Sunday, June 17, 2007

Mike Clark's Column (Again)

Let me stipulate that I'm sure Mike Clark is a nice, good, smart man.

I just don't understand why he writes a column about language for the N&R, because he doesn't seem at all interested in knowing much about his usual topic, which is language variation.

That's too bad, because it's a fascinating field that has been intensely studied. The literature on it, both popular and academic, is rich and wonderful, but Mike never points us to it, or even seems aware of it.

In today's column (not posted) Mike starts out relating some amusing variations of a Texas greeting -- "hattie" and "hidy" -- only to disparage both of them in favor of "hello."

He then records another typical southernism, "won't no," as in "that won't no surprise" (= "that wasn't a surprise"), content merely to call "won't" a "misuse" and the double negation "incorrect."

Granted, this isn't a variety of English you'd want to use if you were interviewing to work for a hedge fund Morgan Stanley*. But you probably should use it if it's your native dialect and you're talking to friends and family at home.

Clark's easy labels ("misuse" and "incorrect") gloss over complicated issues. If there is a standard of correct speech, who sets it? If Mike thinks "won't" shouldn't be used for the past tense, but only for the future (as in, "I won't be going to the office today"), will he object to a Brit using "shan't" instead? But if he grants the validity of variants between American and British usage, why should he not grant them regionally in the US?

Mike also repeats the canard that two negatives ("won't no") make a positive, deaf to the fact that double negation is a standard feature, not only of many varieties of American and British speech (surely he's heard "Satisfaction" a few times?), but also of many of the world's languages. Double negation is standard (sometimes obligatory) in French, Catalan, Afrikaans, Russian, Serbian, Hebrew, and Greek, just to name a few. Chaucer frequently used double negation.

[True story: A linguistics professor J. L. Austin was lecturing: "In some languages, two negatives make a positive, and in others, two negatives make a negative. But in no languages do two positives make a negative." From the back row, philosopher Sidney Morganbesser responded: "yeah, right." Hat tip to Timothy for the provenance of this story.]

Anyhow, hiring someone like Mike Clark to write a column about language variation is like hiring a Baptist preacher to write a wine column. You don't learn anything about wine except that the preacher thinks it's bad and you should avoid it.

I recommend instead Walt Wolfram's American English, or stop in at Wolfram's North Carolina Language and Life project. You'll learn something.


*Percy Walker, Greensboro's hedge fund wunderkind, tells me that his people do say "won't no." Good for them.


Arthegall said...

I've heard the "yeah, right" story told as an actual quote from the late philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser (sometimes told as, "yeah, yeah").

Anonymous said...

"Granted, this isn't a variety of English you'd want to use if you were interviewing to work for a hedge fund."

You've obviously never met anyone from BP Capital, T. Boone Pickens' fund management firm, or Percy Walker Capital Management, my fund management firm. They (and we) have many who talk like that.

Great linguist's joke. I'll have to use that one.

Anonymous said...

On further reflection, you probably should change the reference from "a hedge fund" to "an investment bank" or, more appropriately, "Morgan Stanley," the stodgiest of the lot. Hedge funds really aren't sticklers for proper English at all.

Barry said...

I first came across the Morgenbesser quote in Louis Menand's review of "The Yale Book of Quotations."

I prefer "yeah, yeah."