The gorgeous M. Liberman is angered by David Brooks again and writes a hilarious putdown:

The relation between Brooks’ column and the facts inspired me to model my discussion after the Radio Yerevan jokes that arose in the Soviet Union as a way to mock the pathetically transparent spin of the Soviet media:
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn’t win it, but rather it was stolen from him.

Do read the whole piece. It’s less hilarious but instructive, and, as always, very much worth reading.

Simple Mistake

So if you’re a young and ambitious literary scholar, you could do worse than to learn something about modern psychology and linguistics, especially those concepts and techniques that can easily be applied to texts.

sayeth Liberman, who, as we already know, has the literary sensibility of that mug of coffee right there. And yes, it can be done. Doesn’t mean it should be. I can take a dump on my computer right now. Doesn’t mean I should. Simple Mistake.

Feminism & Language

A well reasoned mini-rant on the log attacking a common and tiresome position on feminism and how it destroys language.

[David Gelernter’s] claims are apocalyptic. Although English “used to belong to all its speakers and readers and writers” it has now been taken over by “arrogant ideologues” determined “to defend the borders of the New Feminist state.” A major “victory of propaganda over common sense” looms: “We have allowed ideologues to pocket a priceless property and walk away with it.” The language is on the brink of being lost, because although the “prime rule of writing is to keep it simple, concrete, concise”, today “virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite”. This is the mild part. Soon he gets more seriously worked up, calling his opponents “style-smashers” and (I’m not kidding) “language rapists”, and claiming that “they were lying and knew it” when they did what they did.

What, then, is the terrible thing that the style-smashers have done? The following is (and I stress this) a complete list of all the facts about English usage he cites:

* Some writers now use either he or she, or singular they, or purportedly sex-neutral she, instead of purportedly sex-neutral he, to refer back to generic or quantified human antecedents that are not specifically marked as masculine.
* Some people recommend the words chairperson, humankind, and firefighter over chairman, mankind, and fireman.
* Some try to avoid using the phrases great man when speaking of a great person, or using brotherhood when making reference to fellow-feeling between human beings.


Gelernter insists on the beauty and clarity of “Shakespeare’s most perfect phrases”, calling them “miraculously simple and terse”; […]

Gelernter huffs and puffs a lot about the use of he or she, but this is only a prelude to something more serious: a furious condemnation of singular antecedents for they (“a student who lost their textbook”). In his telling of the story, the feminist language terrorists weren’t content with imposing he or she on us, a phrase that is merely clumsy; worse was to come when grammar itself “collapsed in a heap after agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional”, i.e., they was permitted to have singular antecedents.

But his ignorance of the history of English literature on this point is breathtaking. It is quite clear that he has no idea Shakespeare used they with singular antecedents […]

Gelernter also specifically singles out Austen for praise: “The young Jane Austen is praised by her descendants for having written “pure simple English.” He obviously is not aware that Jane Austen is famous for her high frequency of use of of singular-anteceded they […].

Gelernter thinks singular they was invented by post-1970 feminist “ideologues”, rather than a use of pronouns having a continuous history going back as far as a thousand years. One might think it remarkable that someone this ignorant of the history and structure of English would nonetheless presume to pontificate, without having checked anything. But not if you read Language Log. We have noted many times the tendency to move straight to high dudgeon, skipping right over the stage where you check the reference books to make sure you have something to be in high dudgeon about. To take a random example, when Cullen Murphy accused three word-sense usages of being modern illiteratisms, Mark Liberman showed that in fact all three were the original meanings from long ago. And then a couple of months later Mark found John Powers had made an exactly analogous mistake with three other words. People just don’t look in reference books when it comes to language; they seem to think their status as writers combined with their emotion of anger gives them all the standing they need.

Warning! Drinking may cause absurd theories!

Well, well. Susan Jacoby, who wrote a book on the pride many Americans (let me assure you, many Germans do so, too. I can provide several really hilarious links if you’d like some) take in being and staying ignorant (although she kinda does not listen to her own advice). Interestingly, some posts lately on the Log talked about an amazingly brazen book on linguistics. The book’s called The Secret History of the English Language and its claims are preposterous, no, beyond preposterous, and they seem to be based on that little helper of American (hell, german, too) ignorance: so-called common sense. Sketching briefly (anything in a 199 page language HISTORY will, of necessity, be brief) the accepted history of the English language, apparently he then dismisses it as implausible and proceeds to claim that in fact, English developed into French, which developed into Provençal, which developed into Italian. And then the log quoted a bit of the most outrageous claim of them all: that Italian merchants then invented Latin.

Fortunately, there’s a much more reasonable explanation that meets all the facts: Latin is not a natural language. When written, Latin takes up approximately half the space of written Italian or written French (or written English, German, or any natural European language). Since Latin appears to have come into existence in the first half of the first millennium BC, which was the time when alphabets were first spreading through the Mediterranean basin, it seems a reasonable working hypothesis to assume that Latin was originally a shorthand compiled by Italian speakers for the purposes of written (confidential? commercial?) communication.

