Gaslighting

One of the more pernicious quirks of English usage to arise in the past few years is the employment — by a remarkably large number of people, it seems to me — of the term “gaslighting” as the default explanation for disagreement. Nobody just disagrees with me anymore, they’re trying to gaslight me.

Let’s remember where the phrase comes from: a 1944 film in which a husband attempts to make his wife think that she’s crazy. To say that someone is gaslighting you is to say that they know you’re right but are pretending not to. They’re maliciously trying to get you to doubt yourself. They are dishonest, deceitful, manipulative. The charge of gaslighting is an extreme form of Bulverism: Instead of claiming You say that because you’re a man or You say that because you’re an American it’s You say that because you’re a moral monster

It’s a useful tactic to deploy if you’d prefer never to think about whether any of your assumptions are correct. Your opponents are not only wrong, they are wicked, and why should you engage with arguments that are obviously made in bad faith and for evil purposes? These convictions keep your echo chamber hermetically sealed.

What I find especially interesting about this usage is that it seems to have been adopted with equal eagerness by extremists on the left and the right. (Unlike the structurally very similar red pill/blue pill meme, which has been totally co-opted by the right.) It’s one of the many ways in which the far left and the far right are continually borrowing language, rhetorical strategy, and in some cases even direct political strategy from one another. It would be nice if we could ship them all off to their own island where they could fight it out, or, perhaps, discover that they can’t tell one another apart.

hoisting the flag

I mentioned on my micro.blog that I’ve been reading Stephen Harrigan’s magnificent Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. (The title comes from the painter Georgia O’Keefe, a native of Wisconsin who remembered her first coming to west Texas: “I couldn’t believe Texas was real. When I arrived out there, there wasn’t a blade of green grass or a leaf to be seen, but I was absolutely crazy about it…. For me Texas is the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”) As I said over there, the book is full of passages like this one:

The Edwards brothers, and Martin Parmer, another outraged colonist who called himself the Ringtailed Panther, launched a rebellion, wrote yet another declaration of independence, designed yet another flag, and established yet another evanescent republic. This one was called the Republic of Fredonia, a brand-new country that in the Edwardses’ mind included not just the territory of his former colony but the greater part of Texas itself. Though it was at heart an Anglo rebellion, Haden Edwards managed to enlist a smattering of Cherokee allies, under the leadership of Richard Fields, who was a tireless advocate of the tribe despite his run-of-the-mill Anglo American name and his one-eighth measure of Cherokee blood. “The flag of liberty,” Edwards exulted, “now waves in majestic triumph on the heights of Nacogdoches and despotism stands appalled at the sight.”

The rhetorical flamboyance of Edwards’s description of what he had achieved — alas, Fredonia lasted just a few months — makes me smile. Maybe you had to have a lot of energy, in those days, to try to make a go of it in Texas, and that energy manifested itself not least in your language.

Such vibrancy could be terse — as in Davy Crockett’s famous farewell to Tennessee politics: “You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas” — or elegant — as when the magnificently named second President of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, offered his hopes for the country: “Our young Republic has been formed by a Spartan spirit — let it progress and ripen into Roman firmness, and Athenian gracefulness and wisdom.” But more often it was, like Haden Edwards’s encomium to Fredonia, unashamedly flashy. Presumably such flash was regularly inspired by the aforementioned “flag of liberty.” One hopeful colonist headed for what was then the northernmost province of New Spain was encouraged by a newspaper of the time with these stirring words: “God speed ye, [and] may no difficulties or obstacles oppose you — until the flag of liberty waves triumphant over the prostituted insignia of time-serving priests and the broken truncheons of substitute kings.”

I am sad that my culture has lost this facility and lost it altogether. Look at some of the statements of the Black Lives Matter organization, for instance:

We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.

Or:

We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).

Doesn’t exactly stir one’s loins with revolutionary fervor, does it?

I started to write that this language sounds like it comes from a draft manifesto of the Theory Collective at a midwestern university — but then I reflected that it sounds more like an except from the Policies and Procedures manual that your Human Resources department posted on your institutional intranet. And then I realized that Black revolutionaries, literary theorists, and HR departments all write exactly the same way. What a nightmare. What a desiccated, lifeless, mechanical, exhausted and exhausting nightmare.

