Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Well-Regulated Militia

The second amendment has seemed to generate greater controversy than any other single amendment (Roe v. Wade involved both the 9th and 14th amendments). It is worth looking therefore at the language of that amendment from a theoretical linguistic standpoint. It reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Like any other spoken or written communication, its interpretation -- its significance, as I termed it in my blog on the meaning of meaning -- depends on its literal meaning, the linguistic and real world contextt in which it occurs, and assumptions about the intent of the speaker/author. This latter claim is required to account for how we interpret many of the utterances we encounter in the real world. Suppose for instance, I say (1)
(1) Can you reach the salt?
while eating at a large table with others. In that context, given that I can reasonably be assumed to have need of salt and other condiments, the utterance would be interpreted not as a pure information question but as a request for salt, the language of which acknowledging that the addressee may have to put him/herself out a bit to take possession of the salt. However, were I to say (1) to a paraplegic in a context in which we are in his/her kitchen and (a) we are not eating and so I have no expectable need for salt and (b) I am trying to arrange things so that my friend an function in it independently. In that context, it would normally be interpreted as being an information question which is the default, but not the only use of an interrogative sentence.

The most relevant contexts for the interpretation of the Second Amendment are the linguistic context and the real world context in which it was written. The linguistic context is one in which various restrictions are placed on the federal and state governments that prohibit them from infringing specific enumerated rights of individuals (and in a few cases rights of the states) as well as various unenumerated rights (Ninth Amendment) that are "retained by the people." These rights are presumably those that were assumed to hold at the time of the writing of the constitution. One such right would be the freedom to move from one place to another to find work or for any other reason (except to flee prosecution). Another would be the right to take any job one wanted that one could get. Still another would have been the right to own and use a musket or pistol for hunting and self-protection. This last fact is critical to understanding the intent of the writers of the second amendment. Since we can reasonably assume the writers of the Bill of Rights knew that ordinary citizens did own such weapons, if they meant to prohibit future ownership they would have said so.

A very serious problem with the composition of the second amendment is the position of the commas which are almost randomly sprinkled into the sentence. It reads, again, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." This is a clear mistake. It should read "A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." The point is that if one treats the phrase "being necessary to the security of a free State" as being in apposition to "A well regulated Militia" we would be left with an ungrammatical and incomprehensible sentence, namely.

A well regulated Militia the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This is total nonsense. As a result, we must see the phrase "being necessary to the security of a free State" as having "wide scope" over the sentence, that is, this phrase limits how the rest of the amendment is to be interpreted. The last comma is also ill-placed. Methinks that our founders suffered from an excess use of commas.

In my brief survey of the kinds of weapons individuals could have owned at the time of the writing of the 2nd amendment suggests that ordinary citizens had access only to single shot weapons. Percussion pistols were developed in the next century and so no revolvers can be found dated at the time of the writing of the constitution. Nevertheless one can buy revolvers and automatic pistols today in the United States. Gattling guns, a precursor to machine guns, were developed a century after the penning of the Bill of Rights). The closest thing to a shotgun at the time of the Revolution was a musket loaded with a single ball and three to six buckshot.

So, in interpreting the 2nd Amendment we have to take into consideration the weapons that were available for use by civilians for protection of the state and themselves as well as for hunting. Single shot weapons, if carried on one's person and loaded, could be used for personal defense only if the person threatening oneself had only a knife or had missed you with his single shot weapon, leaving him vulnerable to your single shot weapon. Otherwise these were fairly useless except for muskets used for hunting food. In fact, single shot weapons would have been useful for protection only when combined with others in a "well-regulated militia."

I am amazed that people want to own fireable gattling guns, machine pistols with multi-cartridge magazines, .50 caliber rifles, and other weapons of war. I can only guess at how the founders of the constitution might have felt about such a thing, but the language of the constitution is quite explicit -- there is no linguistic wriggle room. They are legitimized only by their inclusion in service of a "well-regulated militia." Since our forefathers were not idiots, we can fairly safely assume that they would never have meant to license personal ownership of any true weapon of war such as machine guns, .50 caliber rifles, machine pistols with multi-cartridge magazines, etc On the other hand, it can reasonably be assumed, I think, that they would have found the modern day equivalents to the kinds of weapons individuals owned for their personal use as acceptable, including revolvers (but not automatic pistols), true hunting rifles, and hunting shotguns(i. e., modern day muskets loaded with a ball and some buckshot).

