Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Linguistics from the Left"

First, if you haven't read Tecumseh Fitch's guest post on Language Log responding to Sally Thomason's attack on his Nature article from a while back, you should. It's here.

Yesterday, I posted a quick link to something from the American Enterprise Institute, called "Reforming the Politically Correct University". It includes a paper from John McWhorter, a very good linguist, one who taught at Stanford and Berkeley before going to the Manhattan Institute and touring to lecture on what I would describe as rightwing topics. His paper is called "Linguistics from the Left: The truth about Black English that the academy doesn't want you to know." I won't quote from it — he asks that people not, though the paper is readily available here — and so can't respond in detail, but the on-line summary from the conference program is this:
John McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute shows how the field of linguistics has departed from its original mission of investigating how languages and dialects differ among groups, and has increasingly become a vehicle for leftist political advocacy.
Wow, that's quite a claim — presumably not written by McWhorter. There is surely some political advocacy in the field, but we've abandoned our mission for that? Bold.

In fact, the paper just argues this about Black English, African-American English (AAE), or Ebonics. Some points he makes are right in some ways and to varying degrees, but a lot consists of very partisan readings. For example, he argues that relatively few particular features have been studied in great detail (those emphasizing African heritage, etc.) when what we really needed was good basic description. It's true that emphasis has been put on such features, I guess, but this also ignores how good basic description got shoved to the back burner in many circles for decades. And sociolinguistics, where much (most?) AAE work was happening was and to an extent is about remarkably limited points: a few vowels, or the presence of r at the ends of syllables. Even in terms of American dialects, we know stunningly little about Appalachian English, for example, far less than about AAE. (That's now changing thanks to excellent work by Kirk Hazen and others.)

I won't say more for now, but once the paper is posted more officially and open for discussion, I hope to come back to it.

1 comment:

drew said...

And Sally Thomason has posted a brief reply to Fitch.