Friends, let us recover some of the linguistic flamboyance of our ancestors. Only then may the flag of liberty flutter and snap with proud delight as it is tickled by the powerful winds of Progress!

Also, please call me the Ringtailed Panther.

Mindslaughter and the united front

Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (delivered as a lecture in 1958) begins with a meditation on political ends and means. “Where ends are agreed,” he writes, “the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines, like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones.” It is simply a matter of political engineering. This is of course what Oakeshott calls “rationalism in politics.”

Berlin then comments that if a stranger visited a British of American university, he would surely think that all the questions of ends has been settled, “for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.” That is, our professoriat act as though they believe that all the old debates about the social and political order, debates that go back in the West at least to Socrates and in the East at least to Confucius, have been decided. In Berlin’s view, this habit of mind “is both surprising and dangerous.”

Surprising because there has, perhaps, been no time in modern history when so large a number of human beings, in both the East and the West, have had their notions, and indeed their lives, so deeply altered, and in some cases violently upset, by fanatically held social and political doctrines. Dangerous, because when ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to them – that is to say, those who have been trained to think critically about ideas – they sometimes acquire an unchecked momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism.

I think it was an awareness of just this danger that made the great historian Robert Conquest write, in one of his last books, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), that in an age dominated by what he calls “mindslaughter” — the destruction of intellect by ideas that have “grown too violent to be affected by rational criticism” — Yeats’s description of the state of affairs just before the Second Coming might not be right. When Yeats wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he implied that the best needed to acquire a “passionate intensity” of their own — but Conquest isn’t so sure. Maybe what the world needs is more people who are skeptical by temperament, inclined to suspect certainty, wary of passions and their resulting intensities.

Conquest says, citing Orwell, that he wants to resist “the lure of the profound.” I have not been able to find that Orwell ever wrote that, though perhaps he said it to Conquest — I believe they knew each other, and Conquest wrote an incisive poem about Orwell. Why resist profundity, or at least the quest for it? There’s a hint at the beginning of Christopher Hitchens’s book Why Orwell Matters, which is dedicated to Conquest with these words: “premature anti-fascist, premature anti-Stalinist, poet and mentor, and founder of ‘the united front against bullshit.’” What the desire for profundity lures us into is bullshit.

Maybe we don’t need any more passionate intensity for a while. Maybe we need to revivify the United Front Against Bullshit.

my expert opinion

Americans have never more desperately needed reliable knowledge than we do now; also, Americans have never been less inclined to trust experts, who are by definition the people supposed to possess the reliable knowledge. There are many reasons why we have landed ourselves in this frustratingly paradoxical situation, and there’s no obvious way out of it. But I want to suggest that there’s one small thing that journalists can do to help: Stop using the word “experts.”

Of course, expertise is a real thing! — though perhaps not quite as commonplace a thing as is widely believed. In most of life’s situations we understand the value of expertise: few of us try to repair our own computers, and none of us decides to remove his own spleen. But occasionally we draw a line.

Some are inclined to draw that line in strange places — say, believing that the moon landing was faked, or that the world is ruled by lizard people. But the really common dissents seem to come in matters of health: you might not know any moon-landing skeptics or lizard-people True Believers, but you surely have an anti-vaxxer cousin, or an aunt whose belief in the healing power of essential oils persists in defiance of her doctor’s counsel. And if you’re going to try to persuade those dissenters from standard opinion to change their minds, almost the worst thing you can do it appeal to “experts.”

There are three reasons for this. The first is that many people with genuine expertise in a given field have a difficult time staying in their lane. I have long thought that the perfect example of this is the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The question of whether we are close to nuclear war is a political question, not a scientific one; an “atomic scientist” has no reasonable claim to knowing any more about it than you do, at least, not by virtue of being an atomic scientist. (Factoring climate change into the Doomsday scenario doesn’t help matters much, because atomic scientists aren’t climate scientists any more than they are psychiatrists or nutritionists.)

