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« Writing about Work (Dean) | Main | Summer Hiatus »

June 04, 2009


I've been chewing on a response to this post that keeps heading in a couple directions. For one, I love its nuanced approach. Has Narayan vindicated Sapir-Whorf? Even so, nobody opposed to Sotomayor would buy it. "C'mon now, she knew what she meant, and so do we!," I imagine a typical reply.

My more pronounced take on all this is tangential. I don't understand how anybody gets away with the good-for-the-goose-good-for-the-gander argument that concludes Sotomayor is a racist. It's a response that reveals a deep (probably often willful) ignorance of racism. The phenomenon of white men systematically marginalizing Latinas by, among other tactics, questioning the wisdom of their judgment is not reciprocal. Switching places doesn't make a Latina a racist. A Latina who questions the wisdom of a white man--precisely by virtue of his being a white man--is not thereby participating in racism. Besides, to a great extent it is meaningless to ascribe racism to an individual. Racism is systematically perpetuated. It's not a club of which one elects to be a member.

This is all plain as day to me, so I weary of arguing it.

I also think that Sotomayor came up in law school during an era when critical legal studies was just beginning to receive recognition and the power of identity, narrative, and context were factors in studying the law.

Fascinating post and comments, Ruchira. Bring back Narayan!

It's true -- highly educated native speakers of English screw up grammar all the time, making errors that would tag them as not so educated if the conversation were taking place in Italian, for instance. Only in American English is it normal to hear and read very "informal" usages in full-dress speeches and papers. I sometimes think my mother and her parents would not make it through a day of contemporary social or professional life without feeling stabbed by all the ungrammatical usages that are now routine. I marvel at them myself, and then pull back from such a class-based preoccupation. If you were writing a fiction, you would have only to make a character perfectly grammatical to get across that she was stuffy and someone to dislike. All this would be seriously regrettable except for one big thing -- in language, majority rule is the only real and relevant rule, the only one with any clout.

Not so incidentally, I DO know what Judge Sotomayor meant -- thanks to Narayan!

As a thoroughly bilingual (may be even multilingual) person, I find Narayan's speculation about Judge Sotomayor very plausible.

As for bringing Narayan back, he comes and goes as he likes (he is always welcome) as do all my regular co-bloggers!

I have had the privilege of arguing almost every conceivable subject with Narayan. The consequence: I have learned things. His active intellect is evident in this piece. I would punctuate it by saying that his hypothesis that the "acceptance over time of sloppiness and imprecision" extends far beyond any argument on the subjunctive mood.

The "acceptance over time of sloppiness and imprecision" may be a function of the second law of thermodynamics. There could be an economic component to it, too. I'm thinking of the ease with which one might order a (really bad) beer, thus: "Bud." That's a sloppy expression of the proper name, but it is not imprecise.

I disagree with Elatia that majority rule is all there is to the utility of language. Poetic allusion typically will not appeal to a majority of speakers of the language in which the poetry is written, because poetry can be oblique and its appreciation usually requires familiarity with bodies of work (poetic or otherwise) beyond the instant poem. For example, critics have described John Ashbery's "Untilted" [not a typo] as a work rich with allusions to Elizabeth Bishop's "The Man-Moth," including echoes of particular words. (I did not know this, despite my having read both Ashbery and Bishop. I've had to search for treatments of Ashbery's poems to locate discussions of his use of allusion.) The significance of these words, then, is special for those few who recognize their use by poets. No majority can dispose of it.

I came upon an instance today of a common grammatical error while listening to Larry Tye being interviewed by Dave Davies on "Fresh Air" about his recent book on Satchel Paige. Listening to the interview on air a second time, and a third time via podcast, I was left with the distinct impression that it was a carefully orchestrated interview, if not scripted and rehearsed (no aaahs, ummms, welllls, etc; responses perfectly tuned to questions and scarcely a breath between). Speaking of an example of Paige's efforts at standing up for his race, Tye says, "When he said I won't come there unless you will serve me and my players at the restaurant ..., he was defying Jim Crow standards …". The problem is the offending and unnecessary ‘will’.

One analysis is that Tye is churlish enough to cite a grammatical error committed by his subject. A second is that he is passing off reported speech as direct speech, leaving the listener to interpolate the quotation marks, as in “When he said, ‘I won’t come unless you will serve …’, he was defying …”. (Sic, sic, sic! This sort of mis-speak is in vogue today and is fast gaining legitimacy. Presidents, ministers, newsreaders, all do it, so it must be OK.) The third explanation, which I favor, is that (a) it is Tye’s error and (b) that he is comfortable with that locution.

To cut to the chase, native English speakers (even published authors and journalists with the Boston Globe, as is Tye) are puzzled by such subjunctive constructs because they haven’t been taught a rule about it – high school English teachers must be exhausted from sticking their fingers in other holes in the dyke. One is left to pick up the implied rule through critical reading and listening. Spanish speakers are not so hampered; their rule, in this instance, is that the conjunction ‘unless’ always requires the subjunctive – with none of the confusion of shall/will and should/would that plagues English speakers.

A pox on the English-only yahoos! There’s much to learn from others (other==ajeno; alien==ajeno).

"All this would be seriously regrettable except for one big thing -- in language, majority rule is the only real and relevant rule, the only one with any clout."

If I had my druthers that's how it would be, but it certainly ain't so! Consider only people who're convinced that there's a platonic pronunciation of nuclear, divergence from which makes a few hundred million people idiots...

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