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Still Another Witless Supreme Court Interpretation

The fifth amendment to the constitution concludes by saying

nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
As Neal Boortz says,
"For hundreds of years the term "public use" was interpreted to mean use for something like a school, library, police or fire station, power transmission lines, roads, bridges or some other facility owned and operated by government for the benefit of the general population."
Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, claims
The disposition of this case therefore turns on the question whether the City’s development plan serves a “public purpose.” Without exception, our cases have defined that concept broadly, reflecting our longstanding policy of deference to legislative judgments in this field.
But wait a damn minute. When did "public use" come to mean "public purpose"? "To use something", on its primary interpretation, which ought to be what the Supremes use in their interpretations of the constitution, implies that there is purpose to the action. It would not, for instance, make much sense to say something like
John used the golf club to accidentally break a window on his back swing.
But this fact does not entail that "public use" means "public purpose." This would be to confuse the end of an action with the action itself.

Note that if the principle of eminent domain is used by the government to take private property to create a park, then you and I, that is to say, the public, would have a right to use it. But if the government takes that property and hands it over to a private corporation to build a set of office buildings, you and I would not have the right to, say, lay a blanket down in one of the offices they build and have a picnic. That is to say no public use of the building would need to be involved according to the terms of this new ruling by the Supremes.

The Supremes clearly have a problem with the word "use" whether used as a verb or a noun, as in this case. I excoriated Justice O'Connor for her wrong-headed interpretation of the verb "use" in the earlier blog. But, in this case, Justice O'Connor is on the side of the angels. In her dissent, however, she lets us know what is wrong with the narrow sort of interpretation of "public use" I have just sketched. She claims that

But “public ownership” and “use-by-the-public ”are sometimes too constricting and impractical ways to define the scope of the Public Use Clause.
This is an instructive passage. The "scope" of any passage ought to be restricted by the meaning of the language of that passage, but Justices Stevens and O'Connor seem not to understand that. Instead, practicality rules.

It is reasonable to say that we must expand the scope of the meaning of a provision of the constitution because circumstances have arisen that did not exist at the time the constitution was framed and there is every reason to believe that the expansion is consistent in principle with the intent of the framers. But a majority of our very conservative Supreme Court seems not to care about meaning when they have a chance to enrich the rich. As Justice O'Connor notes,

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result.
Actually, there is nothing random about such a result. That is the American way -- take from the poor and middle class and give to the rich, the social policy of Bush and Cheney, and sadly, of the Supremes as well.

Some liberals will surely note, as russell did in my prior blog, that similar distortions of constitutional language have been made in the interests of liberal causes. If that is so, then that is a very good reason not to distort the constitution for liberal causes for that opens the door for equivalent distortions by conservatives. What is good for the goose...


I elided a paragraph saying that this issue of condeming private property and handing it over to private developers whose property will generate more tax money would unite conservatives and liberals and it did. The House has already voted to deny federal funds to any such enterprise with both conservatives and liberals being united but, obviously for quite different reasons -- to conservatives private property is sacrosanct and to liberals there is the concern that poor people will be uprooted and may have no place to go, the existence of housing for the poor being being quite limited in many cases.

Of course, Bush-style Neocons would be quite happy with the ruling of the Supremes for their decision enriches the rich, the primary desideratum of the Bush Administration.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Another Witless Linguistic Error by the Supremes

In Section 8 of the U. S. Constitution, it asserts that

The Congress shall have Power...To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

This provision has recently been used by the Supremes to justify upholding the position that federal anti-drug laws can trump state laws that allow the growing of marijuana for private use by individuals to relieve suffering.

What, you ask, does growing six marijuana plants for private use have to do with interstate commerce? Nothing of course. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, whom I have criticized in a prior blog takes the position that

The majority's opinion, said O'Connor, "is tantamount to removing meaningful limits on the Commerce Clause." Applied to the facts in the case, the majority's definition of economic activity "is breathtaking." Indeed, the court threatens "to sweep all of productive human activity into federal regulation reach."

Where is the commerce in this case? O'Connor could not find it: "The homegrown cultivation and personal possession and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has no apparent commercial character." The marijuana at issue "was never in the stream of commerce and neither were the supplies for growing it." There is "simply no evidence that homegrown medicinal marijuana users" constitute a discernible, let alone substantial market in illicit drugs.

This passage I have lifted from an op-ed piece by James Kilpatrick, whom I have also criticized in a prior blog. Kilpatrick this time takes the correct position by siding with Justice O'Connor.

Indeed it is hard to see where commerce would be involved in the growing of marijuana by an individual exclusively for his or her own use. The predicate "regulate Commerce among the several States" has a clear or plain meaning according to which there must be an exchange of some sort by which some entity (person or business) obtains goods or services from some entity in another state by supplying something of value to the entity providing the goods and services. The key word here is "exchange." Manifestly, in growing six marijuana plants exclusively for private use, there is no exchange of one thing for another bytwo entities, much less entities in two different states.

So, how is it that Justice John Paul Stevens could maintain that the growing of six marijuana plants exclusively for private use constitutes commerce? In a story by Linda Greenhouse in The New York Times she writes that Justice John Paul Stevens claimed that

the court's precedents had clearly established "Congress' power to regulate purely local activities that are part of an economic 'class of activities' that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce.
This is, of course, presupposes a monumentally stupid application of the phrase "regulate commerce among the several states." By his argument, my baking bread at home could be prohibited by Congress on the grounds that bread baking is part of an economic class of activities (i.e., bread baking) that has a substantial effect on interstate commerce. In fact, the growing of marijuana for sale by an entity in one state to an entity in another state, would be a legimate instance of a "class of activities that have a substantial effect on interestate commerce" (if I understand this phrase correctly). But does Justice Stevens wish to provide protection for the illegal sale of marijuana across state lines by limiting growth intended for the exclusive use of the individual growing the marijuana? That would be an interesting application of the law.

What we have here is another effort of the Extreme Right Wing to impose its views of morality on the rest of us. In this case it is the Bush administration's Justice Department's effort to void the state law protecting use of medical marijuana. Justice Stevens suggests that Congress might remedy the problem faced by those who maintain that they need marijuana to relieve the suffering they endure. That is a silly suggestion. I just can't see a Congress that wanted to interfere in the Terri Schiavo case to force the husband of this poor woman to abide by their perverse pro-life views somehow deciding that it is okay for people to grow marijuana for private use.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, William Rehnquist, and Clarence Thomas dissented. Antonin Scalia sided with the majority. In a prior blog, I claimed that Justice Scalia tended to get the interpretation of language right. I hereby retract that statement.

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Parts of Speech

In a response to a comment on my Kilpatrick blog, I found myself waxing on about parts of speech. That is a sort of boring subject, I know, but I think I can make it at least somewhat interesting by saying something you have never heard before and contribute to people's understanding of the issues involved in determining parts of speech -- something James Kilpatrick is totally clueless about.

Typically people comment on the parts of speech of the words in sentences without in any way making clear what the foundations of their claims are. There was a time when Latin grammatical classifications guided those analyzing English. This was a monumentally bad idea because Latin has properties English does not have and conversely.

So, English must be described independently of assumptions about other specific languages except in one respect. Linguists often use the term "universal grammar" meaning by that that there should be certain principles of language that are shared (but not necessarily in identical ways or to the same degree) by all languages. What is a "verb" in one language will have to be consistent with what we say a "verb" is in every other language. This is where it gets interesting.

Consider, for instance, the adjective-verb distinction. Let might begin by citing an especially mindless definition of "adjective":
Adjectives are words that describe or modify another person or thing in the sentence. The Articles — a, an, and the — are adjectives.
So, we are to understand that adjectives modify human beings per se. They may attribute properties to human beings but they don't modify them. Plastic surgery modifies human beings. An adjective might modify a noun that refers to a human being but that is something different. This one is a bit better:
Words which are used to modify nouns or pronouns are usually referred to as adjectives
What remains is to say what we mean by "modify." That, boys and girls, is a toughie.

In English, as these definitions suggest, we seem to have a clear distinction between adjectives and verbs, at least on the surface. But Chinese and some other languages do not make a sharp distinction. "He bigs," for instance, could mean "He is big" or "He is growing" depending on the context. The utterances of Asian languages generally, speaking, depend on context much more than English seems to and have less morphology even than English.

Words which are used to modify nouns or pronouns are usually referred to as adjectives
What remains is to say what we mean by "modify." That, boys and girls, is a toughie.

In English, as these definitions suggest, we seem to have a clear distinction between adjectives and verbs, at least on the surface. But Chinese and some other languages do not make a sharp distinction. "He bigs," for instance, could mean "He is big" or "He is growing" depending on the context. The utterances of Asian languages generally, speaking, depend on context much more than English seems to and have less morphology even than English.

