What Are You Saying?

From 'nucular' to 'like, you know,' Geoff Nunberg says the way we talk reveals a lot about what we think.

March/April 2005

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What Are You Saying?

Photo: Timothy Archibald

The wood-shingled exterior and the sleek bay windows confer a sophistication that puts the multistory house just a little out of sync with its more staid, painted neighbors in San Francisco’s Noe Valley. Beyond a locked gate, a glass door opens onto a steep, dark gray, polished stone staircase. A brown-trimmed, black Australian shepherd bounds down the steps, tail whipping an enthusiastic greeting. After a few moments, Geoffrey Nunberg reaches the door, casually dressed in loose-fitting jeans and charcoal-colored clogs.

“Come in, come in,” he says in a friendly baritone. “Keely,” he admonishes the shepherd—named after band-era singer Keely Smith—which alternately bounds up the steps and turns abruptly to sniff-check the visitor. We turn left at the landing, passing a low table holding an inscribed crystal bowl commemorating Nunberg’s most prized honor: the Linguistics, Language, and the Public Interest Award from the Linguistic Society of America, his professional peers.

“Coffee?” he offers as he enters the compact kitchen, administering to a hefty Gaggia Syncrony espresso maker. The bean-grinding mechanism sticks shut, and Nunberg fiddles with its innards. “Wonderful machine,” he whispers. “Delicate. Like a Fiat.”

It’s the kind of wry observation that has won Nunberg a following on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air,” where he explores political and social issues and contemporary culture through a language lens. A consulting professor of linguistics and a senior researcher at Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, he also serves as chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and he writes frequently for major newspapers. A collection of his commentaries, Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Controversial Times, was named one of the top 10 nonfiction books of 2004 by Amazon.com (“an insider’s tour of the vernacular by the English teacher you only wish you had”) and one of the year’s 10 best books by the San Jose Mercury News (“smart, funny and informed—an unbeatable combination”).

Intensely private, Nunberg spends most of his time these days working from home. His office occupies the top level of the four-floor interior, which is filled with books and punctuated with art and personal memorabilia. A photograph shows Nunberg with Sen. Ted Kennedy at last year’s Senate Democratic Caucus retreat, a picture Nunberg’s partner, playwright Michelle Carter, ’80, MA ’82, finds “quite slimming,” he notes with a chuckle. His light-drenched office features a large library wall packed floor-to-ceiling with reference materials. In the command-post center, two computer screens sit on the right side of a V-shaped desk.

“Words are not things, but activities,” observed Dwight Bolinger, a revered linguist who taught at Harvard before retiring to Palo Alto, and he might have been describing Nunberg. Early this morning—about 2:30 a.m.—he called Bolinger’s words “my favorite linguistic epigram” in his posting on the Language Log, where blogging linguists “chew the electronic fat,” as Nunberg puts it. He has commentary pieces cooking this day for both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and grades to complete for the Quality of Information class he just finished co-teaching at UC-Berkeley’s School of Information Management and Systems. And he’s intent on completing a proposal for a book he’d like to turn out this year, tentatively titled How the Right Hijacked the English Language.

Nunberg, who will be 60 in June, has forged an unorthodox path that has made him perhaps the second most famous linguist in the country after MIT’s Noam Chomsky, and he’s done it, remarkably, without the perch of a tenured university appointment. While his linguistics research over the years has been substantial, his primary intellectual mission has been to relate linguistics to society, a path considered both courageous and unthinkable to most academics. He manages to make linguistics not only palpable but attractive to the public, demonstrating that in language lie clues to understanding even the most divisive issues.

“What’s striking about Nunberg’s work is its creativity and breadth,” says Tom Wasow, a professor of linguistics at Stanford. “He defies classification into any one subfield, because his work is so original.” Nunberg’s academic work on pragmatics (how context determines the meaning of words), punctuation and idioms (the latter with Wasow and Ivan Sag, also a professor of linguistics at Stanford) has expanded the fields of linguistics inquiry. On another front, Nunberg has forcefully led counterarguments in highly charged language debates, notably opposing the English-only movement in the ’80s and later defending Ebonics, the vernacular language of African-Americans. “Things have worked out for me,” he says simply, sipping his coffee at a table littered with refolded newspapers. “It’s nice to be able to work broadly,” although sometimes he worries that he’s “scattered,” with little to bind the various threads in his work. “It’s hard to see what they have in common other than an excitement about language.”

To Sag, a colleague since graduate school, Nunberg has emerged as “the most relevant member” of the prestigious Linguistic Society of America as a public intellectual and an advocate for language. “I don’t know if he realizes how special that role is.” Adds Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at UC-Santa Cruz: “Few things are more traditional than lexicography; few things are more modern than digital libraries. He just spans the range between them in a remarkable way.”

Prolific and accessible, Nunberg’s writing reflects broad knowledge of the humanities, a discerning ear for usage, an openness to different language forms, and disdain for self-appointed grammar police and traditionalists. (“Traditional grammar is an invention of the 1950s, around the same time people were inventing things like traditional furniture,” he chides.) There’s also a smattering of personal details: Sweet fatherly pride in his daughter, who is now 15, beginning with the decision to name her Sophie, despite the popularity of the name. (“Even if it turns out to be trendy, she’ll make it her own. You only have to look at her to know that.”) His saxophone lessons at age 9 and his first LP album, “Konitz Meets Mulligan” (“I can still scat for you all the solos in ‘Too Marvelous for Words.’”) His love of Italy and things Italian (a favorite film is La Dolce Vita, which, by the way, yielded the word paparazzo, the only English word to come from the name of a character in a foreign film.) He’s witty and erudite, occasionally wry and self-deprecating. (“‘Be yourself,’ my freshman English instructor once wrote in a composition I’d handed in,” he revealed in an October essay for Newsday. “‘If this is you, be someone else.’”)

Nunberg developed a love for words asa child, charmed by the memorable witticisms and clever rhymes of Ogden Nash, among others. Nunberg and his sister, Barbara, MA ’77, PhD ’79, a political scientist who is now a manager for the World Bank, lived in the suburbs of Manhattan in a home that had “an exaggerated concern” for language. Their mother was a high school teacher, and their father, who was “fastidious” about language and to whom Going Nucular is dedicated, worked in commercial real estate. Geoffrey Nunberg was part of a precocious, competitive group at Scarsdale High School, a rigorous prep school that encouraged students to explore ideas. “We were very cynical teenagers, aware of our privileged conditions,” says longtime friend Howard Bloch, PhD ’70, now a professor of French at Yale University. They were drawn to the Beatnik scene in nearby Greenwich Village, to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, and to nonmaterialistic ideals of the early ’60s. Bloch compares Nunberg’s commentaries to elegant 18th-century essays and marvels at his ability to retain and recall information, whether history, literature or the complete lyrics of Motown and ’60s rock ’n’ roll. “Geoff is a computer. He has the largest hard disc of everybody I know.” Plus, he’s the perfect friend to call for help while playing Scrabble, “although no one will play with him anymore.”

(“Not true,” Nunberg protests in mock indignation, and proffers a score sheet from a recent game against Sophie. The results: 317 to 311. “She beats me.”)

Nunberg began pre-law studies at Columbia University, but art school beckoned. While studying at the Art Students League of New York, he launched a side career in writing, at first crafting scripts for the soap opera Another World. After a couple of years, he put away his brushes (“I had the good sense to realize that I was merely mediocre”), re-enrolled at Columbia and took a class from linguist Erica Garcia that captivated him. “I just loved it.” He headed to the University of Pennsylvania for his master’s degree, studying the effects of socioeconomic factors on language patterns with the renowned sociolinguist Bill Labov, then to City University of New York for his doctorate. Unlike fellow graduates eager to find a faculty position almost anywhere, Nunberg would consider only a short list of culturally sophisticated, coastal cities, Ivan Sag recalls. Nunberg chose UC-Berkeley for postdoctoral studies, signed on as a one-year visiting professor at Stanford “and somehow never got back.”

In the mid-’80s he joined Xerox PARC, an idyllic technology-oriented think tank. As a principal scientist, he explored applications and implications of technology with scholars across several disciplines—philosophers and physicists, computer scientists and anthropologists—developing language software and contemplating such notions as digitizing books and libraries. “Here were all these people working on the technologies that would be the new modes of communication, and coming up with a broader understanding of how they would work,” he recalls. It was intoxicating and edifying. His work analyzing written language—and punctuation—for possible software development challenged linguists’ widespread belief that the structure of written language is the same as that of spoken language and opened the way for the study of written forms as a respectable linguistic pursuit. By 2001, when innovations had become the province of specialized start-ups, he returned to CSLI as a senior researcher.

One of Nunberg’s great joys of living in Palo Alto was building a relationship with linguist Dwight Bolinger (he died in 1992), who stressed the importance of understanding language as a human institution. At Bolinger’s recommendation, Nunberg began working with the American Heritage Dictionary, at first writing usage notes. A public relations tour for the dictionary in 1987 led to an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” hosted by Terry Gross, one she vividly recalls. “I was just amazed at his ability to talk about the language and how it reflected what the way we speak says about who we are and what our times are like,” Gross says. At a producer’s invitation, Nunberg wrote a critic’s commentary. His subject: Bible movies, beginning with Quo Vadis. He noted that the Romans spoke with British accents, while the more innocent—and likable—Christians spoke with American accents, all of which said a lot more about Americans and Europeans than Christians and Romans. “I was so impressed,” Gross says. “He’s smart and funny,” and he sounded good, too. He’s been writing commentaries and taping them at KQED’s San Francisco studio every few weeks since, which delights Gross. “I don’t think there’s anybody else like him on the air or anybody else like him in the country who can discuss in such detail how our language is changing and what it says about us.”

