Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Lexicon Valley

Posted by Maximum Fun on 30th June 2013

Vital stats:
Format: a “podcast about language, from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages”
Episode duration: 25-30m
Frequency: 1-2 per month, with gaps

I grew up with a reputation as a “smart kid.” Given your presence here, maybe you did too. If so, I do hope you handled it better than I did. Po Bronson explained a large part of my own burden in a New York Times Magazine article a few years ago: hearing myself called smart, I set about protecting the image by avoiding any task, intellectual or otherwise, at which I might not easily succeed, a condition that persisted into my twenties. Worse, I gained this aura of intelligence to some extent illegitimately, by learning to read early and from then on cargo-cultishly employing whichever words and phrases I thought might impress adults. So I spent my childhood ever more fearfully performing what amounted to smoke-and-mirrors act, but at least it kept me off drugs. It also taught me about the power of language, and, ultimately, the importance of using that power productively. One example of unproductive use: compulsively correcting grammar and usage aloud.

Most kids lead such boring lives here in America that, if we’ve received the mixed blessing of stronger-than-usual verbal ability, we can’t resist passing the time by ridiculing mismatched tenses, split infinitives, and even grocer’s apostrophes. We become what, in his review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, David Foster Wallace memorably called SNOOTs, “just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd,” “the sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate.” SNOOTs and only SNOOTs, you might assume, make up the audience for Lexicon Valley [iTunes], Slate’s “podcast about language, from pet peeves, syntax, and etymology to neurolinguistics and the death of languages,” but the show turns out to take a broader view of the subject. I report this with great relief, having spent the past five years listening to foreign-language podcasts and broadening my own linguistic Weltanschauung thereby.

Still, I approach with trepidation any program dealing mainly with English, a language about whose usage enervated pedants have long since dominated the conversation. But enjoy the show though weenies may, non-weenies listen too. Co-host and producer Mike Vuolo usually reads a complimentary and/or linguistically interesting iTunes review at the top of each episode, one of which praised he and his partner Bob Garfield for their refusal to adhere to prescriptivism. Wallace wrote much about linguistic prescriptivists, “whose bemused irony often masks a Colonel Blimp’s rage at the way the beloved English of their youth is being trashed in the decadent present”; for their counterparts, the descriptivists, according to Garner, “it’s impermissible to say that one form of language is any better than another: as long as a native speaker says it, it’s OK — and anyone who takes a contrary stand is a dunderhead.” So Vuolo and Garfield, on the whole, care more about language as humans actually use it than language as humans “ought to” use it, premising their conversations on the assumption that everything spoken, written, or grunted, no matter how casually, confusingly, or irritatingly, means something.

I’d long idly wondered, for instance, at the common yet seemingly nonsensical habit of modern English speakers to begin a reply with the words “yeah, no.” In an episode breaking down this very phenomenon, Vuolo actually whips out a clip of Tim Burton at a screening Q&A, asked to explain the strange prevalence in his films of the name “Ed.” “Yeah, no,” the director admits, “I know.” Discussing a few television clips from Australia — land of “yeah, no,” apparently — and consulting the relevant literature, our co-hosts find that the odd phrase can function in several ways: as agreement with a negative statement, as strong agreement that removes any possibility of contradiction, as a hedge or softener, and as something called “the resumptive yeah-no.” Most episodes similarly use sound clips, and sometimes even interviews with the experts, to illustrate the linguistic subject under discussion, whether they come from Slate’s other podcasts or Seinfeld or even Legally Blonde. Vuolo marshals that last one in a discussion of “vocal fry,” a creaky way of speaking used, as Garfield’s observations emphasize, mainly by young American women.

He actually took heat from a handful of listeners for that; evidently they sent in e-mails writing him off as a “sexist.” Personally, I often don’t start listening to someone until they do get accused of an -ism, and I’ve since paid closer attention to Garfield’s curious role on the show. Having referred to himself as the “bad cop,” he does indeed stake out the curmudgeonly position on many a language issue, if only for the purposes of devil’s advocacy. But what draws a man known primarily for writing about advertising and co-hosting On the Media, let alone one who admits he couldn’t even learn Spanish, to a podcast as specialized as this? He does a good job, certainly, but why does he do it? His tendency toward unreconstructedness does give me an idea for a Lexicon Valley episode I’d like to hear, though. The show, to my mind, covers not just the mechanics of language but the truths language reveal about us. So what can we learn about ourselves from the thirty-year prevalence of accusations of “sexism,” “racism” — for that matter, -isms of any sort? Some of the same lessons we’d learn by examining our seventeenth-century use of the word “heresy,” I suspect, but I’ll hold off with the guesses until Vuolo and Garfield get on the case.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]