A second reason that invocations of expertise often fail is simply that people with equivalent expertise in the same field often disagree. This leads to the phenomenon, familiar to anyone who has ever flipped from one cable news station to another, of Dueling Experts.

The third, and most important, reason why appeals to expertise are futile is that the term “expert” functions as a kind of class marker. An expert is One Who Knows, a member of the noocracy or epistocracy — and you are not. “Experts say” is a phrase that often carries a strong implication: “So shut up and heed your betters.” This is not the sort of message that Americans like, even when maybe they ought to.

My suggestion to journalists, then, is simple: Never use the word “expert.” If you are tempted to say “We talked to an expert,” say instead that you talked to an immunologist, or an epidemiologist — and then take a moment to explain what an immunologist or epidemiologist actually is. Tell us that you talked to someone who has spent twenty years studying the ways that diseases are transmitted, especially from one person to another. Yes, that takes longer than saying “expert,” but it’s worth it. To describe the person you’re interviewing or quoting in that more detailed way tells a little story, a story not about someone standing on a pedestal labeled “EXPERT,” but rather a person who is continually working to learn more. A person who has thought hard, and tested her ideas, and worked with colleagues who care about the same things. A person whom we should listen to not because she belongs to a certain class that’s higher than ours, but rather because she‘s dedicated to gaining knowledge — and knowledge directly relevant to the questions we’re all asking right now.

It should be obvious that this discipline will also ensure that journalists rely on people with the appropriate knowledge. When you’re scrambling to find someone to interview or cite and can only find someone whose field is but tangentially related to the question at hand, he word “expert” can neatly obscure your problem.

All this takes more time and effort. But the word “expert” has been poisoned now for millions of people, and not always for bad reasons. I know that in journalism time is often short and word-count limited, but journalists have a responsibility to educate as well as inform their public, and this is a way to do that better. After all, you want to be an expert communicator, don’t you?

the call

“I call bullshit.” I used to see that a lot on social media, back when I was on social media. But what does it mean? It means, “I disagree.” That’s all. The statement has no further content. But “I disagree” sounds bland and flat while “I call bullshit” — well, that sounds badass. You must have some powerful Refutation Mojo if you can call bullshit, just like that, right there on the internet in front of everybody. 

When we were kids, on some excursion in a parental automobile, and were leaving the mall or the grocery store or the McDonald’s, someone would shout “Shotgun!” And then one of the bigger kids who hadn’t said anything would calmly climb into the shotgun seat, after which a little voice from the middle of the back seat would whine, “But I called it!” — and would simply be ignored. Calling bullshit is like that. 

monosyllabic

At the excellent Futility Closet I learn of a nineteenth-century fellow who wrote a sermon entirely in words of one syllable:

He who wrote the Psalm in which our text is found, had great cause to both bless and praise God; for he had been brought from a low state to be a great king in a great land; had been made wise to rule the land in the fear and truth of God; and all his foes were, at the time he wrote, at peace with him. Though he had been poor, he was now rich in this world’s goods; though his youth had been spent in the care of sheep, he now wore a crown; and though it had been his lot for a long time to hear the din of war and strife, peace now dwelt round the throne, and the land had rest.

That’s quite good, is it not? See also William Barnes’s book of speech-craft.

And: this stanza from one of the greatest of Auden’s poems, “The Shield of Achilles”:

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

Sixty-three words: one of three syllables, four of two syllables, all the others of one syllable each (including thirty-seven of them in a row). The words trudge at the pace of a terrible dirge.

Speech-craft

In 1878 a man named William Barnes published a book called An Outline of English Speech-Craft. “Speech-craft” is a word Barnes prefers to “grammar” because “grammar” is not an English word but a Greek one. Barnes’ self-chosen quixotic task — as outlined in his Preface Fore-Say — is to describe English speech-craft using only English words. The task is quixotic because linguists and lexicographers and grammarians typically use words borrowed from Latin and (less often) Greek. They speak of prepositions and participles, of the nominative and the subjunctive, of transitive and intransitive. Here are some of Barnes’s alternative terms — I’ll leave it to you to guess what Latinate terms they are meant to replace:

  • speech-breathing
  • breath-penning
  • pitches of suchness
  • outreaching
  • unoutreaching
  • time-taking
  • thought-wording
  • sundriness

Notice how many of these are kennings. Notice also that he can’t escape the influence of Latin altogether.

