in the article or the poll. It’s Fred’s paraphrase. So, for all of the people who stopped trusting or respecting the Associated Press for being overly-colloquial, the person you should really stop trusting and respecting is Fred.
    (Personally, I like the common usage. I find “Whom do you trust?” jarringly weird.)

  • http://pecunium.livejournal.com/ Pecunium

    I was going to refrain from the wankfest over grammar, but Art, using the informal plural in place of the singular you/thee, in’t making any real argument. It’s an attempt to be snarky, witty, and a bit holier than thou.
    We can do better.
    Honestly the subject isn’t interesting enough to merit actual thought. Yes, I like the who/whom distinction (and if I hadn’t, learning Russian would have fixed it), but the language is shedding it (just as Russian seems to be losing, though a bit more slowly, much of it’s genitive, case, with the accusative taking on that role).
    We all have our quirks (and the thee/thou/you distinction seems to have been on the way out when the King James was Written, as well as when Shakespeare/Ben Johnson/Marlowe were writing plays. It wasn’t so far gone as to be archaic, but it was a bit stodgy, sort of like Mr. Pickwick’s clothes). My <hobby horse is the, imminent demise of the adverb.
    But really, isn't there more meat to dine on in this post than who likes whom?

  • Lurker

    Personally, not being a native English speaker, I appreciate English grammar quite a lot. It is a horrible mess of irregularities, but even so, learning the language would be very unfeasible.
    Learning the grammar of one’s own language is, most often, unnecessary for the proper usage of the language itself. However, it is much easier to learn foreign languages if you master the grammar of your mother tongue. This is, especially the case when a Finn tries to learn an Indo-European language like English or Latin. We have 15 cases and a large number of different verb forms, but the sentence structure is not that different from Indo-European languages. Thus, “diagramming a sentence” is a very useful practical skill when learning foreign languages. In addition, to master the finer points of Finnish punctuation rules, you must be able to diagram the sentence correctly.
    In my view, the use of standard written form is simply a question of expediency: if there is a standard form of language, communication is greatly facilitated. Because I belong to a fairly small ethnic group, I see the use of standard form of language as a way to keep all parts of my native culture available to all other Finns. If we’re going to write Finnish college textbooks on anything, they must be accessible to all Finnish-speakers. Using a regional dialect would restrict the market severely, making commercial textbooks unfeasible. On the other hand, an AAVE college physics textbook might have a ready market, as the target population is larger than the whole Finnish people.
    The smaller a language group, the less feasible it is to write on special topics in that language. Because of this, splitting a language into smaller dialects is not only empowering. It may also be a tool of repression. For example, there are maybe 20 million speakers of mutually intelligible Turkish languages in Russia. Yet, they have more than a dozen standard language forms. While this is ideal from the standpoint of diversity, it means that the speaker bases of the several languages stay small, incapable of having even high-school-level textbooks of their own. Thus, Russian will remain as the lingua franca, even between the speakers of different Turkish-languages.

  • http://www.kitwhitfield.com Kit Whitfield

    to say that AAVE is a mere “dialect of” Standard English is misleading and a way of expressing cultural superiority
    Just to clarify, that wasn’t my intention; I was suggesting that Standard English and AAVE are equally legitimate dialectal variations of some notional Ur-English.

    There are black folk who will take exception to this terminology because it may seem to imply that black people can’t or won’t speak Standard English (cf. Bill Cosby’s middle-class rants about how rappers need to “speak English”) but I oppose their perspective and believe there is nothing inherently shameful about the fact that the black community in the United States has its own dialect any more than there is about various regions in England having various dialects (is “Estuary English” insulting to people who live near the estuary?), so whatever.
    It’s not my place to speak for black people, but it seems there’s a distinction: Estuary English is based on a location, not a race. ‘Black English’ possibly has uncomfortably essentialist overtones, and I can understand being unhappy with that, especially if you’re black and don’t speak ‘Black English’. It seems to carry the implication that white people have lots of different regional accents but black people just have one racial one because their race is the defining factor about them. I’m no kind of expert on this, but I wonder if to some people, ‘Black English’ has the same kind of overtone that ‘female thinking’ does to me.
    It’s also problematic on an international level: there are black English speakers in lots of other countries with totally different accents, so outside an American-centric context it’s just inaccurate.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/mmy mmy_working through the list one book at a time

    @Kit Whitfield: OT to what is being discussed right now — or perhaps not so much.
    I am very interested in going into more detail about the thesis and fanfic and oppositional reading but it will probably be a day or two before I have the time.

