New York Times on the PSAT Glitch

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Mon Jun 2 15:59:55 UTC 2003

> #a sad side fact in all of this is that linguists are widely regarded
> #in the media (and by more intellectual publications like the American
> #Scholar, Harper's, etc.) as being partisan, even fanatic.
> the problem
> #is that we claim to know some truths about language, and
> trumpet them,
> #even when common sense, not to mention the publications of talented
> #amateurs, tells educated people that we are just wrong.
> Is it, perhaps, also partially due to Chomsky's status as both
>  (1) the only linguist most people have ever heard of and
>  (2) a "partisan, even fanatic"  advocate of certain political views?

I'm not sure it's at all confined to linguists or linguistics. Any debunking
of long-held beliefs will subject the debunker to scorn. Just try to
convince a believer that astrology is hogwash and you will see what I mean.

In the case of language, it is exacerbated by:

1) Language is closely associated with identity. The way we speak defines
who we are socially. People raise themselves socially by "improving" their
language. Challenging long-held beliefs about language, especially about
"proper" language, is often throwing down the gauntlet over who a person
thinks themself to be.

2) The ideas about proper grammar are deeply ingrained since early
childhood. Often we are taught these rules by our parents. If these ideas
are wrong, what else might be? When shown the emperor has no clothes, people
don't laugh at the emperor, they throw rocks at the kid who pointed it out.

3) The idea that all forms of language are equal and equally valid flies in
the face of what people know to be true from their experience. When a
linguist says, for example, that Ebonics is no less valid than RP English,
people find this absurd. They live in a world of prejudice and social
stratification and when linguists make statements like this, people who live
in the "real world" dismiss them as pronouncements from an ivory tower. It
doesn't matter that facts are on the side of the linguist; facts are
unimportant, perceptions are.

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