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“a large superfluous establishment of words”

We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannise over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.

— Dickens, David Copperfield 

N.B.  Quote posted by a man who has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Christian language policing

Mary Eberstadt:

The word gay and related terms like LGBTQ should be avoided for a deeper reason. They are insufficiently respectful of the human beings who are described in this way. Such identifiers sell humanity short by suggesting that sexual desire amounts to the most important fact about an individual. However well-intentioned (or not), these terms advance a reductionist view of men and women incommensurate with the reality that we are infinitely rich and complicated beings, created in the image of God.

It is bad enough when the wider culture, interested in exploiting carnal desires for commercial or prurient reasons, objectifies human beings in this way. When religious authorities do the same, the damage is worse. I’m reminded of Fr. Arne Panula, a prominent Washington, D.C., priest of manifest goodness and wisdom who died last year. In one of our last conversations, he mentioned meeting a friend-of-a-friend in Italy. This friend felt compelled to tell him, “Fr. Arne, I’m gay.” To which the priest replied, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God.” Fr. Arne was making the point that the most important fact about this man was not his erotic leanings.

I have heard some version of this argument many times and I have never understood it. Are there any other adjectives or descriptors that Eberstadt sees as having the same character?

For instance, imagine that I had just met Fr. Arne, and as we chatted he started telling me, with the evident sense that this would mean something to me, that he loved the city of Montreal and thought that the RCMP is an especially admirable institution that other countries should imitate. Imagine further that, in order to head off any misunderstanding, I said, “Fr. Arne, I’m American.” Would he reply, “No, you’re not. You’re a child of God”? And if not, why not? (We can easily imagine other situations in which I might say “I’m white” or “I’m Southern.”)

Adjectives and similar descriptors tend to be circumstantial in this way. Were I to say, in the imagined context, “I’m American,” I would not therefore be affirming that being American is intrinsic to my identity or the most important thing about me. I would, rather, be affirming that my status as an American was contextually relevant. And aren’t there other contexts in which “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” would be similarly relevant?

At this point in writing this post I realized that what I’m saying sounded familiar to me, and I thought a while, and remembered that Ron Belgau has already made my point: “English speakers say, ‘I am X’ all the time without meaning that ‘X’ is either a defining or constitutive element in their identity….” Belgau concludes, definitively: “I do not think that ‘gay’ describes any deep fact about who I am in Christ.” And yet no matter how many times he and his colleagues make these denials, someone always turns up to say Yes you do, you totally think that.

The insistence I see in so many quarters on policing this very particular bit of English usage is very strange to me, and I am losing the ability to see it as anything but a power play, a way of saying to gay and lesbian Christians You’ll use the language we decide you should use, or else. It’s become a non-fatal shibboleth, this demand that a certain word or set of words be used or not be used as a precondition of full fellowship. Isn’t it past time just to let this go?

excerpts from my Sent folder: on exhausted languages

What I really am, by vocation and avocation, is a historian of ideas, and when you’ve been a historian of ideas for several decades you’re bound to notice how a certain vocabulary can take over an era — and not always in a good way. Consider for instance the period of over half the 20th century in which Freudian language completely dominated humanistic discourse, despite the fact that it had no empirical support whatever and was about as wrong-headed as it is possible for a body of ideas to be. Some tiny number of people flatly rejected it, a rather larger group enthused over it, and the great majority accepted it as part of their mandatory mental furniture, like having a coffee table or refrigerator in your house. (“It’s what people do, dear.”) Eventually it passed not because it had been discredited — it had never been “credited” in the first place — but because people got tired of it.

This exhaustion of a vocabulary happens more and more quickly now thanks to the takeover of intellectual life by a university committed to novelty in scholarship. But that’s a topic for another day.

