At 45, Michael Silverstein still bears comfortably the look of a surprised schoolboy. In fact that perpetual youthfulness may have contributed to his famously abstract and convoluted speaking habits--when he arrived at the University of Chicago at 25, directly out of graduate school at Harvard, possibly he buttressed his youth with very adult-sounding speech.
When Silverstein is talking about sports fans, for instance, he says "that subculture whose existence focuses primarily on the seasonality of spectator sport." Instead of saying "baby-sitter," he says "that woman to whom my wife and I have entrusted our children." Such excursions are sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but even his ordinary speech is loamy and dense, liberally sprinkled with words like "mobilized" (generally used as a synonym for "used"), "affected" and "affect-laden" (meaning, roughly, "emotionally charged"), and "mode." That his extravagant sentences--filled with clauses packed with abstractions within parentheses embedded in digressions--end up scanning as often as not is an achievement in itself. But sometimes a sentence, like some renegade space satellite, seems to shoot out of sight into the infinite grammatical universe stretching out before it.
If Silverstein's heroic abstractions are in part the product of having to adjust to his environment, it only means he's human, little different from the millions of American English speakers whose way of talking or communicating is distorted by any number of concerns. Many people want to impress a teacher or boss, or worry that what they're saying is "incorrect," or that their accent is "bad," or that they have to watch what they're saying because a linguist is in the room--even a linguistic anthropologist, which is what Silverstein is.
"No one ever thinks about language at all," says Silverstein. The table he's sitting behind suggests that he does, though: it's piled a foot high with reading materials of one sort or another. The room is windowless, maybe 15 feet by 20 at the most; floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line the walls and protrude into the room; a wrapped-up sitar lies atop one bookshelf, a souvenir Silverstein brought back from India and never learned to play. But books are what dominate the room; they pour off the shelves and fill the floor. A visitor feels rather like he's sitting amid the academic equivalent of a snowdrift.
"The very idea that language is something to study is very esoteric to some people," Silverstein continues. "Their experience of it is as a collection of rights and wrongs that somebody attempted to beat into them at some point in a school system, and so they're embarrassed about their own language. Now, that's an interesting fact. That people are embarrassed becomes an interesting fact. It can even be a marketable fact--you can always sell people a remedy for their linguistic bad breath.
"But remember that the crucial issue is not that one should or shouldn't be embarrassed. The crucial issue is: What does the fact that people are embarrassed in this way tell us about the nature of language in relation to the structure of society? It's not a situation of saying because this happens it's bad, or because it happens it's good. But that people find it bad or good--that's what's interesting."
Besides watching Americans grapple with their language, Silverstein's specialty is watching how people in smaller-scale societies deal with their languages. Popular prejudice, of course, looks down its nose at the so-called primitive--Silverstein's use of the word is always ironic--languages; the perception is that the language of a culture without microwave ovens is somehow underdeveloped. Silverstein knows better. The truth is that all languages are so extraordinarily complicated that distinctions between any two on the basis of "complexity" are meaningless. It's an axiom of linguistic studies that all languages are equally sophisticated and subtle.
Still, popular myths remain, and it's with a sense of fun that Silverstein trains his anthropologist's eye on American perceptions of language. "One of my interests," he says, "is trying to see whether the techniques we use for investigating language and the cultural values of language in the traditional small-scale societies can be adopted into large-scale modern societies."
Linguists' traditional approach to those small-scale societies--and a rite of passage for many linguistics graduate students--is to identify an unexamined language, whether in the American west, the Amazon, or sub-Saharan Africa, go in cold, and learn the language.
"One of the extraordinarily amazing bits of chutzpah that an anthropologist engages in," says Silverstein, "is going somewhere around the world, plopping down in a community, and sticking your foot in the door. People allow you to ask a few questions, and then you say [he breaks into a stagy, deep voice], 'By the way--may I move in for a few years, and will you feed me?' Then you learn the language, work in the language, analyze the language. But you also start discovering the ways in which people have particular patterns of using the language and how particular kinds of communities are set up--men talking to women in one way, people who are related to each other speaking in certain kinds of patterns, certain kinds of events structured in certain kinds of ways, like ritual occasions. You see what sort of language is trucked out in these circumstances."
Silverstein studied the language of a group of northeast Australian aborigines called the Worora. Here as in other cultures, talk between relatives--particularly in-laws--can be as touchy and delicate as between a prince and his underlings. Western languages cope with this problem by using dual forms for "you": a friendly, informal version (du, tu, tu, in German, French, and Spanish, respectively) and a respectful, formal one (Sie, vous, usted). The Worora's concern for such issues is extravagant, and their language includes highly stylized ways of acknowledging the array of relationships between people. "It was all labeled by kinship words," Silverstein says. "Father's sister, mother's brother, father's mother's brother's son's wife--I'm giving you translations of things that are single words in this language. To interact with someone else you have to understand your relative kinship position. In Worora, anyone who's a 'wife giver'--a father-in-law or brother-in-law--to a particular speaker has to be addressed in the same way you do in German [to be respectful], with a third-person plural pronoun--you speak of them as a 'they' to show respect.
"There's an even jazzier, more interesting practice, which at first you're really thrown by until you get the clue as to what's going on. Whenever you want to do the equivalent of saying 'you'--as in 'Are you hungry?'--in the presence of a mother-in-law, instead of using the term for 'you,' in Worora the practice is that you say 'We two,' only you address it to some third party. That is to say, it's a drama that includes not two but three people; you can't address a mother-in-law without three people present.
"One of whom," Silverstein continues merrily, "may be, for example, a magical stone, or a dog. So you say, 'Are you and I hungry?' to this other person or rock, within earshot of the mother-in-law, who then answers to this third person, 'Yes, we are.'"
It sounds like another wacky primitive practice, but Silverstein points out that similar impulses exist in American society, only English doesn't have all the forms to express them. And the pressure to make distinctions is there--Silverstein has a bevy of examples from the advice columns showing that the issue is on people's minds. The most frequent plaint seems to be from newlyweds who don't feel comfortable using "mom" and "dad" for their in-laws--and right behind them are the parents-in-law who recoil at being addressed by their first name, or worse, as a consequence.
"What happens," says Silverstein, "is a practice that was observed by social psychologists in America some time ago, and the practice has gotten a name: it's called no-naming." In other words, the daughters- and sons-in-law don't call their in-laws anything. "Even a dog has a name!" writes one mournful Dear Abby correspondent.
Such concerns about the correct and proper uses of language tend to be the province of a particular segment of society. "It's been shown again and again," says Silverstein, "that it's the not-uninteresting and not-unexpected fact that at the very top of some of the asymmetries of society--wealth, prestige of position, social position--and at the bottom are people who are pretty secure about self-identification. What we find is that there's a really subtle demonstration of the anxiety in what in European contexts is called the bourgeoisie. It's precisely something that Moliere--in the 17th century, in The Would-Be Gentleman--parodied, and that Shaw [in Pygmalion] picked up on as well. To speak too correctly is no good; that reveals that it's something that you've acquired.
"Take 'who' and 'whom,'" he says. "In contrast to 'whom,' 'who' is not valued. The rule is [he adopts a schoolmarmish voice]: 'You didn't say "whom" where you really should,' though 'whom' was probably completely lost from spoken English three or four generations ago. It's only been maintained as part of a written standard ideal.
"And what you get, of course, is an interesting phenomenon: the person who has acquired standard from a distant form of native speech throws 'whom' in everywhere. It's what we call hypercorrect speech. Real speakers of standard would never say, 'Whom shall I say is calling?' But someone who's learned it piecemeal knows simply that 'whom' is the high-priced word and 'who' is the vulgar word. Remember in the musical version of Pygmalion, the rival speech teacher? 'She speaks such excellent English; it couldn't be native.'" He chuckles.
One of Silverstein's current projects is an amusing look at a textbook example of modern linguistic "totemism." What he calls "wine register" consists of the words and phrases surrounding wine connoisseurship and would-be wine connoisseurship. To Silverstein, wine register is a sterling example of people's using language only nominally about wine and much more trenchantly about themselves.
Totemism, Silverstein says, is when people derive some part of their identity from objects. Back to the Worora for an example: "They had an elaborate system of avoiding certain foods. The Worora believe that each person is consubstantial in some mystical sense with a certain animal or food. It could be anything--hibiscus, certain species of lizards, a certain species of kangaroo.
"That is to say, my substance is the same as the substance of this sulphur-crested cockatoo, so I don't eat it, and I try protecting it. I help propitiate it, whereas other people might hunt it."
This totemism, Silverstein says, also affects the tribe's beliefs about procreation. "The local theory of how you are born is strikingly totemistic in character as well. The way a soul comes into the universe is by representing itself, in the form of a natural species, to the father, or the to-be father. The man has a mystical experience with that particular species: the animal crosses the man's path and throws him into a daydream, and actually says to him, 'Djidja ngaywwaligee!'--'Papa, it's me!'" Silverstein laughs.
"The man becomes spiritually pregnant, and then that animal or plant becomes a very personal, individual animal or plant [to the as-yet-unborn child] that he will not eat, will be kind and gentle to, and so on. Then the soul of the child is in the man waiting to be transferred, through multiple repeated acts of copulation, into his wife. So that the physical growth of the child, or the fetus, is something associated not with a single act of conception but with multiple acts that eventually transfer all the physical substance necessary, and in the process the soul as well."
Back to modern America and wine register: Wine is of course a food--a "comestible," in Silverstein's hyperpolysyllabic speech. But more important, it's a luxury comestible, one that lends itself to such shenanigans.
"My analysis is that wine register links the object talked about with the person talking about it," he says. "It puts people close to certain kinds of institutionalized and understood centers of power and influence and aesthetic subtlety; and second, it summons up these images--'body,' 'breeding'--that give us a sense that these dimensions in which we construe it really exist out there."
In other words, by talking like a wine connoisseur you become one, and presumably become as well a member of that tony sect for whom wine appreciation is de rigueur. You also imbue the wine with mystical properties, making it all the more worthy of your discriminating attentions.
"The real goal of the wine register," Silverstein says, "is orienting the self that's doing the evaluation towards the world; so you're talking as someone who's a judge of character, and therefore from the implicit perspective of someone who has a oneness with, and the subtlety of, evaluative authority."
One of his key submissions is an essay from Hugh Johnson's International Encyclopedia of Wine. "Tasting and Talking About Wine" begins with a trenchant example of the wine connoisseur's perception of himself as a rare creature: "Most good, most even great wine is wasted. It flows over tongues and down throats of people who are not attuned to it; not receptive to what it has to offer."
An accompanying glossary of wine-register terms seems only fitfully rational. There's the plausible: "Musty--unpleasant smell, probably from a barrel with a rotten stave." The indistinct: "Aroma--the simple grape-smell of young wine," which is opposed to "Bouquet--the complex smell arising with maturity in good wine." And the entirely elusive: "Elegant--as of a woman; indefinable" and "Nervy--vigorous and fine; good in wine as in horses."
Here's wine writer Michael Broadbent in another source waxing poetic about a 1945 Chateau Haut-Brion: "Down to earth yet suave, somehow fewer mannerisms and criticizable facets than most other great chateaux."
Silverstein delights in such phenomena as the American Express Wine Club--"an exclusive new club," an ad states, "devoted to the enjoyment and appreciation of fine wines." In this wine-of-the-month arrangement, "Each wine is reviewed by a panel of experts [the ad shows a photo of the panel, deep in appreciation of some wine], allowing both the connoisseur and novice to sample and purchase with confidence."
All of this talk seems a little, um, overripe. Silverstein confesses to some amusement but insists there are serious ramifications. "It's interesting. On the one hand, you have people who claim to be creating a technical terminology--that lying behind all these words are theoretical constructions that locate them.
"Other people would say, 'Oh no, it's really an emotional, aesthetic experience that we're summing up, ever so pitifully, in words; since who could ever really summon up the real experience.'" Silverstein switches to a deep, respectful connoisseur's voice: "'Which, as it turns out, I just so happen to have had recently, of the real flavor on the tongue of a Chateau Mon Cul '45'--said in hushed tones, of course. It's not really the precision of a technical terminology, it's a prose poem to the experience, behind which, of course, lies that ineffable something called connoisseurship."
While wine has been around for millennia, and has popped up prominently at certain key historical moments, modern interest in the beverage, Silverstein says, really began in the late 19th century. "It was associated with the rise of an elaborate set of institutions that moved from the production of wine, on the Continent, to the retail consumption of wine, in urban areas of England, particularly London. There were a whole bunch of historical incidents involved in that--the Gladstone reforms on import duties, the rise of the industrial-era bourgeoisie, and the single-bottle act, which allowed retailers to sell wine by the bottle for the first time. Before that, wine had to be purchased in case shipments, or bought literally by the cask and bottled at your own country home.