The dictionary, meanwhile, has continued to evolve, as Nunberg believes language does—and must. “A dictionary is there to record the public language as it is used.”

“Every word has its story,” early 20th-century linguist Antoine Meillet once said. That’s how Nunberg approaches his writing, poking and prodding and mining search engines and databases for keys to insight, relevance and larger meanings. Nunberg’s favorite columns are “the ones when you can take some little scrap of language you use every day,” such as the words like and and, “and you manage to get something interesting.” For example, Ronald Reagan’s use of the phrase, “and, yes” (“the ideas, the muscle, the moral courage and, yes, the spiritual strength that built the greatest, freest nation the world has ever known.”) appears more than 200 times in the speeches collected at Reagan’s presidential library. The phrase “suggests a speaker who isn’t ashamed to appeal to sentimentality or stand on simple principle, and obliquely rebukes those who might find expressions of spirituality or patriotism embarrassing,” Nunberg wrote. “‘And, yes, honor. . . . And, yes, patriotism. . . .’

“It’s those little rhetorical tics and twitches that often are most revealing about where somebody is going with the language, and that require a linguist’s ear to categorize and figure out.” And yes, he says, “I’m writing mostly for linguists when I do those pieces.”

He uses search engines like Google and databases from Lexis-Nexis to specialized references available through academic resources, tracing origins of words and usage and seeking statistical documentation, which frequently yields surprising results. When Bernard Goldberg complained of liberal bias in the media in his bestselling 2001 book, Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News, Nunberg devised an elaborate study of political labeling in major newspapers. He confirmed that there indeed was a disparity, but opposite the one Goldberg contended. Labels of political affiliation were attached 35 percent more frequently to individuals with liberal politics than to those identified as conservative, he found.

In Going Nucular—the title refers to President George W. Bush’s pronunciation of nuclear, which Nunberg calls a deliberate “faux Bubba” mispronunciation—many essays examine contemporary political language. Just after September 11, 2001, for example, Bush declared a “War on Terrorists,” but by 2004, Bush—and major newspapers—more frequently called it a “War on Terror.” “Like wars on ignorance and crime, a war on terror suggests an enduring state of struggle . . . as if the language is girding itself for the long haul.”

Nunberg, however, is not simply a word guy. “I’m not that interested in words as such. What’s interesting is the way words can betray attitudes that otherwise could be hard to get at.”

The development of linguistics is one of “the most impressive intellectual accomplishments of the 20th century,” says Nunberg, and since the 1950s, it has evolved into a highly technical field. But, he adds, most people are taught only a “19th-century understanding of language,” a great frustration.

“People rail about how the English language is going to hell in a handcart. I don’t do that. I don’t talk about grammar.” He has little use for those who do, and he always looks for logic to support usage theories. “Pontificating about these little words, while interesting, has nothing to do with the overall communicative effectiveness of the language. . . . When the last manager ceases to distinguish between imply and infer, will anything change? No.” Indeed, linguists are sometimes annoyed with writers outside the field who presume to know how the language is changing. “People operate with misapprehensions and false assumptions that they would not permit themselves if the topic were economics, for example,” Nunberg notes.

When Oakland schools sought to recognize African-American vernacular, Nunberg and other linguists defended Ebonics as having just as much structure as standard English. But the arguments fell on deaf ears. “In those debates, people say the language is falling apart. The language isn’t falling apart. The language never falls apart. . . .We don’t know whether we’ll be able to pay for our lunch in 10 years, but we’ll certainly be able to order it.”

More importantly, he says, the debate about Ebonics wasn’t really about language. It was “a proxy war” about multiculturalism and race in American society. “It had nothing to do with whether multiple negatives were logical or not.” When people were using words about African-American vernacular English such as slovenly, lazy, gutter English, “they were really displaced epithets.”

In the last decade, political rhetoric has become increasingly polarized, partly because symbolic issues have risen to the forefront, but also because the rhetoric is ubiquitous. Ultimately, Nunberg contends, the debate centers on language. Consider gay marriage, for instance. “Are we going to call them married or civilly unified? What’s that about, but language?”

At the same time, he doesn’t buy popular theories that finding just the right phrase will change people’s minds about issues. “There’s a lot of wishful thinking in that.”

For the immediate future, Nunberg will continue to observe and analyze, mindful of a paradox he articulated in a 2003 essay on George Orwell that underlies much of his recent work, and which he paraphrases. “Advertisers know the sophisticated audience is the easiest to beguile. . . . Even as we think we are hip to the work the language is doing, we are at its mercy. . . . The deceptions that are put in the language, the way it can work on us are endlessly subtle and sophisticated, and it’s in this fight to see who will be master we have to be always attentive.”

ANN HURST is a freelance writer based in San Jose.

Clarification: The dog pictured with Geoffrey Nunberg is his daughter's Brittany, not Nunberg's Australian shepherd.

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