  • Art

    It’s not my place to speak for black people, but it seems there’s a distinction: Estuary English is based on a location, not a race. ‘Black English’ possibly has uncomfortably essentialist overtones, and I can understand being unhappy with that, especially if you’re black and don’t speak ‘Black English’.
    Sure, but the alternative, “African-American Vernacular English” — to emphasize that it’s associated with a specific ethnic group in a specific place and in a specific context, without implying that African-Americans are *only* capable of speaking “African-American English” — is a big mouthful.
    That is the official term, and that’s why it’s the official term, but when having colloquial discussions within an American context “Black English” serves fine and I’m a tad annoyed by people who feel they must say “African-American Vernacular English” or “AAVE” in all contexts — it rubs me the wrong way the same way abbreviations like “PoC” rub me the wrong way.

  • Art

    I think Pinker used Schadenfreude as example. I’ll confess I’ve felt the feeling many times in the years before I learned to speak German, and once I had the word explained to me for the first time I recognized it instantly. An example closer to home is saudade. All my literature teachers would say that no other language has an equivalent word for the same concept (there’s some discussion of similar words in other languages on the wikipedia article, though.) But once you explain, people who didn’t know the word know they’ve felt it before.
    Right. Language obviously affects and to a certain degree constrains how a person thinks, but it does not *determine* how a person thinks — the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that you can make a culture be the way you want it to be by changing its language, has been seen as pure fantasy by linguists and sociologists alike for quite some time.
    It’s really more the other way around, honestly — when a culture starts shifting a certain direction you will start seeing changes in its language arising, and when the culture starts shifting back the language may start changing back, but centralized attempts to force the change by “banning” certain usages just don’t work all that well. E-Prime, for instance, has always been a very silly idea. (See what I did there?)
    The very fact that languages shift because neologisms or new usages are invented is itself evidence against Sapir-Whorf — that we do in fact have thoughts that our languages are inadequate to express so we make up new words or usages to accommodate them. If we didn’t, language would never change, and the language as it is now would not exist in the first place.
    The argument that Newspeak would make rebellion impossible by making crimethink unthinkable, for instance, seems specious to me — obviously one must know what crimethink *is* in order to have a word for it, however vague, and the simplest and easiest way to make crimethink “thinkable” in such a context would be to turn the word “crime” from a bad into a good thing. This is exactly what has happened in our own culture, where terms like “rebel” or “renegade” or “outlaw” have gone from having negative connotations to positive ones — why it can be weird and disorienting reading religious texts from the 19th century because they use things as “bad” words that we now almost always use as “good” ones. (Cf. Methodist texts on “The Avoidance of Passion”.) When Orwell says that expressing “Big Brother is ungood” would be an “impossibility” in Newspeak because it would be like “Saying 2 + 2 = 5″, he really had very little faith in the adaptability of the human mind or human language — a Christian would have at one time said the same thing was true about saying “God is evil” or “God is ungodly” or “Christians act unchristian”, but clearly these things are possible to express in what was once the language of a quite fiercely and repressively Christian culture.
    You don’t even need to actually be the one who invents the word to have experienced this phenomenon — anyone who’s ever had the feeling “Well, that’s not what I *mean*, but I can’t think of a good way to say it” has disproven the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. We have all had plenty of moments where language has been inadequate to match our thoughts, which means our thoughts are not determined by language.
    A quick aside: I do have a bit of a bugbear about saying that languages “don’t have a word for” this-or-that in the first place. Some languages have an easier way of saying something than other languages, yes, and to introduce a new concept into an existing language one sometimes has to use a bit of a mental shoehorn.
    But all living, human languages are malleable enough that there’s always *some* way to say what it is you want to say. “Schadenfreude” is just a German compound word meaning “malicious joy”, for instance, and if I just said the phrase “malicious joy” in English you might not get the same instant recognition as with “schadenfreude” but you’d probably get the idea, especially if the word were used in context. (“I couldn’t suppress my feeling of malicious joy at watching her fall down the stairs.”)
    To say that some languages contain concepts fundamentally inexpressible in other languages annoys me — it presupposes a certain degree of cultural essentialism and “alien-ness” in other cultures that isn’t really there, and often makes claims that we would dismiss if they were made with the same degree of justification for our own culture over time. I’ve heard the old saw, for instance, that “Chinese has no word for ‘freedom’”, which is obnoxious on the same level as “The Eskimos have over a hundred words for snow” (when the Inuit really have the same number of “words for snow” as, say, an English-speaking snowboarder does — “deep powder”, “loose slush”, “packed ice”, etc).
    What it really is is that the Chinese word that means “freedom” — a more literal translation being “self-directed behavior” — was, in ancient Chinese writing, typically used in the negative sense, as a description of a personal vice or of an undesirable social state of affairs. (Think the English term “anarchic” or “unrestrained”.)
    But my response to this is “So what?” There were and are English speakers who have used the term “free” or “freedom” in that negative sense too. It’s not that they couldn’t conceive of “freedom” or had no mental picture of it, just that *in that time and place their feelings about the subject were different from ours*. And those differences were not universal or fundamental — a Chinese speaker could be in favor of “unrestraint” the same way that “pride” went from being a sin in English-speaking Christendom to something you were supposed to have, or in the same way that the negative term “anarchy” came to be a good thing both among philosophical anarchists and among fans of the Sex Pistols.
    I get in this argument most often about swear words. I’ve had people insist to me that the word “puta” in Spanish doesn’t actually mean “whore” (although it does) because “It’s a much much worse word in Spanish than it is in English”, failing to understand that the difference in “severity” of a swear word is something that varies wildly *within a language community* rather than just between languages. (Both times this happened it was someone raised in a relatively conservative middle-class Latin American household who then went to college in the liberal Northeast. Had they come from the streets of Mexico City and then gone to a strict Bible Belt college in the South their opinions might be reversed.)
    It’s because of stuff like this that we get my pet peeve, which is the Unnecessarily Long Translation — the kind of thing where the translation of a word takes up maybe an entire paragraph in English, and gives people the impression that all foreign languages are a kind of highly-efficient data compression algorithm, which is not really the case (or no more so than our own is). I tend to dislike this kind of thing because it tends to involve a lot of editorializing on the part of the translator and imputing as fundamental elements of meaning things that are just that person’s personal cultural contacts with the term in question. I’d really rather the translator leave the term alone as much as is possible and let the readers glean the rapidly cultural connotations on their own. (So if you did translate “puta” as “shit-stained horrible disgusting worthless woman whom you never want to see again (the worst thing you can ever call any female)”, as my friend did, then you would become confused when watching a soap opera where street thugs — as is typical of various urban neighborhoods wherever one goes — use “puta” as an all-purpose interjection whenever encountering something even mildly unpleasant. The same way you’d be confused by the term “bitchin’” if you got that definition of “bitch” from a highly conservative observer.)