So, if we make a sharp adjective-verb distinction for English, what are we to do with Chinese? Once one starts thinking about that and gives English a closer look, we find that perhaps the adjective-verb distinction is not as great in English as we thought. There are two prongs to our approach to resolving this conundrum.

It is widely agreed in linguistics that the major categories, of which the most important are noun phrase and verb phrase, have heads that share similarities with the phrase as a whole. Nouns are, of course, the heads of noun phrases. In some cases nouns exhibit number, as in the distinction between "boy" and "boys." This grammatical marker might seem to determine agreement in the verb for verbs that show it, as in
(1) The boy is happy.

(2) The boys are happy.

But what are we to do with:
(3) The boy and the girl are happy.

Here it is the noun phrase as a whole, not the constituent nouns, that is plural. It gets more complicated as language always does with a case like this:
(4) The boys or the girl is happy.

Nevertheless, both nouns and noun phrases are involved in number. So, determining parts of speech is a downward (from phrase to head) and an upward (from head to phrase) looking enterprise.

What are we to do with the following:
(5) John likes Mary.

(6) John is happy.
Arguably, both "likes Mary" and "is happy" are verb phrases. Suppose we adopt as our criterion for what is the head of a verb phrase that it bear number. Given that criterion, "likes" and "is" are our verbs. Now, in other contexts, "is" (i. e., "be" in one form or another) is a "helping verb." Examples are
(7) John is being arrested.

(8) John was arrested.
Here we would seem to want to say that the "main" verb or "true" head is "arrest" and "is" and "being" and "was" are helping verbs. But wait a minute. "Happy" in (6) sits right where "arrested" sits in (8), immediately after the verb "be." Moreover, the important content of the verb phrase in (6) is contributed by "happy" not "is." What is more, in many languages, and in some versions of African-American English Vernacular to boot, the verb "be" would not appear in a case like (6) unless it is negative or plural (but different languages handle these cases differently).

Now consider the fact that there are compound sentences in which we create ellipses in verb phrases. Consider

(9) John is going to the store and Joe is too.

(10) John was being arrested and Joe was too.

(11) John is happy today and Joe is too.
If we are to have a simple characterization of what is elided in these cases, we might want to consider the possibility that not only "is going to the store" is a verb phrase with "is" as its head but that "going to the store" is a verb phrase with "going" as its head. Similarly, "was being arrested" is a verb phrase with "was" as head; "being arrested" is a verb phrase with "being" as head; and "arrested is a verb phrase (note it could be extended with "by a policeman") with "arrested" as the head. This creates a hierarchy of verb phrases, one included within another, going down to the smallest verb phrase. This allows us to say that what is elided in every case is a verb phrase. I would argue, similarly, that "is happy today" is a verb phrase with "is" as head and "happy today" is a verb phrase with "happy" as the head -- as the head what? As the head verb.

I don't really expect all of you to believe this. I'm not sure I am 100% down with it myself, but the discussion should convince you not to take seriously or, at least, not to uncritically buy into the sorts of superficial grammatical analyses given by nitwits like James Kilpatrick or of grammarians that resort to silly or obtuse definitions of the sort we looked at above for adjectives.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Kilpatrick is, like, an ignoramous

The Conservative curmudgeon, James Kilpatrick, has declared that use of "like" rather than "such as" in drawing comparisons is wrong and has taken the New York Times to task not just for using it but adding it to its style manual. Kilpatrick writes:

The Times modestly identifies its Manual of Style and Usage as "the Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World's Most Authoritative Newspaper." On page 190, we find this piece of misguided guidance:

"Like is the preferred expression (rather than 'such as') in this kind of phrase: painters like Rubens."
He goes on to say
The problem lies in the many functions of "like." It may be dragooned into service as a verb: They like baseball. It is a noun: We shall not see his like again. It is an adjective: The team buys suits of like design. It has been a preposition since the 13th century: Her room is like a pigsty. It is a teenager's all-purpose adverb: She is, like, gorgeous. Finally, and thoughtlessly, as the Times recommends, it may be misused as a conjunction: "He carried a bag like a doctor carries." Aaargh!
Interestingly, Dictionary.com notes that the "conjunction" use of "like," as in "To dance like she does requires great discipline" has been around for quite a long time itself. It says
Writers since Chaucer's time have used like as a conjunction, but 19th-century and 20th-century critics have been so vehement in their condemnations of this usage that a writer who uses the construction in formal style risks being accused of illiteracy or worse.

Kilpatrick's only argument against the New York Time's stylistic choice seems to be that "like" has too many functions for this one to be accepted. The problem with this nonsequitur of an argument is that many words have a multiplicity of functions. "Consider the verb, "be." Not that it is any great lexicographic authority but Dictionary.com gives "be" 19 entries. Alors! The otherwise harmless word "to" gets ten entries. Surely this cannot be tolerated. Actually, what cannot be tolerated is pathetic arguments like (such as) the one given by Kilpatrick. The claim that such and such use of a word is objectionable because it increases the number of uses has no legitimacy either as a linguistic or stylistic principle.

Kilpatrick seems to like the preposition use of "like," as in his example, "Her room is like a pigsty." But wait a damn minute! "Like is not a preposition in this case. Notice that one can say, "Her room is quite like a pigsty" or "Her room is somewhat like a pigsty." That suggests that "like" is more like an adjective than a preposition for adjectives can and prepositions cannot be modified by "quite" and "somewhat" (cf. "He is quite/somewhat happy" and "*He is quite/somewhat in the room" -- we linguists use "*" to mark deviant forms.) (Please understand that in marking a form as deviant I do not mean to say poets and people trying to be clever might not use it to good effect.) Moreover, it can be paraphrased by the adjectival form "similar to" as in "Her room is similar to a pigsty." Are we going to take guidance on language from a man who cannot distinguish an adjective from a preposition? I suggest not."

It is hard to distinguish the adjectival use of "like" just discussed from the so-called conjunction use Kilpatrick disdains, namely that found in "He carried a bag like a doctor carries." This sentence can be parsed along the lines of "He carried a bag which is like/similar to that which a doctor carries." In short, the so-called conjunction use is actually adjectival in nature.

Kilpatrick is taking the most superficial possible view of linguistic form for he take what he sees at face value. That is probably because he has no linguistic analytical skills whatever despite his long interest in language.

The semantic analysis of many types of constructions will be quite complex. Notice, for instance, how much more complex the construction "He carried a bag which is like that which a doctor carries" is than the construction "He carried a bag like a doctor carries." They communicate the same thing, which is to say that the odds are that the semantic analysis of the latter will be as complex as that of the former.

Linguistic forms come at us at blazing speed in many types of contexts and to understand them we must very rapidly process them. One way that is facilitated is to reduce complex forms to forms that are simpler, which usually means "shorter." This is the origin of the so-called "preposition" use Kilpatrick likes and the so-called "conjunction" use he dislikes. Both are adjectival in origin. To object to the New York Times styllistic choice is silly. Moreover, one would think that the fact that the so-called "conjunction" use of "like" has been around since the time of Chaucer would clinch the case for a linguistic conservative like Kilpatrick for it is even older than he is.

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Sunday, June 12, 2005

Word Counts as a Measure of Bias

In a comment to my blog on Journalistic Bias I was directed to a blog that concerns itself solely with comparing CNN and Fox news. In it, the author compares the number of words devoted to a US air attack on insurgents vs the number devoted to insurgent activities. The stories were at
CNN and Fox.

The author's findings were
# of words about the U.S. airstrike / # of words about recent insurgent attacks
CNN: 66 / 736
FOX: 215 / 67

Just counting words is a mindless way to determine bias. It really does matter what the words say. A large story on the air strikes might focus on the apparent lack of success of the US military in ridding the country of insurgents, which, of course, would present a negative picture of US actions in Iraq. A shorter story might focus on the success of the attack and provide a positive spin on the significance of the attacks.

In both stories, reference was made to the 40 insurgents killed in the air attacks. The author of the blog claims that the Fox story adds information about the air strikes CNN does not mention, specifically saying
“U.S. fighter planes equipped with precision-guided missiles launched airstrikes … killing about 40 insurgents who were stopping and searching civilian cars"
This is true, but the CNN story also provides descriptive material concerning the attack, some not mentioned by Fox. Consider:
The Marines' attack against the insurgent compound and surrounding area involved jets and attack helicopters from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the Marines said. They were assigned to Regimental Combat Team-2.
The reference to US "precision-guided" weapons in the Fox story evokes all of the exaggerated and sometimes false claims made by the military during the first Iraq war. The Fox story does not say that no civilians were killed, which is an interesting omission in this context since the point of saying the US used precision-guided weapons would normally be that they were intended to be precise enough in hitting the intended targets to avoid harming civilians. Interestingly, the CNN article does mention that no civilians were killed (according to the military). CNN reported:
The statement said no Marines were killed, and there were no reports of civilian casualties.
I note with interest CNN's saying "the statement said ..." Perhaps the reporters' caution results from their recollection of all of the misrepresentations during the Vietnam war of body counts and the misrepresentations during the first Iraq war of just how precise US weapons were.

Our blogger misrepresents the CNN story in saying:
While CNN notes that those attacked were armed, they do not explain what they were doing in the town. Fox had also included this information: “[the insurgents] had "set up a barricade on a main road to the city and were threatening Iraqi civilians," the military said.”
The fact is, the CNN story he links to says:
[The insurgents] had been stopping vehicles at gunpoint and threatening Iraqi civilians attempting to travel through their checkpoint, Marines said.
This counts as explaining what the insurgents were doing.

Unfortunately, if there was any bias involved in this blog, it was that of the blogger, who falsely represented the CNN story in two particulars, saying falsely that CNN did not provide descriptive material about the nature of the US attack, which it did, and saying that the CNN article did not explain why these particular insurgents were being targted, which it did. In my opinion, neither article was biased in any pernicious way.

I, of course, am biased. I don't trust anything the military says or anything that comes out of the Defense Department about what is going on in Iraq (or anywhere else) militarily. There is no prejudice involved in my feelings about the veracity of the US military -- my skepticism, which has risen, I fear, to the level of cynicism, has been learned from experiences that go back to the Vietnam War and includes talking with combat veterans. It may be an inherent feature of the military that it will lie (and I include all militaries of all countries) since they are in an ugly business and need frequently to put a smiley face on what they do. I will believe that the US military and the new Iraqi army and police force are winning the war against insurgents when the insurgency stops. Interim reports are a waste of time.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Success through Language!

Remove Obstacles in Your Path
Gain Confidence, Respect, and Poise
in just 15 minutes a day!

Who could resist such an appeal? I heard a radio ad this morning from Verbal Advantage touting their method of improving one's vocabulary and as this quotation from their web site says they offer an increase in confidence, respect, and poise simply by increasing your vocabulary.

There is no question that when relatively uneducated people unexpectedly find a microphone in front of their faces and start trying to answer questions from a television reporter they seem to have this unavoidable urge to elevate their verbal style and reach for words that they don't really understand. It can get pretty ugly. Verbal Advantage has the answer for them it seems. If they will just learn more words confidence, respect, and poise will be theirs.

When I heard this radio ad, I thought immediately of John Braine's novel, "Room at the Top," which was published in 1957. Just two years later, it was turned into a very successful movie with Lawrence Harvey and Simone Signoret (who won an Oscar). In this book/movie, the Harvey character is intent on ridding himself of the trappings of his working class background and, among other things, devoted himself to replacing his working class dialect with some more respectable version of British English. Interestingly, nothing I have found while Googling and Yahooing this novel/book mentions this character's work on improving his speech. But that is what most deeply impressed me, perhaps foreshadowing my gradual move into linguistics.

Back to Verbal Advantage. There is no question that just as how you talk reflects who you are -- where you are from, your social class, your gender, your age, etc. -- how you talk will determine what sorts of work you will likely get. The psycholinguist Bill Labov did a famous study of "r"-dropping in New York in which he surveyed how sales clerks pronounced "fourth floor" at three department stores, Sax's, Macy's, and a now defunct store that catered to the working class. In New York (unlike Boston), dropping the "r's" of words like these is stigmatized and he hypothesized that clerks in an upper crust store like Sax Fifth Avenue would on balance drop fewer "r's" than those in Macy's, and clerks in the now defunct store would drop the greatest number of "r's." His method was to find out what was on the fourth floor and ask clerks where that item could be found. As expected, he found that just as these stores were socially stratified in regard to the kinds of customers they were attempting to reach, they were stratified lingusitically. In Macy's he also found stratification between those who clerked in "better women's clothing" and those who worked in the bargain basement.

There are two explanations for why Labov might have gotten the results he got. One is that how people talked during interviews determined where they would get work. The other is that how people talked reflected the kinds of customers they served. As Labov notes, the sociologist, C. Wright Mills claimed that "sales girls" (a pre-PC characterization) bask in the reflected esteem of the people they serve and will tend to emulate them at least in superficial ways (a rough characterization). I suspect that both factors are at work.

