Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Quirks of language melt away like butter on a stove"

That's the assessment of regional diversity in American English thanks to the homogenizing force of television and now the internet. You read it here first. Or second, maybe.

Christopher Caldwell attacks* the Dictionary of American Regional English in a piece called "Words that fail the test of time" in yesterday's Financial Times. (He's a senior editor at the Weekly Standard.)

The article is wrong or misleading on a whole host of points and it's not worth the hours it would take to lay those all out. Just consider one little chunk:
[DARE's] backward focus is an implicit admission that, in the television age (and even more so in the internet age), quirks of language melt away like butter on a stove. Dare might more accurately be called a historical dictionary. Its main use will be for clarifying obscure references in old oral histories.
In part, DARE is a historical dictionary. It records tons of old farming vocabulary, for instance, words that are not known or used today. Vocabulary, like the rest of language, is constantly changing. I say: Deal with it.

Throughout the piece, Caldwell seems to be striving to make DARE sound useless. As many stories in the press about DARE — including the recent set — have noted, it is being used in forensic linguistics (yup, to track down criminals) and in medicine (where doctors actually need to know folk terms used by patients).

But surely anyone with any interest in language has by now picked up on the discussions about how dialectal diversity is increasing rather than decreasing in the United States today.

Sigh. 2009 is still young, but this may be the worst piece of language-related journalism I've read so far this year.

* Who the heck attacks dictionaries?

Image from here, in reference to Caldwell's claim — which will be met with hoots of derision here in the Upper Midwest — about lutefisk: "This is a word that will either disappear or be thoroughly integrated into mainstream English." By the way, the word is not 'from Swedish', but both Norwegian and Swedish.


Anonymous said...

What do you expect from a writer from the Weekly Standard, fact-free since 1995?

The most dangerous misrepresentation in there is probably insinuating that the NSF is somehow paying for the publication of a book. That's not how their support works.

The Neo-cons are reduced to attacking DARE.

Anonymous said...

Is it too much to ask that newspapers only contain articles by people who understand something about the topic they are writing about?

I guess so.

Ryan said...

I wonder where he gets the idea that American English is a lingua franca. The rest of the world learns British (or, from some Japanese textbooks, Australian) English. Or has Caldwell misunderstood the term to mean "the language of a very large number of people"?

Mr. Verb said...

People who understand their subjects? That's un-American, I believe.

Classic neo-con kind of move (thanks, anon) to assume a kind of inevitable and universal American influence.

Like I said, the piece is just FILLED with errors.

GAC said...

I have to say I get quite annoyed with people who assume the Internet will turn us into One Word Culture. Yes, faster communication will lead to more cultural exchange. But I know from what I read about China that linguistic and cultural barriers can manifest quite starkly on the Internet (the Chinese Internet is basically an entirely different entity from the Anglophone Internet -- and censorship has little to do with that).

@Nick: I will say that American English is on the rise. In China, people who were educated a decade or so ago in all learn BrE, but recently schools are shifting more towards AmE (or a sort of "world dialect" based on it :P ) because of America's strong economic influence.

Richard Hershberger said...

" Who the heck attacks dictionaries?"

You've never read Robert Hartwell Fiske, I take it.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, good point. I intended it as a rhetorical question, but Caldwell is in good company.