That’s very funny, but the book and its predecessor have been praised (see the first of the two log links above). Apparently making a bold claim in an “age of unreason”, based on so-called common sense, is enough to sway a significant portion of the public. If you are now sulky, here’s something funny to lighten your mood: Marc Liberman at the Log had this hypothesis to share:

My own hypothesis is that the whole thing was written over a drunken weekend, to win a bar bet:

Harper: It’s unbelievable, my friend. No one knows anything anymore. Not anything worth knowing.
Drinking buddy: Oh come now. The general level of education has never been higher.
Harper: Not among the so-called intellectual classes, the idiots that publish and
review and buy books. Why, I bet I could write a little tract arguing that French is historically derived from English, and not only get it published, but sell ten times more copies than your last laboriously-researched academic tome.
DB: French derived from English? You’re not serious. You might as well argue that Latin was derived from Italian. Everyone knows that’s impossible.
Harper: You don’t understand — no one knows anything, not anything that’ll stand up to an authoritative poke in an anti-authoritarian voice. Hell, give me a typical modern humanist, and I can make her believe that Latin was invented by Italian speakers as a form of commercial shorthand. Or at least make her accept the idea as an interesting hypothesis.
DB: Latin a shorthand form of Italian? A hundred pounds says no reputable publisher will put it out, unless you frame it as a burlesque.
Harper: Oh, it’ll be serious, believe me. You’re on for that hundred quid. And how about a side bet on how many copies I sell?

How often I think about Sex

I have a list of articles on Language Log that I wanted to talk about concerning the stupidity of most pop science treatments on the so-called difference between man and woman. I may have voiced some disparaging comments of my own here and there and in other articles as well. The following excerpts are taken from an older Language Log article (please read the whole thing. It’s short and very readable).

On page 91 of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine writes (emphasis added):
Males have double the brain space and processing power devoted to sex as females. Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road, men have O’Hare Airport as a hub of processing thoughts about sex whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes. That probably explains why 85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds and women think about it once a day — or up to three or four times on their most fertile days.

This striking different in rates of sexual thoughts is also one of the bullet points on the book’s jacket blurb — but there, female sex-thought frequency is downgraded from “once a day” to “once every couple of days”:

* Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain once every couple of days but enter a man’s brain about once every minute

Whatever the exact numbers, it’s an impressive-sounding difference — scientific validation for a widespread opinion about what men and women are like. And this is interesting stuff, right at the center of social and personal life, so you’re probably wondering about the details of the studies that produced these estimates.

in the following part of the article Liberman reviews her cited sources and, having done that, comes to these conclusions:

Adding up this study’s tally of undergraduate male sexual thoughts, we get 4.5 male urges + 2.5 male fantasies per day on average, for a total of 7 sexual thoughts, or one every (24*60*60/7 =) 12,342 seconds. Compare Dr. Brizendine’s figures: “85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds”. That’s more than 237 times hornier — even if the other 15 percent never thought about sex at all, the average frequency would still be at least two orders of magnitude greater than Jones & Barlow report. (And they sampled male undergraduate psychology students, who must surely be near their life maximum of sexual consciousness.)

How about the female numbers? Jones and Barlow’s student diaries yielded 2 female urges + 2.5 female fantasies per day on average, for a total of 4.5 sexual thoughts per day. That’s 450% greater than the “once a day” that Brizendine cites in the book’s text, and 900% greater than the “once every couple of days” rate in the jacket blurb. Not that the average self-reports from the “47 female undergraduates” in Jones and Barlow’s 1990 American sample should be taken to stand for the nature of all women in all times and places — but this is still 47 more women than we’ve been able to connect with Brizendine’s estimates, at least so far.

Note also that the Jones and Barlow numbers for women amount to one sexual thought every (24*60*60/4.5 =) 19,200 seconds. But you’re not going to sell any books by writing that “Men think about sex every 12,300 seconds, while women only have a sexual thought every 19,200 seconds”.

It’s always somewhat irritating how easily people (i.e. readers) swallow the “hey I’m right, cuz see, it’s scientific” ‘argument’. Science. mainly because it’s such a heavily specialized field right now (not that this kind of misuse wasn’t common in earlier days as well, remember Edward Long?) , is easily misused and I as a reader have a strong mistrust against people who base outrageous claims on ‘science’. I am sometimes suprised that other people aren’t and that all these bad science books sell so well. And the funniest thing about it is that many natural scientists, who should know better, who can see their sciences being misused and trivialized on a daily basis, often do not behave in a better way whenever they write about, or make use of, fields like literature, philosophy or theology. Oh, well.
And how often do I think about sex? As they say: that’s for me to know and for you to find out. 😉