Anyway, when you do this kind of work you develop — or you damn well ought to develop — an awareness that many of our vocabularies are evanescent  because of their highly limited explanatory power. You see, in a given discipline or topic area, one vocabulary coming on as another fades away, and you don’t expect the new one to last any longer than the previous one did. I think this makes it easier for you to consider the possibility that a whole explanatory language is basically useless. But while those languages last people get profoundly attached to them and are simply unwilling to question them — they become axioms for their users — which means that conversations cease to be conversations but rather turn into endlessly iterated restatements of quasi-religious conviction. “Intersecting monologues,” as Rebecca West said.

Often when I’m grading essays, or talking to my students about their essays, I notice that a certain set of terms are functioning axiomatically for them in ways that impede actual thought. When that happens I will sometimes ask, “How would you describe your position if you couldn’t use that word?” And I try to force the same discipline on myself on those occasions (too rare of course) when I realize that I am allowing a certain set of terms to become an intellectual crutch.

Moreover, I have come to believe that when a conversation gets to the “intersecting monologue” stage, when people are just trotting out the same limited set of terms in every context, that says something about the inadequacy of the vocabulary itself. Not just its users but the vocabulary itself is proving resistant to an encounter with difference and otherness. And that’s a sign that it has lost whatever explanatory power it ever had.

I think that’s where we are in our discourse of gender. And that’s why I am strongly inclined to think that there’s nothing substantial behind that discourse, it’s just a bundle of words with no actual explanatory power. And even if that’s not the case, the only way we can free ourselves from bondage to our terministic axioms is to set them aside and try to describe the phenomena we’re interested in in wholly other terms.

This, by the way, is the origin of all great metaphors, the “metaphors we live by”: the ones that make a permanent mark on culture are the ones that arise from an awareness of how our conventional terms fail us. Those coinages are (often desperate) attempts to throw off the constricting power of those terms. It was when Darwin realized that the explanatory language of natural history had reached a dead end that he coined “natural selection,” a term whose power is so great that it is hard for most people to realize that it is after all a metaphor. Our whole discourse of gender needs Darwins who can’t bear those constrictions any more and decide to live without them. And the first term that should go, as I suggested to you earlier, is “gender” itself.

definition as poetry

ABER, adj., sharp, acute, as an edge-tool; clear, well-defined, as a cloudless sky; eager, as a hungry fish at a bait; secure, as a knot on a line; ardent, severe; v., to sharpen, as a knife; to stir up and make bright, as a fire.

— A piece of Shetland dialect, reported poetically in James Stout Angus’s A Glossary of the Shetland Dialect – as we learn from Robert Macfarlane

“the power of a discourse that is never open to reply”

Uttering the unacceptable in prose and exploring the elusive, not-yet-captured depth of things in poetry have in common the crucial recognition that we shan’t learn about ourselves or our world – including our political world – if we are prevented from hearing things to argue with and things that leave us frustrated and (in every sense) wondering. Our current panics about ‘offence’ are at their best and most generous an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations (my freedom of ‘offending’ speech may be your humiliation, a confirmation of your exclusion from ordinary public discourse). But at its worst it is a patronising and infantilising worry about protecting individuals from challenge; the inevitable end of that road is a far worse entrenching of unquestionable power, the power of a discourse that is never open to reply. Debates about international issues like Israel and Palestine, or issues of social and personal morals – abortion, gender and sexuality, end of life questions – are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic, about what must not be said in public, and also by the sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the ‘rational’ and canonical status of one perspective only. On both sides of all such debates, there can be a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not in the silencing of disagreement but in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense ‘civil’ disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds.

Rowan Williams

About “It”

Consider these sentences:

Wilson nailed it.

Jones just doesn’t get it.

It’s about ethics in games journalism.

It’s not about politics.

It. And: about. This kind of language is useless — worse than useless, in fact. Substantively, such phrases say nothing more than “I agree” or “I disagree,” but they add a layer of blurry obfuscation. Whole vast complexes of ideas and experiences disappear in the dense fog generated by a two-lettered pronoun. Wilson nailed what? Jones doesn’t get what? Put your brain in gear and figure out what you mean by “it.” Then write or say what you’ve decided you mean. Maybe then you can contribute something more than the mere announcement of what team you’re on.

About just thickens the fog further. What is this “it” that can only be “about” one thing? What does it even mean for an it to be about? All you’re really saying when you employ this locution is, “I would prefer us to debate certain topics that are different than the topics other people want to debate.” Again: vacuous.