"And then you have the rise of the Victoria Wine Company, founded in 1865, one of the first aggressive retailers. It's not until the 1920s, though, that you start getting a public face of the 'professionals' in the wine-retailing trade, in the form of guidebooks and manuals and publications on how to be a connoisseur. It's a fairly recent phenomenon.
"What we're trying to find out now is when the specialized senses started turning up; with wine register, we're talking about the specialized sense of words that are otherwise common--'body,' 'bouquet,' 'finish.'"
Beyond the words themselves Silverstein sees the identities they help maintain. "In the American Express ad, they're selling people the fact that they don't even have to know anything more than the fact that the Chateau Blah Blah Blah was picked by experts. Then you can go into a restaurant and order a Chateau Blah Blah Blah, and that would speak volumes for you."
It seems to Silverstein that totemism--the "primitive" system of using external objects for self-identity--is precisely what goes on in the realm of connoisseurship.
"Ingestion is one of the most powerful and extraordinary rituals of identity that you can imagine," he says. "On the one hand, [wine connoisseurship] physically deals with ingestion; and it spiritually deals with consubstantiality and mystical incorporation. The fact that we engage in these rituals of self-definition through comestibles makes us deliciously totemistic."
Silverstein grew up in Brooklyn; his father was a manager at a large New York plumbing contractor, his mother a hospital administrator. As he himself might say, his interest was in linguistics qua linguistics; he did not merely have a fondness for learning languages.
"Discovering that there was a 'language racket,'" he says, "was something that happened to me when I discovered the Dewey decimal system classification--410, I think--of the linguistics section in the library. I read an introductory linguistics textbook; it's now rather passe, I think, but I remember reading it in a couple of days from cover to cover. It was the most extraordinary revelation that had ever occurred to me.
"You find, as you study what you might call exotic languages with structures that look extremely different from the languages you've studied thus far, that one of the extraordinary things is that, while there's a marvelous way of generalizing across specific encounters with one language--spoken English, written English, this, that, and the other thing--when you start looking across the universe of possible languages, you find that you can still say something about what language in general is all about."
It was a windy day; we were sitting on a bench just off the U. of C. quad. I asked him, as I did repeatedly during our conversations, for a concrete example.
"One thing I remember," he said, "was being startled to see that all of these tremendously different kinds of words and all these exotic languages all represented the world with similar sorts of categories.
"Languages all have category systems that indicate whatever it is we want to point out with respect to ourselves as speakers. So, for example, I can say 'the bench under you.' There are two things going on. First thing is that I'm talking about a particular object that I explicitly say bears some relationship to you, the person I'm addressing. The second is that I'm calling it 'the bench' and not 'you.' Why don't I just call it you? That is, I'm differentiating it from you and from me at the same time and characterizing it in terms of a relationship to you.
"This sort of thing is fascinating because it involves principles that as it turns out structure the way that all languages characterize all the objects in the universe that they can talk about. It's fascinating, that sense of variation within substantively equivalent ways of conceptualizing and representing the universe."
I was looking at him blankly, but he pressed on.
"It strikes one immediately," he continued, "that that's the level on which people are trying to operate. It's just like masses having an empirically mutual effect, called forces, on each other. It sounds very abstract, but it's very concrete when the coconut hits you on the head.
"In some languages--if I can give you a very bad piece-by-piece translation--you would say [for 'the bench under you'] 'your underness.' That is to say, what we consider to be prepositions turn out to be nouns--they're called 'inalienably possessed nouns.' People say, 'Gee, that's really remarkable; they must be wrong, those folks who use that.' But it's not right or wrong, it's a matter of finding a schema abstract enough, one, to predict the possibility of all the variations that in fact exist, and two, explain in what respect, exactly, they are alike.
"That's the one thing that absolutely blew my mind."
English and most other Western languages happen to use something that we call prepositions; other languages do not. But what excited Silverstein, even as a precocious 14-year-old, was not so much that other languages did things differently, but that underlying the differences were similarities and an abstract problem: how to characterize them.
Silverstein learned Yiddish as a youngster and took French in junior high. ("It was expected that you would take French; everyone knows the symbolic value of the different foreign languages in this country.") In college he concentrated on French and its dialects, and majored in linguistics and Romance languages. In graduate school at Harvard, he began his research into various American Indian languages, notably Kiksht, spoken by just a few remaining members of the Wasco tribe in central Washington. Later he spent 18 months living among the Worora in northern Australia.
