Linguists

I am a devoted follower of Language Log, a blog (published right here on WordPress) in which a number of first-rate academic linguists post articles on all kinds of language-related matters, not limited to academic linguistics. I have always been fascinated by language and very interested in linguistics, to the extent that I consider myself an amateur linguist (in the same way that people can be amateur astronomers or botanists, though probably not physicists). Most of the Language Log contributors are hospitable to, and respectful of, comments from the lay readership, and I have not been shy about posting comments of my own.

The number of categories covered by Language Log’s posters is vast (to see the list, click + at Categories on the home page). One of them is Peeving: the tendency on the part of many people to disparage aspects of language as used by other people, including such reactions as word aversion or word rage, baseless prescriptivism, and so on. One of the leading Language Log contributors, Arnold Zwicky, provided (in his own blog) a listing of peeving-related postings up to about a year ago, and more recent ones can be found in the peeving archive of Language Log itself.

But sometimes the linguists at LL can get pretty peevish themselves. What rouses their ire (as opposed to mere amusement) may be journalistic clichés known as snowclones (“Eskimos have X words for snow,” “Language X has no word for Y,” “The Chinese word for crisis is…”), bad media descriptions of scientific results (especially by the BBC), and, most notably, misuse of linguistic terminology. Here, nothing gets our linguists (especially Geoffrey K. Pullum) as indignant as the use of passive voice (or, worse yet, passive tense) in a sense other than the standard grammatical one (here is a typical post by Geoff on this subject).

It’s true, people often describe constructions in English as passive when they are impersonal, though they may be grammatically in the active voice. An example cited by Geoff Pullum in the post I refer to is by Matt Taibbi, quoting President Obama’s “penalties are too weak” as a case in point of what Taibbi calls the “use of the passive tense.”

But there is a good reason for this confusion. English has no special way of expressing impersonal action. It lacks an impersonal subject pronoun like the German man or the French on (man spricht Deutsch, on parle français), or the subjectless reflexive in Spanish or ltalian (se habla español, si parla italiano). The default English equivalent is English (is) spoken. (The omission of the copula is is typical of signs and headlines in English, but not speech, except for mock-primitive talk, as in me Tarzan, you Jane.) In my experience as a translator I have often found that the (true) passive is the most natural way of rendering an impersonal construction of this type. It seems quite natural for the term passive to have been generalized in everyday speech beyond its specific grammatical meaning.

I don’t hear physicists complaining about lay people using quantum leap to mean ‘a large change’ or lightyears meaning ‘a long time.’ Physicists have, after all, appropriated the largely synonymous force, power, strength and energy, and given them very specific (and distinct) meanings in mechanics.

Linguists are no different in this regard. Grammar once meant the study of a literary language, such as Homeric Greek in the Hellenistic world or Latin in medieval Europe (grammar schools were originally institutions where English boys were taught Latin). And a linguist was originally (and still is in popular and military usage) someone who knows several languages, a definition that would probably exclude Noam Chomsky.

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