Language and Human Nature  book cover
1st Edition

Language and Human Nature

ISBN 9781412808255
Published August 30, 2008 by Routledge
416 Pages

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Book Description

"Language and Human Nature" exposes a century's worth of flawed thinking about language, to exhibit some of the dangers it presents, and to suggest a path to recovery. It begins by examining the causes of changes in the English vocabulary. These sometimes take the form of new words, but more often that of new senses for old words. In the course of this examination, Halpern discusses a wide variety of verbal solecisms, vulgarisms, and infelicities generally. His objective is not to deplore such things, but to expose the reasons for their existence, the human traits that generate them.A large part of this book is devoted to contesting the claims of academic linguists to be the only experts in the study of language change. Language is too central to civilized life to be so deeply misunderstood without causing a multitude of troubles throughout our culture. We are currently experiencing such troubles, a number of which are examined here. The exposure of linguists' misunderstandings is not an end in itself, but a necessary first step in recovery from the confusion we are now enmeshed in.The picture of the relationship between words and thoughts that is part of the attempt to deal with language "scientifically" is partly responsible for dangerous cultural developments. The attempt by linguists to treat their subject scientifically makes them view meaning as an irritating complication to be ignored if possible. It turns them into formalists who try to understand language by studying its physical representations, with a resort to semantics only when unavoidable. With words practically stripped of their role as bearers of meaning, it becomes easy to see them as unimportant. Halpern's book is a serious critique of such oversimplified theorizing.

Table of Contents

Introduction to the Transaction Edition        
A Preface by Jacques Barzun            
Author’s Introduction                                                              

Chapter 1: The Question of Change in Language
The root of the confusion: why does language change?
Six common ways in which we change language
Why linguists are champions of change
How linguists account for the usability of language
    despite constant change    
If linguists approve of all changes, why don’t they    
    adopt them?    
Change versus changes — too subtle a distinction?

Chapter 2: How Language is Studied Today    
Building on air: phonology as the basis of ‘linguistic science’   
The sound and the fury — does it signify anything?
The demeaning of meaning    
The project of modern linguistics: building the Golem    
Symptoms of trouble in the Golem project    
    Are sentences regular components of speech?    
    Does ambiguity present opportunities for Golem-building?   
    Is it a virtue in a grammar to be infinitely productive?    

Chapter 3: Linguistic Authority: Rules,
Dictionaries, and Teaching    

Rules in the classroom    
The proper role and use of rules    
Orwell’s rules: the exception to the rule?    
Dictionaries and usage guides: filling the power vacuum    
A dialogue with a dictionary editor    
The special case of the OED    
A step toward rescuing the dictionary    
The attack on Roget’s Thesaurus    

Chapter 4: Descriptivist, Prescriptivist, and    
Linguistic Activist    

The descriptivist claims summarized, with a    
    Linguistic Activist’s replies    
On what grounds do descriptivists rule out    
    prescriptivism — or any other data?    
When linguists consent to argue: the    
    descriptivist/prescriptivist war    
We descriptivists will do all the thinking about language,    
    thank you!    
Linguists triumph easily over the dead    
Prescriptivists & descriptivists: which are the elitists?    

Chapter 5: The Eskimo Snow Vocabulary    
Controversy — A Case Study    

The background of the case    
A linguist punctures a myth, at some cost in facts and logic   
Metic terms: not all words are created equal    
What is a ‘word’? Does it matter?        
Need a snow-related term be exclusively        
    snow-related to count?    
Need a rich snow vocabulary subject Eskimos to        
    Sapir-Whorf ignominy?    
Should Eskimos be called ‘Eskimos’?    
The facts retaliate by puncturing the linguist    

Chapter 6: A Peoples’ Linguistics    
A peoples’ linguistics        
On becoming a spokesman for The People    
Is anyone in charge here? Need anyone be?    
The language gang flaunts its colors and fights for its turf      
Racism, sexism, and other isms: the fight gets ugly    

Chapter 7: Restoring Rhetoric to Its Throne    
If it’s not hard to read, it can’t be important:    
    an apologia for bad writing
Rhetoric and the relation of thought to language    
Fixing on the right metaphor            
Thinking without words                
The anti-rhetorical tradition            
The decline of rhetoric and the decline of fiction    

Chapter 8: Decadence and Diseases of Language    
Two flavors of decadence: hothouses and    
When language is no longer a tool for dealing with    
    reality, but an alternative to it    
Language decadence engenders a strange muse    
Marrying Ms. Cthulhu    
Subverting the subversives: the unspeakable    
    remarks of Philip Larkin    
Denial of objectivity: the first refuge of a scoundrel    

Chapter 9: Plagiarism and Misquotation:    
the Use of Others’ Thoughts and Words    

What is plagiarism? The old rules recapitulated    
    Using other people’s ideas    
    Using other people’s written words    
    Using other people’s spoken words    
And is plagiarism so bad, anyway?    
            A judge’s injudicious view of the matter    
What is a quotation? The Masson-Malcolm case    
Masson vs. Malcolm in the light of the        
            proposed principles    

Chapter 10: What is To Be Done?    
Where will linguists and their projects go?    
Who inherits, or reclaims, stewardship of the language?    
What principles will the new language stewards adopt?    
Sample applications of the principles, with    
    derivation of secondary rules    
What will the world be like when all this is done?    

Appendix A: Linguistics as a Science    
How did linguistics come to be regarded as a science?    
Why linguistics isn’t a science, and won’t become one    

Appendix B: Active Eskimo-Language Terms    
for Snow and Ice    

Appendix C: AI and the Golem project — the    
reverse-engineering twins    

The Golem and the Hidden Entity of the Turing Test:    
    brother monsters    
Some programming language analogues to natural    
    language features    

Appendix D: Notes on Chomsky and the    
Chomskyan literature    

To learn more about Chomskyan linguistics&n

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