In The Lexicographer's Dilemma, I devote a few paragraphs to language "pundits" or "mavens." While admitting that writers like Theodore Bernstein, John Simon, and William Safire are all "fine writers," I point out that "they’re not linguists — they all have a good practical grasp of the language, but they don’t know much about the history of English or its underlying structures." And the tension between the linguists and the pundits has been one of the most frustrating for those who have an interest, professional or amateur, in the language.

 As I note,

a turf war between two groups of putative language experts has broken out. On one side are the professional linguists, who have had limited success in writing for a popular audience: most linguists, to be frank, are simply not very capable writers. Only an exceptionally talented few — David Crystal, Steven Pinker — have managed to find readers outside academia. The mavens, on the other hand, usually have very limited knowledge of the research of professional linguists; worse, they are often openly hostile to the academics.

The hostility is painful to watch, but it's also perfectly predictable, since it follows a few familiar patterns:

Usually the journalists dismiss the professional linguists as incompetent tin-eared hacks, the linguists dismiss the journalists as ignorant know-nothing meddlers, and both sides exude smug self-satisfaction at having nothing to do with the other. One of the journalists, Dwight Macdonald, explained, “the academic establishment has gone overboard for Structural Linguistics — nothing an American scholar likes more than a really impressive system with scientific pretensions.” The linguist and neuroscientist Steven Pinker, on the other hand, curses the whole tribe of mavens: “Maven, shmaven!” he fulminates. “Kibbitzers and nudniks is more like it. ... Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens are bits of folklore that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago.” Sometimes their quarrels can get downright nasty. For John Simon, the scholars “masquerading under the euphemism ‘descriptive linguistics’” are guilty of “a benighted and despicable catering to mass ignorance under the supposed aegis of democracy, of being fair to underprivileged minorities, and similar irruptions of politics where it has no business being. ... Demotic ignorance plays into the hands of pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo, and structural linguistics rushes to the defense of every popular distortion or misconception.” Steven Pinker is ready with a comeback: “It is ironic that the jeremiads wailing about how sloppy language leads to sloppy thought are themselves hairballs of loosely associated factoids and tangled non sequiturs.”

I'm happy, though, to pass on some good news. William Safire wrote the On Language column for the New York Times Magazine for many years, and he was certainly a witty and genial commentator; I've read his columns, and the books collected from them, for many years. But Safire sometimes let his wit and his style take the place of serious engagement with the complexities of the language.

Safire died last year; the Times has now announced his replacement: Ben Zimmer. I know Ben slightly, and know his work better, and am pleased to report he's the real deal. He's got a scholar's knowledge of how language works, but, unlike so many linguists who presume to write about the language for layfolk, he can actually write. He's already written a few On Language columns; now he's taking over for real.

I encourage those with an interest in language to keep an eye out for the columns. He's one of the few who can navigate the narrow channel between the mumbo-jumbo on the one side and the hairballs on the other.

About the Author

Jack Lynch

Jack Lynch teaches English at Rutgers University and is the author of The Lexicographer's Dilemma.

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