Sunday, September 20, 2009

Unreconstructed beatniks, and un-

Deborah Solomon's "Questions for [famous name here]" piece in the NYT Sunday Magazine is something I always look forward to: It's normally a tasty little nugget of who knows what.

But today, I was already plenty happy to open the Magazine and see that Ben Zimmer is doing "On Language" this week. And it's on language, too: About the winding path of the prefix un- in English, with ample quotes from Lawrence Horn. Zimmer closes with this line: "Like it or un-." There's a set of degrammaticalizing prefixes in English these days, that is, formerly securely attached word-parts that are coming unglued. (See here for background.) Nice column.

Back to Solomon: Like everybody else, she's interviewing Deborah Tannen, about Tannen's new book on sisterhood. Tannen got established as a noted discourse analysis specialist and then went on to become an author of big time popular books, starting from discoursey stuff and moving out from there. I've long wondered whether she still thinks of herself primarily as a linguist, in fact, given how little most of her work really deals with language these days. We get the answer:
Do you live grandly?
No. I still live like an academic. I don’t wear makeup. I probably still dress like an unreconstructed beatnik. I think of myself as a writer as much as I think of myself as a linguist and an academic. I really enjoy writing — playing with language and getting just the right metaphor.
My guess is that if you're really a linguist and academic, you're all but automatically doomed to not being a fashion plate. (I personally wear a lot of makeup, but that's another matter.) Still, the interview really gives the impression of somebody who's probably more a writer these days. I'm glad she's kept to our sartorial code.

It's interesting how many linguists have made the transition to writing, in a whole range of ways. Steven Pinker has become a superstar writer, but staying with the science thing, and like Tannen keeping an academic position. Rosina Lippi, a formidable sociolinguist, has turned into a really cool fiction writer. Suzette Haden Elgin likewise is a linguist turned fiction writer.

By the way, one note: There was a little dust-up over at the Log about Joe Wilson's "you lie!", where it quickly was established that this is simply idiomatic Southern English. Tannen rounds out the interview nicely but overreaches on the interpretation, I think:
As a linguist, what can you tell us about [Wilson's] statement “You lie”?
It’s a way to be maximally agonistic and get the most attention with the fewest words. It’s the kind of thing some sisters might yell at each other, especially when they’re teenagers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

More from BZ here: