Monday, November 29, 2021

For the Record: McWhorter

Divinity, via Cold Belly.

Apparently John McWhorter doesn't think being eminent in the field of linguistics qualifies anybody to talk about history or politics.

But it's OK if you're a Republican. That's where people really value amateurism.

Actually, John H. McWhorter V is, by self-description quoted in Wikipedia, a "cranky liberal Democrat", cranky because he "sustainedly disagree[s] with many of the tenets of the Civil Rights orthodoxy" (50 points for "sustainedly") but an Obama supporter. He just sounds like a social-scientist version of Bill Cosby. He early displayed his ability as a young black man to claw his way to success without it being given to him from "on high" by being born to a Philadelphia college administrator (John H. McWhorter IV) and college professor (of social work, no less) who sent him to Friends Select School, Simons Rock College (early college program for 11th and 12th graders), Rutgers, NYU, and Stanford, where he got his Ph.D. in 1993. 

I should add that this privileged upbringing does not in any way detract from his accomplishments; he's a very good writer of popular treatments of linguistics and sociolinguistics (most recently with Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter), and his scholarly work in sociolinguistics (of which the broadest statement seems to be the 2011 Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity: Why Do Languages Undress?) is pretty adventurous and well executed, focusing on creoles, languages that develop out of a confrontation between languages, like Haitian Creole, Indonesian/Malay, Swahili, or (as McWhorter correctly points out) French, Italian, and English.

I have some trouble, I think, with his basic thesis, which is that you can recognize a creole without knowing anything about its history, on the basis of some basic measures of "simplicity", which creoles have and non-creoles don't.

One problem, which McWhorter shares with most of the discipline in my opinion, is the question of how you identify simplicity. For instance McWhorter says noun declensions, as in Latin, are a complexity, and getting rid of them, as Italian does, is a simplification; but if the move is from a complex Latin word (Romae, "to Rome") to an Italian prepositional phrase (a Roma), how is that less complex? It's syntacticalized, but it's not simplified at all. McWhorter has been accused of substituting an English-speaker's bias for an actual measure (in the Eurocentric assertion, for instance, that tone languages are more complex than languages that don't do that thing). In grammar, they like to give us a single example of where Haitian Creole is unarguably "simpler" than French

But does anybody who ever uses French think that constipated structure could be used in speech, in the first place? (I can come up immediately with a better alternative—Ils manquent des ressources qui les permettraient de résister—that would surely be less complex compared to a Haitian equivalent, and I'm not nearly as sure-footed in the language as I'd like to be). But it's a constant problem within the Chomksyan paradigm, from which McWhorter doesn't detach himself, that they draw "evidence" from sentences nobody but a newspaper pundit would ever use—my favorite is an early Chomsky example, "Divinity may frighten the boy." That may not look complex, but try to imagine the circumstances in which you might utter it—are they talking about an actual god or goddess showing up out of nowhere, or a "divinity school" academic subject, or fudge?)

Then there's the question of power relations, which is going to affect which language is chosen as the "language of lexification", and probably what kind of simplification takes place. In the case of the French in Haiti in the 18th century, where the French chose French as the language of lexification (on the usual principle that if you speak very loudly and slowly and with a limited vocabulary, the Africans will be bound to pick up something sooner or later), it came out one way (the grammar wasn't really all that different, and the sound system was radically changed), while in 11th-century England, where the  Normans themselves had only been speaking French for a century or so, and chose Old English as the language of lexification, it came out quite differently (the sound system held fairly steady for a couple of centuries, and the most radical change, perhaps, was in the vocabulary).

Then the cases of one-to-many creolization as in the ancient Lingua Franca of Mediterranean sailors, who composed a creole in which there was no single language of lexicalization but rather an equality of Italian, Sardinian, Sicilian, Provençal, French, Catalan, Spanish, and Portuguese, and probably more, not to mention the Greek, Maltese, Turkish, Arabic, and Berber, and different kinds of Jews, and who knows what kinds of other speakers—what language would McWhorter claim was being simplified, exactly? The same holds for Malay, covering speakers of all the Austronesian languages form the South African Cape and Madagascar to the Philippines and maybe Taiwan. I claimed, in research I may yet try to publish some day, that the very complex Malay of the Melaka sultanate and Javanese of Yogyakarta and Solo were formed in abreaction to the lingua franca shared by Chinese and Portuguese and Arab and Hindustani and Chettiar and Parsi and Tamil and Syrian Christian and Baghdadi Jewish residents of Melaka and Sundanese and Sumatran and Balinese and Bugis and Dutch residents of the future Jakarta—that the courtly languages may have been as much a complication of the lingua franca as the other way around. 

Swahili, for the Bantu speakers of East Africa and Arabs up and down the urban parts of the coast is the same, and I'll bet there are analagous examples from pre-colonial North and South America. Swahili is grammatically and tonally simpler than the Bantu languages it substituted for, but it is also infinitely more urbanized, ready to express very difficult technological or philosophical concepts, as are modern English and French to the medieval languages they replaced. Whereas "Mandarin", the simplified Beijing dialect imposed on the speakers of 20 or more languages of the Yuan and Ming dynasties, created top-down, may really not have the same subtlety as Cantonese or the urban speech of Shanghai, or the Beijing dialect that still survives in teahouses and hutong.

In short, McWhorter may be damn smart, but he doesn't cover the waterfront the way he thinks he does. I don't know exactly why I'm telling you this, except by way of imploring you to expect that, if somebody tells you some analysis of some human phenomenon is better because it's simpler, they're probably wrong, and McWhorter is probably wrong too, even on subjects where he knows what he's talking about and with all due respect, and it's probably the same with history as with linguistics.

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