Posted by: patenttranslator | April 3, 2011

As Usual, American “Linguists” Like Robert Lane Green and Geoffrey Nunberg Have No Idea What They Are Talking About

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”.



  1. The source of my reporting this was Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese at UPenn:

    Others disagree with Mair, such as Gary Feng. It’s clear that “crisis” (“weiji”) has an element (ji) signifying “incipient moment”, which when combined with *another* element produces the standard Chinese word for “opportunity”. But “ji” does not, alone, mean “opportunity”, according to Mair, whom I trust. Wiktionary gives three meanings for this character: machine, desk, and (the relevant one here) moment:

    “Ji” must be combined with “hui” to form “jihui” in order to give the standard Mandarin for “opportunity”. And it can be combined with many other characters to mean quite a few things. As I explain in my book, “communist” and “community” share a root, but that doesn’t mean that people who live in communities are communists. It is interesting, yes, to note that weiji and jihui share a bit of etymology. My point is that it shouldn’t be over-egged.

    It’s true that I don’t speak Chinese, and sometimes I do make mistakes, but I try not to make claims I can’t support.

    I can’t speak for Japanese.

    Finally, no, I haven’t been e-mailed by angry Chinese or Japanese people. The e-mail address listed on my website does work. My username is lanegreene (you might have left the final e off of my surname), and I use Gmail. I welcome correspondence of all kinds.

    Robert Lane Greene


  2. Dear Mr. Greene:

    Thank you for your comment.

    One Chinese or Japanese character obviously has many meanings, but the first character in the world 危機, which is the word in question, means danger, and the second one does mean opportunity. The second character in particular can mean a number of things (how many, some, something, anything) and it is generally used with other characters in Japanese, but “opportunity” is clearly a legitimate meaning for for this character. The first character can be used alone in Japanese and it clearly means “danger”. So 危機 can be clearly translated as “dangerous opportunity” and it should be translated as such when one considers the etymology of the word.

    Take it to a Chinese or Japanese restaurant and ask a waiter whose English is hard to understand and see what he or she says. They will agree with me and disagree with your professor.

    I guess I just could not figure out the e-mailing system on your website, angry as I was at your devious Chinese professor. The system is not very intuitive. Normally I just click on something to leave a message. Why do I need to use your user name? I am not you, am I? Incidentally, this reminds me of another classical Chinese puzzle known as “the happiness of the fish” which I covered in one of my blogs.

    The French who don’t like “Franglais” do have a point, even though their language is still spoken on this planet. To simply dismiss their efforts to preserve the purity of their language by saying that their language is not threatened is a bizarre argument, n’est-ce pas?

    But I really appreciate your response.

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek, technical translation since 1987


    • “Why do I need to use your user name? I am not you, am I?” – the note about the username simply means that you can contact R. L. Greene by sending an e-mail to (replace “username” with “lanegreene”). You need to compose the e-mail manually in your e-mail client. There is no contact form on Mr. Greene’s website and the e-mail address is obscured to hide it from spam crawlers.


      • I see.

        So you get rid of e-mail crawlers and people who don’t know how the system works, which is probably most people.


  3. I see that RLG was kind enough not to comment on your writing “a blog” on your blog:


  4. He just does not understand English.

    Just about any noun can be used as a verb in English.

    Most native speakers of English don’t know that, probably because they never took classes in classical Chinese.


  5. But this is not about a noun used as a verb, it’s about using the same noun (blog) to describe two different “concepts” in the same context (an online diary and its individual entries).

    When you said “So since I could not send Robert Lane Greene the e-mail, I had to write a BLOG, of course”, surely you didn’t mean that you were going to create a new blog to write about it, you simply used your existing blog to write a new post/article, not a new blog!


  6. Oh, OK. I guess I was ready for bed when I wrote that last night.

    So the grammar police now says that “to write a blog” can be used only when you are creating a brand new blog, and that’s that?

    It is verboten to use a blog as a synonym for a post or a blog entry, now that we know that 危機 should not be translated as “dangerous opportunity” and that Franglais is perfectly fine and the French have nothing to complain about?


    • In general, I’ve seen people use the word “blog” to refer to an entire website of posts that one writes, and “post” for the individual entries. You’re actually the first person I’ve seen who uses the word “blog” to refer to what I would call a “post” or “entry”.

      Anyway, I love your website. I’m considering becoming a translator, so I always enjoy reading what you write. 🙂


  7. In general, I would agree with you. But the thing about languages is, they keep evolving. The word blog did not even exist a few years ago and now you have seen it used the way I used it.

    But the point of my blog (entry) was that people who don’t understand Chinese characters and discuss their etymology in books could end up looking like worse than the politicians they are trying to criticize. I think that linguists should try to stick to languages they understand. Otherwise they deserve to be called “linguists”.

    And to say that the French have nothing to worry about because their language is not dead yet is incredibly arrogant.

    Would you agree with that?

    I might have used the word blog in an unusual way, but I don’t make sweeping statements about languages that I don’t understand at all.

    That seems to be the domain of some “American linguists”, which was the point of my blog, I mean post.


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