  • http://pecunium.livejournal.com/ Pecunium

    Mad Monkey: Having done journalism (and no P J, I don’t think your explanation is good. Esp. not in sports. I am amused at the underlying assumption in mmy’s comment on concretising stats with hockey, because it requires knowing enough about hockey to abstract things from it to concretise, but I digress*) I can say that summing up someone else is hard.
    Summing up something like the Constitution’s preamble, is a lot harder than just the denotation of the words. Is is binding language, or predicate. This matters. Because if it’s predicate than it has no legal meaning. It’s just an explanation of what we think the Constitution allows us to do. If it’s binding, then we have to figure out what, “Promote the General Welfare” means.
    It happens that it’s predicate. But even at that, how much weight do we give those guiding principles? What is the, “Liberty” we are trying to secure? There is also a lot of trouble with the ways in which predicate language get used. Bush used the predicate language in the AUMF, to justify invading Iraq, even when he’d failed to fulfil the statutory obligations of the law.
    So even , “going to someone who knows” is problematic. Do you ask a Boies, or an Olsen? A Dershowitz, or a Volokh? It’s not arithemitic, with one asnwer for ever question.
    *I am, bitterly, amused, at the ways in which skils past arithmetic are being held up as somehow needful. I survived alegebra. I can do it, but I don’t like it. So I pass that “test” but really, most people will never need the skills of algebra. If they have job in which algebraic problems are essential, they are, almost always, things which have been figured out in advance, and there are tables, or other shortcuts which will provide the answers.
    I never took trig, but I had to use some when I was a machinist. So I learned the formula for finding “true center”. I can’t tell you why it works, nor even; honestly, just what I was doing. But I was able to determine if the piece I was working on was inside the tolerance, or not.
    If we want to create the ability to think rationally, that’s one thing. Math is good at that. So is real study of language, or music. But the idea that being able to solve quadratic equations, or solve multi-variable problems is an essential life skill, just ain’t so.

