Top language, top Bible, top people: Melvyn Bragg meets the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis


To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible in English, Melvyn Bragg (a man not noted for his reliability on such matters—see my post for March 30th last year) managed to get himself a BBC documentary on the subject. (King James’ Bible: The Book that Changed the World) The credits say that he wrote it as well as narrated it, so all errors are his own, with the possible exception of the director’s decision to devote so much of the hour to close shots of Bragg’s face as he muses on his subject. This is always an error, even when the narrator is photogenic. Bragg, reading from his autocue, is an old man with distractingly young hair and a gaze point somewhere just above the viewer’s right eyebrow.


But I digress. The real point of this post is to unpick the bizarre thesis of the programme, namely that the true power of the Bible lay dormant for centuries until it was translated into English in 1611 by a committee of scholars working for King James. Yes, I am simplifying here somewhat, but that is because the lines of argument taken by Bragg are meandering and self-contradictory. Nevertheless¸ the main idea is that God’s word was inevitably muffled until it was made available to humanity through the sparkling medium of early Modern English, whereupon its effect was electric and immediate, inspiring  democratic revolutions, civil rights and all of modern science. 

Continue reading


Hold the front page: prairie dogs still don’t have language


Back in February 2010 I posted a piece about Dr. Con Slobodchikoff’s research into prairie dogs and their language, expressing my deep scepticism. This eventually came to Dr Slobodchikoff’s notice and he posted a comment inviting me to check out his webpage, ‘freely available on Google’ he said, where I would find details of the many peer-reviewed research papers he has published on the subject. Well, I did check out his list of publications, and there are lots of them, but none at all in linguistics. Journals like Behavioural Ecology, Mammology  and Intelligent Automation and Soft Computing, are not in any Learning Resources Centre near me, nor are they freely available to people who might want to get hold of them. So I picked a not-too-expensive book, ‘Kinship with Animals’ edited by Solisti and Tobias, in which Dr S. has a chapter about his prairie dog research. Having now read this, I can confidently reaffirm my initial scepticism about them having language. They don’t. Continue reading

Subjunctives and fuzzy logic: the Queen’s English Society revisited


Dear Nick

Thank you for your long comments on my piece of June 15th this year, If I were running the Queen’s English Society, I would shut it down, in which you repeatedly laugh out loud at all the subjunctives you are slipping in which show me how wrong I am to have claimed they are dead in modern English.

 I am puzzled, though. If you read my post more carefully, you will see that nowhere do I say that English subjunctives have disappeared. That would be a daft thing to claim because of course they exist. I even used one in my title.  (Not all your examples are actually subjunctives, however. The ‘throw’ in “It is believed that he once had his guards “throw” random citizens to the lions ” is an infinitive.)

This is not your only confusion, and as you are most eager for me to respond to you, I’ll reply blow by blow: Continue reading

Knowledge vs Pedantry

In the readers’ letters page of  the current issue of the New York Review, a bad linguist called Sam Abrams writes to complain about the use of the word inchoate in an article by Tony Judt. Here is Mr Abrams’ text:

To the Editor:
It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic”. [Words, NYR July 15th]. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?

If Mr Abrams had written this snotty put-down about my use of inchoate, I might well have replied with a long essay about why Latin etymologies cannot determine 21st century English use. I would have insisted that I don’t need anyone to teach me what inchoate means, and I would have told him that the sooner he and his ‘sensitive to etymological resonances’ ilk shuffle off this mortal coil, the better for us all. In short, I would have been immoderately cross.
But Professor Judt’s reply to Mr Abrams, which the NYR prints immediately below the complaining letter, is so measured, so elegant and so perfect in its absolute crushing of this smug pedant, that I reproduce it in full for your admiration.

Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant– the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say they were “chaotic” I would have said so.

At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.

Tony Judt was an internationally renowned historian and Professor at New York University. He died on August 6th 2010,  just a few days after writing this reply to Mr Abrams. He had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008 and by the time of his death it had completely paralysed everything except his mind. He was a remarkable man whose obituary you can read here:

Simon Heffer and a cartload of rubbish


Predictably and depressingly, the BBC has again allowed someone with no qualifications in linguistics to hold forth on the subject.  Why? WHY?*

This morning we had Simon Heffer, a journalist and editor at the Daily Telegraph, complaining that young people today don’t know their grammar and it’s time people like him got into the classroom to show them what’s what. You can read the report and listen to the interview here: 

Continue reading

Gotten vs got: what a literary critic needs to know.

I was considering myself as on summer leave from all things linguistic, but I can’t let this howler from Carmen Callil go unremarked. In case you don’t know of her, Ms Callil is a writer and critic of some renown, and a founder of the Virago Press, so she is someone whose literary opinions carry considerable weight. Among many other things, she does book reviews for The Guardian newspaper and it is here that her recent review of Julie Orringer’s book The Invisible Bridge is to be found:
 The book tells the story of Andras Levi, a Hungarian studying in Paris at the Ecole Speciale d’Architecture in the late 1930s. He falls for Klara Morgenstein, and the lovers’ tale unfolds against the backdrop of  anti-Semitism and the fate of Hungary’s Jewish population during World War II.

Now, I have no way of knowing whether Ms Callil’s lukewarm review is fair or not as I have not read the book and anyway I am not a literary critic, but there’s one criticism of hers that I am qualified to judge. And I judge it as bad linguistics. Continue reading

Let them learn Mandarin: why foreign languages are good for the brain.


Not for the first time (nor, one suspects, the last) BBC Radio Four’s flagship news programme Today has indulged in a silly and uninformed debate about language.  You can listen to it here:

John Humphrys is a professional radio journalist. He is generally known for his aggressive interviewing style, though to me he is more renowned as a classic bad linguist; he has little knowledge of the subject, very strong opinions and easy access to the mass media. His two books about the mangling of English (Lost for Words and Beyond Words) are collections of personal bugbears about other people’s language, coupled with gloomy predictions about English going to the dogs. The usual nonsense.

Continue reading