As a graduate student in the late 60s, he worked on some of the American Indian etymologies for the American Heritage dictionary, then being assembled in Boston. The project was a largely successful and fairly unique attempt to fashion a truly modern unabridged dictionary--one created from scratch on a large scale. Though it never achieved its original goals--it ended up being roughly the size of an average college dictionary--it did include some novel features. For one thing it printed, for the first time in any mainstream American dictionary, a pretty complete smorgasbord of obscenities.
"There was quite a discussion over the fact that it was the first dictionary to include all the, quote, four-letter words, unquote," recalls Silverstein. "They finally came down firmly on the side of what a button they had printed up said: 'Old Enough to Read, Old Enough to Know.'"
More important, the editors of the dictionary grappled with the question of what is known in the trade as "prescriptivism." Most people think a dictionary prescribes what words should mean; in fact, most dictionaries are made under the philosophy of "descriptivism"--they describe how people actually use a particular word, whether that usage is "correct" in the opinion of stodgy grammarians or not.
The makers of American Heritage believed in the descriptive function of dictionaries, but they had also seen the Merriam-Webster Third International nearly immolated in a fire storm of disapproval in the early 60s when its editors made the mistake of bragging about its descriptivism. The problem was to reconcile popular prejudice in favor of a (mythical) "standard"--a perfectly "correct" speech--with the norms of actual speech.
"They attempted to solve the problem in the most hilarious way," says Silverstein. "It reminds me of something an old teacher of mine, Roman Jakobson, once said. He was a constant obstructionist in the matter of Harvard's Slavic department appointing Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov had been associate curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge; he was a butterfly man, you know. But then Cornell snapped him up as a professor of comparative literature.
"Every time Harvard, in a fit of guilt for having let Nabokov get away to Cornell, would propose making him a professor of Slavic literature, Jakobson would block it, saying, 'The elephant is a wonderful animal, but he should never be confused with or appointed as a professor of zoology.'
"The anecdote is applicable to the American Heritage because of the way they made their pitch. They assembled a panel of 98 famous writers, usage experts"--Silverstein is laughing out loud--"who of course inhabit the fictive role of the 'best speaker' that lies behind the ideology of standard in the first place; thereby the dictionary could put themselves forward as people for whom the standard was the norm, if you see what I mean."
In other words, the makers of the dictionary were saying, OK, we won't be prescriptive, but our pool of speech for a descriptive approach will be people who make their living writing or editing, who have good taste.
Silverstein is still laughing. "So they have these 98 people who voted on questions of usage, as though they could introspectively observe their own usage. But time after time sociological investigation has shown that people err as a function of their commitment to the existence of standard in the direction of overstandardizing by evaluation of their own speech and understandardizing the speech of people who for one reason or another they devalue with respect to the ideal speaker."
My mind spinning, I dimly grasped what he was saying: that people who have an investment in the concept of standard tend to think that that's what they speak, and correspondingly look down their noses at those parts of society that don't measure up--for whatever reason. Writers are wonderful people, but they shouldn't be confused with dictionary makers or professors of comparative lit.
After Harvard, Silverstein did a visiting lectureship at the University of Chicago, which then made him an offer. He's been based in Hyde Park ever since. He holds joint professorships in the departments of anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, and the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and the Studies of Methods. He's also active in various academic organizations outside the U. of C., currently serving as a director of the Chicago-based Center for Psychosocial Studies. Last quarter he was teaching two graduate classes; the one I sat in on was blindingly abstract.
I asked Silverstein if he corrected his students' grammatical mistakes. "I tell my students: You're in an educational institution, I'm in an educational institution. There are certain things that I consider it my lower, as opposed to higher, moral duty to fulfill, and one of them is to correct your papers back to standard."
One of Silverstein's favorite hobbies is collecting the raw data on attitudes toward language that come out of the popular press. Language is a fascinating subject to journalists; the industry's natural interest is reflected in a stream of news stories about language, this or that alleged instance of bad grammar, and digressions into one or another of the hundreds of folk etymologies, various language myths, and exaggerations: that the Russians don't have a word for "peace," that Eskimos have some 100 words for snow, and so forth. Advice columnists, Silverstein has found, are a particularly fecund source of material--he's less interested in the answers than in the letters from the public. "Dear Abby" has devoted many columns to language foibles, and "Miss Manners" often deals with the etiquette side of language.