The lesson for those interested in Verbal Advantage is that simply learning more words won't win you "Confidence, Respect, and Poise" unless you already speak Standard English and you learn the right words. I am curious (but not curious enough to buy their materials) what sort of vocabulary these people teach. Perhaps they learn fancy words like "deconstruction" and other verbal toys of the literary elite. That will make them a hit at the neighborhood tavern.

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Friday, June 03, 2005

Journalistic Bias

For years the Right Wing has vigorously tried to persuade Americans that journalists generally have a liberal bias. In the late '60s and early '70s, until the press ceased parroting the military's briefings and press releases about the Vietnam War and actually began to cover the war, liberals vigorously and correctly (in my not always humble opinion) tried to persuade us that the press had an "establishment" or even conservative bias.

I have no doubt that many journalists are anything from liberal-leaning centrists to liberal. But, as Robert Novak confessed yesterday (see blog title link), there are actually conservative jouralists. Shocking! He says of Robert W. Merry, whom he tells us is "a respected Washington journalist"

Merry over the years has been an objective journalist but considers himself a conservative and is said by friends to be a Republican who voted for Bush.
and then says
Merry, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is president and publisher of Congressional Quarterly -- which seeks cool objectivity rather than passionate advocacy.
You will have to forgive me for thinking that Novak is engaged here in a bit of special pleading. And please forgive me for thinking that Novak doth protest too much in twice assuring us of the man's objectivity.

What is so astonishing about the Right Wing claim of a liberal journalistic bias is that conservatives, by and large, and even right wingers (think "Robert Murdoch") -- that is to say, rich people and corporations -- own most of the mainstream media outlets. In Columbus, Ohio, for instance, we are forced to endure two penurious Sinclair-owned television stations that on occasion unapologetically takes explictly right wing actions, especially during the recent election such as broadcasting an anti-Kerry documentary.

Now, I am supposed to restrict myself to language here so I must quit having fun at Novak's expense, who, after all, is a very easy target being autoparodic, as he is. Let me say, first, though that when one claims that this or that specific article is biased it is imperative that one factor in one's own bias in the assessment. Of course, we rarely, if ever, do that. But this is very important. Imagine that the MS Word Ruler Word Ruler represents the range of political positions of fairly normal people with, say, the range between "2" and "4" representing the political middle allowing for liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning centrists, with 0.5 representing a doctrinaire liberal position and 5.5 representing a doctrinaire conservative position. Naturally, if you are sitting at 0.5 and read a newspaper article on Iraq taking a 3.5 point of view, you will tend to see it as taking a conservative (as opposed to conservative-leaning centrist) or even right wing position because the position is so far from yours on the political scale.) The same, of course, is true of someone sitting at 5.5 reading an article that takes a 2.5 point of view. That article will likely be perceived as having a liberal or even leftist or downright Commie perspective. Putting aside my spatial metaphor, I think we could all agree (if we are honest and reasonably good at self-appraisal) that we tend to see our positions as "correct" and "objective" and those that deviate from them as incorrect and probably biased.

And now, finally, something about language. I replicated a study done years ago on how Time magazine reported on the speech of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy in my book The Language of Politics", now available for the shocking price of $200 (don't buy it, of course). The study focused on the verbs of reported speech, the most neutral of which is "say." Time employed more than just verbs, often resorting to more colorful expressions: "said with a big grin/scowl" is the sort of thing I have in mind. The study found a negative bias toward Truman and a positive bias toward Eisenhower. In my study, I focused on how Time, Newsweek, and USN&WR reported on the speech of President Reagan and Senator Mondale over a ten week period following the political conventions. I took the various verbal characterizations of the speech of these two men, gave them neutral content, and asked subjects (my students) to evaluate each with respect to various scalar predicates. I asked whether the language used represented the speaker as excitable-calm, rash-cautions, inaccurate-accurate, unsuccessful-successful, and weak-strong. No matter how I bent the data, I could find no statistically significant, systematic bias for or against either candidate though there was a consistent tendency to portray Reagan more positively than Mondale. But, as I said, this result was not statistically significant.

Though it would never occur to Robert Novak to do so, claims of bias or objectivity need to be defended with facts for otherwise they will likely merely be products of one's own bias.

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