  • hapax

    There were and are English speakers who have used the term “free” or “freedom” in that negative sense too. It’s not that they couldn’t conceive of “freedom” or had no mental picture of it, just that *in that time and place their feelings about the subject were different from ours*.
    Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…
    (sorry. I couldn’t help myself. Apply earworm eradicant of your choice.)

  • Raj Dealing with Pius Thicknesse for Probably the Last Time

    @Pius Thicknesse:
    You say you would like to know what my problem is with you. Well, prior to this thread, I had no problem whatsoever with you. Until our recent conflict, I even thought you were rather nice, and I more-or-less liked you. You, however, seem to think that if someone questions any your claims, then that person must have something against you. I’m afraid I really can’t help you there, so I’m just going to cover a few points before waving adios.
    My statement that I would consider it sad if your claim about “whom” were true was not an attack on your intelligence or education; it was an expression of my view on the matter under discussion. Let me emphasize that I expressed my view without taking issue with your confrontational wording (“petty and nitpicky”), which you used in response to a comment that was not even directed at you, but at Dylan Stafne – but ONOEZ I’m the bad guy. Yyyep!
    I then did something else that I foolishly assumed I was allowed to do: I called you on what clearly appeared to be a sweeping generalization; again, without attacking you personally. You replied, “I thought it was a bit asinine of you to dismiss my statement by saying it was an ‘everybody knows’ thing unbacked by any intuitive sense of linguistic trends over the last century.”
    Ah, so I was being asinine by glossing over the brilliant arguments in your comment. Okay, let’s examine the comment in question – in its entirety – for evidence of this “intuitive sense of linguistic trends over the last century” that I was apparently too dim to see:
    @Raj: It’s kind of petty and nitpicky, IMV. Especially as the “whom” construction isn’t close to univeral these days.
    Ohhhh, THERE it is! Why yes; your comment clearly shows – in great detail, I might add – your “intuitive sense of linguistic trends over the last century”. How could I possibly have missed it? Oh, naughty, bad, wicked Raj! He’s been lighting the grail-shaped beacon failing to use his ESP again! As for “intuitive sense”, I suppose it goes without saying that I’m obligated to defer to your intuition because – well, I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid reason, and I’m just being “a bit asinine” in failing to see it.
    As for the mental arithmetic issue, I am at a loss to understand what pretzel-shaped logic you used to interpret my comments on that issue to mean either that you lack such skills, or that I consider myself superior to you in that area. Yes, it’s All About You. BTW, I’m actually somewhat insulted ( SCORE ONE FOR PIUS! ) that you would think I would indulge in self-congratulation over something like this. If I really wanted to blow my own horn over my mathematics background, I could come up with a Hell of a lot more than mental arithmetic*.
    The conflict between us comes down to this: You responded in a snippy manner to a comment that – let me remind you – was not even directed at you. I responded without making it personal, even though I would have been quite justified in doing so. I also pointed out that your comment was an “everybody knows” generalization, which it was (face it). You chose to view my comments as personal attacks, and then took an additional step in this direction by making my mental arithmetic comments All About You. Oh, and nice job tap-dancing around my direct question as to when I ever attacked your intelligence. I can only conclude that either you don’t know the difference between a disagreement and a personal attack, or you have decided that I, for some reason, am not allowed to question any of your claims. I’m not sure which it is, and frankly, I really don’t care.
    You see, I don’t come here to pick fights, but I do consider expressing disagreement when applicable to be an important part of my Slacktivist experience. Since doing the latter without doing the former doesn’t seem possible when dealing with you (which still surprises me, considering how nice I used to think you were), I see little value in continuing to interact with you. As those sages across The Pond say, “You’re no fun anymore.” Oh, I’ll still contribute to discussions in which you and others are participating, but I will avoid responding directly to your comments. The only comments of yours to which I will respond will be offensive comments (as opposed to comments with which I simply disagree) and personal attacks (and I’ll probably ignore childish ones anyway).
    I can deal with people with whom I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything. I refuse to deal with people who start throwing their Lego blocks and juice boxes at me whenever I disagree with them.
    *I agree with Jamoche that there’s a difference between proficiency in mental arithmetic and proficiency in mathematics. I take a great deal of pride in my mathematical proficiency, yet it doesn’t bother me at all that three people I know – including two preadolescents – can perform mental multiplication and division in less time than it takes me to punch the appropriate keys on a calculator.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/rajexplorer Raj

    hapax, I stand in awe of hapaxspouse.
    OK, NOW on to the latest LB post – YAY!


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