On a recent chilly morning, he dragged out two thick manila folders stuffed with clippings he'd been collecting over the years.
I picked up a "Dear Abby" column from the mid-80s. "Dear Abby: Here's another for your continuing saga of grammar misuse: the misuse of I, me, and myself," wrote in a radio announcer from Sacramento, California. "One does not answer the question, 'How are you?' with 'Fine--and yourself?' . . . The answer would have to be, 'Myself is fine.'"
Abby didn't comment.
Where did this guy get his information? I asked Silverstein. Did he think it up himself, or did he read it somewhere?
"Presumably it comes from a sense about what we would call the 'logic of words,'" he said. "'Logic' in the sense that people think that words should match the world. And since the world is rationalizable, then language itself ought to be rationalizable. I had a teacher in junior high school whose dictum in English class was "Grammar is logic.' There's a view of language as a bunch of autonomous words and expressions, each of which stands for something out in the real world; to the extent that grammatical patterns are perceived in any way, they are usually perceived as the basis for some particular example, and then people reason by analogy from it.
"The idiom coming to bear here is mobilized by the contrastive force of the word 'yourself.' There are many positions where the word 'yourself' is not strictly reflexive [it is reflexive in a phrase like "You said to yourself"], especially when it has a contrastive force. Here it means, 'And, by contrast, you?'"
I picked up another. "Dear Abby," I read. "Let's put a stop to using the word 'hopefully' as follows: 'Hopefully we'll be there soon.' The sentence should be, 'I hope we'll be there soon.'
"I hope we'll soon rid ourselves of the earsore 'hopefully.'"
"Oh, dear," sighed Silverstein. "These are adverbs of speaker evaluation. They tend to come at the beginning of the sentence. We get such things like 'Truthfully, I couldn't tell you if that was the case.' It's describing not the subject of the sentence but an attitude of the speaker, the utterer of the sentence.
"But this construction gets people absolutely up in arms. They've learned a sort of primordial construction type: 'Adverbs modify either an adjective or a verb.' People learn that in grammar school. And if it modifies a verb, then it must be the main verb of the sentence. 'Hopefully, he will return home.' It must be that the attitude of him returning must be hopeful. So you have people screaming about that."
He picked at the clippings. "Here's one. 'Dear Miss Manners: Is the use of bad grammar a breach of good manners?' I love that one."
Miss Manners's reply: "It is rude to correct other people's speech. You're supposed to be too interested in the content to notice the form."
Another area of linguistic interest involves people's efforts to achieve "correct" pronunciation. Silverstein keeps close tabs on the burgeoning business of accent-eradication classes. He displays a Discovery Center ad for a class that "improves" your accent. "Here's an AP article from 1986," he says, and begins to read it out loud. The article has a joke lead: "Some people from Chicago tink day tak funny compared wit people from da rest of da country.
"Morton Cooper, a Los Angeles speech pathologist"--Silverstein points out the connection with illness--"says he's worked with hundreds of transplanted Chicagoans because they're self-conscious about the way they speak. 'When they go from one place to another they have an identity crisis,' says Cooper, 56.
"According to Cooper, what is known as the Chicago accent mainly results from the high, nasal voice people speak with."
"Look at the connection that is drawn," Silverstein says. "High, nasal voices are cosmetically devalued. We value a notion of the masculine, low, calm voice, as opposed to nasality, which has all kinds of bad connotations. And notice that the speech pathologist locates the problem with the Chicago accent in these highly pejorative personal attributes, when they just happen to be local Chicago norm."
Though Silverstein is definitely not a crusader, and his attitude toward the letter writers was always good-natured, he did occasionally seem a bit frustrated at the material as we flipped through it.
"Modern linguistics has now existed for over 100 years," he said at one point. "But there's a sense in which the cultural value system embodied in such excrescences as letters to Dear Abby or Miss Manners, or people like the John Simons and Edwin Newmans of this world, cannot find a place for such study.
"If you told someone that there is nothing strictly logical about language in any useful notion of the term 'logic'--if you try to tell people that it's really not a kind of logic that mirrors the structure of the universe out there, that drives linguistic patterns in that person's language--in this kind of society they'd spit in your face. And they do."
I asked if that sort of reaction bothered him.
