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Continuing my series from yesterday, I present an overview of my favorite linguist-writer, Geoffrey Nunberg.

I first encountered Nunberg through his 2001 book The Way We Talk Now, a collection of his essays largely based on transcripts of his "Fresh Air" pieces on NPR since 1989. He examines modern culture through the lens of the words we use.

For example, in an essay written around the time of the Gulf War, he notes how some TV announcers coined the word Baghdadi. He goes on from there to note that most nationalities in the Middle East end in an -i, and it's unusual for a suffix to be reserved for one area of the world. He connects this observation with the unique history and relationship the West has traditionally had with the Middle East.

Another essay comments on how the words force and violence are used as synonyms yet have a subtle distinction in meaning, which he connects to the way we tend to view abuses in power as premeditated, but violence from civilians as erratic.

In 1996, Nunberg put the combined speeches from the Republican Convention into a summarizing software, which returned a surprisingly eloquent paragraph. But when he tried the same thing with the speeches from the Democratic Convention, it returned, in Nunberg's words, "word salad."

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"If machines could play games no better than they could produce human language, they'd have a hard time keeping up with an eight-year-old at tick-tack-toe."

"You have to feel sympathy for those drivers who roll around all day in company vans with stickers on the bumper that say 'How am I driving? Call 555-1234.' It's just a sophisticated version of the 'Kick me' game, though I suspect the trucking companies justify it by saying that they want the drivers to feel a sense of ownership about their turn signals."

"Wherever you look, irony's moving out and sarcasm's moving in. Johnny Carson was ironic, David Letterman is sarcastic. Peanuts was ironic, South Park is sarcastic."

"The number of people who sit down at a keyboard every day has probably increased tenfold over the past few years--quite a few of them people whose writing used to be seen only on their refrigerator doors. They're people who were never able to spell very well, but over the telephone you couldn't tell."

"Was the outcome of an American presidential election really going to depend on the interpretation of a word [shall] that no American since Henry James has known how to use properly?"

As that last quote indicates, his commentary often intersects with politics. But this first book of his did not go much into partisan matters, and his liberal perspective was only hinted at on occasion. In his second book Going Nucular (which has many essays that are available at his webpage), he moves more in the direction of conventional punditry. But he's no hack. He usually takes an angle you're not expecting, and he is more interested in analyzing an issue than in pushing an agenda.

His first non-essay book, Talking Right, which contains the memorably long subtitle How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, is his sharpest foray into political commentary. Published in 2006, this was one of a handful of books that tried to gauge why Democrats have had trouble winning elections. For a summary, see the Wikipedia page (written mostly by yours truly). How important this particular book was in the subsequent Democratic takeover of Congress, I do not know. But it's an interesting read, nonetheless.

You can hear many of Nunberg's "Fresh Air" pieces at NPR's webpage. Being more a reader than a listener, I have only rarely listened to the radio show.

Nunberg is also in charge of most of the "usage notes" in The American Heritage Dictionary.

Originally posted to Kylopod on Wed Mar 18, 2009 at 05:32 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  What an infuriatingly stupid comment (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jules Beaujolais, The Raven

    For example, in an essay written around the time of the Gulf War, he notes how some TV announcers coined the word Baghdadi. He goes on from there to note that most nationalities in the Middle East end in an -i, and it's unusual for a suffix to be reserved for one area of the world. He connects this observation with the unique history and relationship the West has traditionally had with the Middle East.

    "TV announcers" did not "coin" the word Baghdadi -- it already existed in Arabic: بغدادی , an inhabitant of Baghdad.  Is it surprising that Baghdad's citizens should be described by the name they use for themselves?  What would he prefer? Baghdaders? Baghdadites? Baghdadians?

    As for why the names of nationalities in the Middle East end in an i, that's because most of the Middle East uses Arabic, either as a primary or secondary language, and the i happens to be an Arabic morpheme used (among other things) with placenames to create adjectives referring to place of origin.

    These are very easily ascertainable facts about demographics and language.  They do not indicate some insidious imperialist plot.

    •  Maybe you should read the essay (0+ / 0-)

      before attacking it. Any mistake there may be is in my brief description of the essay, not in the essay itself.

      Nunberg, for the record, did not say that American journalists "coined" the word. All he said was that they used a word that couldn't be found in any English-language dictionary. Not only was he perfectly aware that the suffix -i comes from Arabic, he mentioned that fact in the essay.

      As for your question, "Is it surprising that Baghdad's citizens should be described by the name they use for themselves?" that is addressed directly in the essay. Nunberg points out that in general, we (English speakers) do not refer to nationalities using suffixes or endings taken from the languages of said people. We don't refer to Italians as "Italiano," for example.

      I did misuse the word "coin." I incorrectly thought it to include the importation of words from another language. Based on that (minor) error of usage, you jumped to the conclusion that one of the major contributors to The American Heritage Dictionary is completely ignorant of the well-known origin of a common English morpheme. And you proceeded to lecture me on "facts" that were contained in the very essay I referenced.

      I welcome anyone to point out errors I may make, which I will gladly own up to, but I don't appreciate those who seem more interested in picking fights with people they don't know than in setting the record straight.

  •  Great series (0+ / 0-)

    I am enjoying these immensely. Will William Safire get a turn under the spotlight? George Lakoff?

    Every day's another chance to stick it to The Man. - dls.

    by The Raven on Wed Mar 18, 2009 at 07:10:26 AM PDT

  •  Neat series idea! (0+ / 0-)
    Sorry I missed yesterday's; I'm in chapter 2 of McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue right now.

    'Cause growing up is awfuller than all the awful things there ever were.

    by Waterbug on Wed Mar 18, 2009 at 07:49:47 AM PDT

  •  George Lakoff (0+ / 0-)

    I've enjoyed your series, but wish you had included more of their linguistic theories, but the links provide much to discuss (if one reads the links...)  

    George Lakoff mentioned in your Wikipedia commentary sounds interesting also.  Will he be featured in this series?

    "Man's life's a vapor Full of woe. He cuts a caper, Down he goes. Down de down de down he goes.

    by JFinNe on Thu Mar 19, 2009 at 06:17:47 AM PDT

    •  Well, first of all, it isn't "my" Wikipedia entry (0+ / 0-)

      I wrote most of the summary, but many others worked on the article before and since. Such is Wikipedia. I'm not the one who put in the link about George Lakoff. I read a short book by Lakoff, and I read Pinker's critique of Lakoff, which sounded compelling to me, but I'd have to read more of Lakoff's side to get a full sense of the debate. In sum, I am not as familiar with Lakoff as I am with the others in this series, and I haven't been markedly impressed by what I've seen so far.

      I do have more theories to discuss from Pinker, Nunberg, and McWhorter, and I may do so in future posts, but for now I wanted to give an overview.

      In hindsight, I could have mentioned Nunberg's spirited debate with Bernard Goldberg over liberal bias in the media.

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