I had a weird déja vu feeling today because the skinny old guy with a long white mustache in a pickup truck who delivers my Sunday paper made a mistake and gave me a copy of Sunday Washington Post that was a week old. I’ll have to have a talk with him. Last time he gave me a copy of USA Today instead of my paper. He’s a nice guy but he’s starting to get on my nerves. I don’t mind reading a different paper once in a while, but a Sunday paper that I had read already a week ago?
So I drove the 0.45 miles to 7-Eleven and splurged 6 dollars and 30 cents on Sunday New York Times. The New York Times Book Review section had a review by Geoffrey Nunberg (“a linguist, teaches at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley”) on a recent book by Robert Lane Green, titled “YOU ARE WHAT YOU SPEAK, Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity”, which according to Geoffrey Nunberg is “a very readable survey of all the ways our received ideas about language can lead us astray”.
I was kind of enjoying the review at first, until about the third paragraph which said:”Green makes it his business to dispel popular misconceptions, large and small. (Politicians and pundits, please note: the Chinese word for “crisis” is not composed of the characters for “danger” and opportunity.”)
Well, I am sorry, but the Chinese (and Japanese) word for crisis, at least the most common one because there are many synonyms of course for this word, does consist of two characters which mean “danger” and “opportunity”. Here it is: 危機. The first character, pronounced “ki” in Japanese, means danger. The second character, also pronounced “ki” in Japanese, means in this case opportunity. The most common word in Japanese for “opportunity” is 機会 (kikai). As anybody can see, the first character in this word is the same one that is also in the word which means “crisis”, while the second one means “to meet”. These characters were “imported” by the Japanese from the Chinese language many centuries ago.
I went to Robert Lane Greene’s website and I tried to e-mail him the Chinese (and Japanese) word and ask for an explanation, but the website would not let me send an e-mail. Maybe his e-mail system was overwhelmed by messages from thousands of angry Chinese and Japanese people who read the review and decided to take an action as I did that Sunday. Or maybe he does not really want to hear from people.
So since I could not send Robert Lane Greene the e-mail, I had to write a blog, of course.
I don’t write about the etymology of words in Arabic or Hungarian, for instance, on my blog, because I don’t know any Arabic and only about four words in Hungarian. Why is it that so many “linguists” keep analyzing issues in languages they don’t know at all? Some of the other points that Robert Lane Green is making in his book according to the review by Geoffrey Nunberg seem also pretty bizarre. For instance, “in his [Greene's] view the efforts of the French to purge their tongue of English words arise in part from “a dented self-image”, even though French is hardly a threatened language”. Of course French is not a threatened language! But that is not the point. The point is that so many English words are used now in languages like French or German that it sometime sounds like a new, bastardized version of what was once a beautiful language. That is why the French are trying to preserve what they have. Don’t these “linguists” know that? When I listen to a talk show with Marcus Lanz on German TV, it is actually called “Eine Talkshow mit Marcus Lanz.” What kind of German is that? (Modern German, the kind that is “sehr cool”).
While trying hard to poke fun at “politicians and pundits”, the self-appointed “linguists” in the end somehow manage to look like the true ignoramuses that they are. They seem to know even less than politicians and pundits, if that is possible, in particular about languages.
Time to go back to the rest of the Sunday New York Times. This time I will try to avoid articles written by “linguists”.