Monday, September 15, 2008

Burying the lede

I'm reading Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct cover to cover out of a bit of shame, due to the fact that it's a rather seminal work in the theory of language and I made it through seven years of higher education without reading more than excerpts from the damn thing. That aside, it's an interesting book, and substantially easier to read (doubtless as a result of the fact that when he, e.g., throws up Minimialist syntax trees I sort of take them in with a single glance) than I expected, and honestly, a little more thought-provoking as well.

So far, I feel like he's running the risk of falsely boosting descriptive / functional linguists beyond the claims their data and studies should be making (which is an oft-levied criticism of that group), while poo-pooing the inane complexities of formal linguistics approaches (which is an apt and oft-levied criticism of our side, too).

But Pinker does a great job of always, always keeping one foot in the real world no matter how far into some linguistics minutiae he chooses to delve. And for that, I commend him. The book was published nearly 15 years ago, and yet some things he says I still find striking today:

[P]hrases that are ordinarily buried deep in the tree can be moved to early in the sentence, where they can hook up with material fresh in the listener's mind*. For example, if a play-by-play announcer has been describing Nevin Markwart's progression down the ice, he could say Markwart spears Gretzky!!! But if it was Wayne Gretzky the announcer had been describing, he would say Gretzky is speared by Markwart!!!** Moreover, because a passive participle has the option of leaving the doer role, ordinarily the subject, unfilled in deep structure, it is useful when one wants to avoid mentioning that role altogether, as in Ronald Reagan's evasive concession Mistakes were made.

V Smoothe writes about a near-riot at a community development block grant meeting in West Oakland. Now, while I'm as stunned as you are that there would even be enough people at a CDBG meeting so as to facilitate a riot, I doubt either of us are as stunned as Nancy Nadel or the crowd whose authority she totally tried to usurp.

To watch all these people overfilling the room, people who just live here and want to make this city better and don’t know what the hell to do about it, so they latch onto this one thing and they all show up here for something that has just sat, neglected by most people forever, well, that’s just so incredibly cool to me.

Um…then it went…let’s say, downhill. Once the crowd quieted down, District 3 Councilmember Nancy Nadel stood up and spoke. I had been under the impression that the meeting would begin with us all getting an overview of the strategic plan developed by last year’s Board, in which they had identified four key areas they believed future funds should be spent. Instead, Nadel informed us (and I am not exaggerating here, she was quite explicit about this) that she had unilaterally decided that every last penny of D3 CDBG money would be going to her personal money pit, oh, I’m sorry, I mean “teen center,” and that, by the way, the CBDG Board, which used to meet monthly, would now meet only quarterly, and its only function would be to serve as the Advisory Board to her teen center.

The only thing more surprising than that to me is that through some supernatural act on the level of divine intervention, people this crooked manage to get re-elected time after time! Check out the quotage here:

It took a little while for the room to grasp what exactly was going on (myself included! I was just watching, in this kind of stunned daze, and then all of a sudden it hit me - omg what she’s trying to do here is like off the charts insane and why the hell am I not writing every word of this down and get your damn notebook out now you moron!), but suddenly, it was like you could practically see all the light bulbs going off in peoples’ heads as everyone in the room simultaneously realized just how much they were getting screwed. The protests got louder and louder and Nadel fruitlessly tried to calm the crowd, saying:

I hear that people are unhappy with that. But the decision has been made.

"[T]he decision has been made." Can you believe it? Good for her, to recognize that people figured out she was all up in their funding and that nuh-uh Nancy, you did not! So she dropped the agent, herself, from the sentence and now it sounds as if ta-da a decision happened! Wheeee!

But the dandiest of dandy little gems on this tack came from none other than Sarah Palin, who took time off from her legal wranglings with the Alaska legislature to Talk to Charlie Gibson:

"I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made."

Never mind the fact that she and the current administration are Christian extremists, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying other nations. Let's leave that aside and just go for the grammar of that last sentence.

One downside to using the passive is the promotion of the object to 'subject' position (or however you want to put it -- basically the object becomes the thing the sentence is about now). But what she does here is essentially to leave the object in situ in a small clause ('mistakes made') and fills the subject position with the dummy subject 'there'. She's not only passivized the agency out of the sentence, she's also basically swept the problem under the rug, keeping it as deep in linear order and syntactic structure as possible. Ronald Reagan, by comparison, looks like he's issuing an outright mea culpa, throwing himself prostrate before us in search of forgiveness.

Very crafty Sarah Palin. Very crafty indeed.


* - That's not an asterisk, it's my grain of salt.

** - You see how this doesn't actually have anything to do with "phrases ... hook[ing] up with material fresh in the listener's mind"? It's just putting one argument prominently at the front of the sentence. I don't see any hooking up going on really at all. I just don't think that this makes his point terribly well, something I think he may just be prone to. Not saying his underlying message is necessarily wrong, but this isn't the first time in the book that his supporting data has missed the mark.

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