"The brief for the systematic study of language is a bit like the physicists' brief," he replied. "People say, 'Why do you study these invisible particles that we can't see, and it's dangerous if we find out about them?' Viz, look what happened when Mr. Fermi, just a few blocks from here, made a sustaining nuclear reaction, and bingo!--or boom, I suppose I should say--that led to the bomb, and that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that led to the cold war and blah blah blah. But at the same time the physicist is just saying, 'Look, these are just the phenomena that are there.'
"People don't argue with it as being factual, they simply argue that it's dangerous to know them. And if you have any belief in the lessons, as parables, of the Bible, there's the whole Garden of Eden story, that knowledge drives us out of paradise.
"Now, language has to do with self-knowledge. If you say that self-knowledge automatically means progress toward some sort of rational or enlightened this, that, or the other thing, there's a whole counterargument that can be made of all the dangers that came out of the physicists' knowledge, only more so."
Here Silverstein is laughing. "That is to say, the facts are really us. We are the facts. It's always extremely interesting, for example, to go into an undergraduate class and talk about the relationship between language, class structure, and standardization, and how the institutions of standardization mobilize language to the ends of the class structure.
"It makes certain people in the class uncomfortable--who, remember, are being hit with social facts about identity at precisely the moment of their own life cycle when, crucially, all kinds of very affect-laden, very personally important facts about fashioning an identity for yourself are going on.
"I remember once receiving a term paper where the question posed asked for a discussion on these sorts of things based on the readings and the lectures. I got back a long civics-book lesson saying that these things [about class structure and language] couldn't be right."
What grade did you give him? I asked.
"I asked that the paper be withdrawn on the grounds that it was not dealing with the facts as represented."
I asked Silverstein what were the sorts of preconceptions that his lectures challenged.
"Well," he said, "people tend to think of the so-called standard language as being what the language is, and deviations are thought of as dialect. People use the word 'dialect' as a folk term; anything spoken is called a dialect, and more particularly, anything spoken that is not of one's own place is called a dialect. 'Now, I never speak with an accent, but you do!' One of the important jobs of the 'standard' therapist is to sell people the idea that they do speak with an accent, and that it's a negative piece of very personal baggage, and that it's possible to speak, quote, without an accent, unquote, whatever that might mean.
"The second myth is that people actually do speak standard. It's a mythical ideal. What's interesting about it is that it generally manifests itself as a set of don'ts. 'Don't do this,' that is to say, what you might want to call 'negatively specific markers': 'ain't,' 'dis,' and so forth. And then positively specific markers: for example, having to learn an elaborate set of bizarre and, it turns out, completely cockeyed notions of the use of 'shall' and 'will.'"
Silverstein has written monographs on American perceptions of standard and a host of related issues--notably on the sociolinguistics of views of sexism in English--but they're extremely technical, very difficult for a layperson to read. I asked Silverstein if he had ever thought about popularizing the field of linguistics in the way academics in other disciplines have.
He recoiled. "That's an ethical question," he said. "There are people who are scientific evangelists, who are no different in kind than any other evangelist. I'm enough of a Menckenite to be a skeptic--that is to say, to realize that my claim to systematic knowledge of a social phenomenon is just one more thing that might go into the hopper of whatever the phenomenon happened to be. One might say that that's just not the kind of phenomenon that responds to that sort of treatment. 'You just think you're studying it, you're not really studying it; what the phenomenon is is exactly what John Simon says it is, and pooh-pooh on all of your stuff.' Because, remember, the phenomena are us."
Still, I persist, he must have some feelings on the subject: "What if someone writes in to Dear Abby and says, 'We were at a dinner party the other day, and I said, "Everyone should put on their own coat," and my husband corrected my grammar, in front of my friends, my boss . . .'"
"It sounds like a real Dear Abby letter, actually," Silverstein said.
" . . . and Abby says to the woman, 'Hey, you were wrong.'"
"As they say, 'Sest la vee,'" Silverstein laughed.
"Doesn't that bother you at all?" I pressed.
"Now you're trying to cast me in the role of a therapist," he said. "If I was the Man from Glad--was that the guy who would pop up in people's kitchens?--I could say, 'Look, my boy, I've made a study of these things, and my systematic knowledge says this and this is the case.' That gets us back to the problem of the futility of that knowledge to anyone on the outside of the systematic study."
"Don't you ever have the urge to write to Dear Abby, 'Hey, Abby, wake up and smell the coffee?'"
"Oh, no, no, no. It would stop the production of my data."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.