So don’t use these locutions, ever. Just remember: It’s about clarity of thought and precision of expression.

Stefan Fatsis is Wrong

This post by Stefan Fatsis is remarkably dumb. Let me explain why.

When people disagree with dictionary-makers’ decisions about which words belong in a given dictionary, here’s what Fatsis says they do: they “panic.” They “grouse.” They “bemoan.” They “howl.” They “tsk-tsk.” He imagines them saying “Think of the children!” — presumably in a squeaky voice. Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t we, Stefan?

So for Fatsis any criticism of such choices is simply absurd, period. Why? Because “evolution of culture”! Because “language changes with time”! Disagreement with the dictionary makers is “manufactured” — by whom he doesn’t say — and “trumped up” — he doesn’t assign a perpetrator there either. Shadowy forces, setting themselves against “evolution of culture”! Who do they think they are?

Basically, Fatsis is making a “wrong side of history” argument: The evolution of culture rolls inexorably on — oppose it not, lest ye be crushed beneath its mighty wheels! But that’s just silly. These lexicographers are not, like Napoleon marching through Jena, embodiments of the Weltgeist. They are people making a product for sale. Those who might buy and use that product have every right to form opinions about its contents, and to argue for those opinions. Isn’t there more than enough passive consumerism in the world already?

Fatsis thinks it’s self-evidently ridiculous for people to want the word “acorn” in a children’s dictionary in preference to the word “broadband,” largely because he thinks such people have no status to question their lexicographical overlords, who embody “evolution of culture,” but also because he says we live in a world where kids simply use computers more than they play outside, “like it or not.” Here he’s just failing to understand that children’s dictionaries are tools that parents and teachers employ in child-rearing: debates over what forms those tools should take cannot be resolved by appealing to the current status of lexicographers’ self-description. Lexicography can be descriptivist; child-rearing cannot. It’s perfectly reasonable to want children to learn more nature-words and not to worry so much about how many internet-words they pick up.

This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies. Even acorns.

So, Stefan Fatsis, enough of your panicking, howling, grousing, bemoaning, and tsk-tsking. Think of the children!

My great-grandmother was born in Mississippi, in 1890, and lived in Mississippi for the whole of her long life. But her own grandparents, who died long before I was born, were Scottish, and vestiges of this Scottishness still survived in her nursery talk. In the same way her husband, my great-grandfather — generations removed from his French ancestors — instinctively corrected naughty dogs and children as his old French aunties had done, with a sharp and very Gallic non!

A particular lilt crept into my great-grandmother’s voice when she sang and when she read to me aloud. It was dreamy and gorgeous to my ear, this special voice of hers, the very stuff of warmth and love; it was, I believed, peculiar to her alone of all the world, a voice which, like a cat’s purr, was specific to hearth and home, reserved for her dearest ones. Not until I was older — and, rather to my shock, heard the private lullaby voice being spoken in public by a perfect stranger on a television program — did I realize that the beloved musicality which for many years I’d confidently believed was mine alone was in fact a Scots accent.

And so, among Jews, Braun now becomes a familiar figure: a shanda fur die Goyim. The Yiddish phrase translates, roughly, to “a shame before the non-Jews.” The idea is sort of two-fold: That more is expected of Jews, specifically by Jews; and that when a famous Jew fails to live up to those high standards, it makes us all look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world. Madoff is a shanda. Maybe Weiner and Spitzer. You get the idea. And Braun, now, will surely join their ranks.

This is something relatively assimilated Jewish people still say, and still mean sincerely; it’s not just, like, a Twitter thing. But it is interesting that the phrase persists in the original Yiddish. That language, essentially a German dialect written in Hebrew script which is now spoken only by a handful of native speakers from Eastern Europe as well as by members of several Hasidic sects, is explicitly ethnic (yid is Yiddish for “Jew”) and as such unavoidably paints the world in expressly ethnic, tribal terms. To call someone a shanda, in other words, is to think in ethnic terms doubly.

There are many dying languages in the world. But at least one has recently been born, created by children living in a remote village in northern Australia.

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”