Category Archives: linguistics and language

Everything old is new again

A couple of days ago Jim Belshaw noted:

… In choosing Mr Abbott, the Liberal Party has taken a step into the unknown. The Coalition now presents a clear alternative position to Labor. Mr Abbott is a very intelligent man, but he has also been a polarising figure with somewhat of a tendency to put his foot in his mouth, boot and all. Dull he is not.

The reactions to Mr Abbott among the party faithful on both sides can be largely predicted. What is less clear is just how he might appeal to the people in the middle.

From performance thus far I doubt very much that Tony Abbott will win over people in the middle. Rather what we are seeing is a rush towards what I  regard as the worst excesses of the post-Fraser Liberal Party. It certainly isn’t the Liberal Party I at one time long ago used to support.

Though they all do it, Tony Abbott has already displayed the mind-numbing NLP propaganda technique so loved by some politicians. He is good at it and, sadly, it can often work. Let this BNP person explain:

DEVELOPING RAPPORT: According to this theory of communication, even the most fundamental truth will have little effect unless it is presented in a manner which, by developing a substantial amount of natural rapport with the targeted audience, is capable of achieving effective persuasion. Such persuasion, moreover, is ultimately dependent upon the extent to which a sophisticated tactical flexibility is employed by the communicator to enable him to establish the necessary ‘agreement frame’ with the particular audience he wants to persuade.

How to produce this ‘agreement frame’ most effectively forms the underlying basis of the NLP philosophy. The proposed method has been aptly described by Anthony Robbins, author of Unlimited Power, as ‘Aikido politics’, whereby the communicator seeks to produce the least possible resistance in his targeted audience. The idea behind this theory is that, rather than pushing aggressively or trying to bludgeon an acceptance of an argument, a successful communication is best achieved through gently ‘aligning’ an opposing viewpoint with that of your own by finding points of agreement, and then gradually ‘leading’ the other viewpoint around to your position. By this method, it is argued, an ‘avenue of redirection’ can be created which can often adroitly sidestep any possible or expected hostile response.

By disingenuously linking the snarl-words “BIG NEW TAX ON EVERYTHING” to emissions trading and/or carbon taxes Abbott short-circuits our brains and achieves his ‘agreement frame’. He knows exactly what he is doing, even if he and most of his party actually agreed with emissions trading in some form or other just last week, and had done for several years.

Such a shame, but not surprising, that the 9-12 Liberals who would have voted FOR the emissions trading scheme in the Senate reduced in the event to TWO brave principled souls.


Sydney Morning Herald – linked to story

One of them had this to say on the 7.30 Report last night:

KERRY O’BRIEN: Now, initially there were up to 12 of you in the Senate who believed very strongly – in the way that you have – but only two of you in the end crossed the floor. Why do you think the others waivered?
JUDITH TROETH: Well, up til yesterday Kerry, this was of course, or the day that we changed the leader from Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott, this was of course Coalition policy that we supported the Government’s legislation. And there were other senators in my party who didn’t agree with that, and so they would have been the ones crossing the floor, as I believe many intended to do. But having taken the decision to back the legislation, I saw no reason to change my mind. If it was good enough to do it one day, in my view it was good enough to do it the next day.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Now once upon a time, you were not a believer in climate change science. Why are you now so convinced about the climate change science?
JUDITH TROETH: I have read widely and I have made my own conclusions. I lived in the country for a long time, as you know, and saw many long droughts. And by, probably about two years ago, having observed what was a very long drought, and noticed other things happening and reading widely, I decided that climate change was happening and that we should factor it into any government action…

KERRY O’BRIEN: Do you think it is too simplistic to simply summarise the whole ETS package as nothing more than a great big tax?
JUDITH TROETH: That’s a very simplistic way of putting it and it is also obviously designed to scare people. And that’s largely what the anti -campaign has been, a scare campaign.
When you think of the business investment decisions that have to be made if this legislation goes through, when you think of the way in which people need to look at climate change, we’re all going to have to pay for climate change in some way or another and this will be a feature of the future world that we look at. So we had better get used to it…

Truth-tellers are rare in politics, even if there were unusual moments of candour in the last week. Now the Libs have a virtual unity – whether real or not time will tell.

Meantime we have the “new” – Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop…

Pardon me while I get up off the floor!

Tomorrow I will do a rundown, based on my recent reading, of the probable effectiveness of climate change mitigation strategies. The only thing I have in common with Mr A is that (unlike Labor at the moment or the Greens) I would factor in nuclear energy.


One fiction, one non-fiction

Two good reads for the last July 09 book review.

star30star30star30star30  1. Gary Bryson, Turtle, Sydney, Allen & Unwin 2008

I am not overfond of some of what passes as magic realism, but in this case the magic is really magic and the realism gritty and true. This is a wonderful first novel from Bryson, who works as a radio journalist on Radio National’s Encounter. From the title link above:

Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson

Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writingTurtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.

What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?

You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.

So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?

When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians…

star30star30star30star30 2. Umberto Eco, Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003

Sounds dry, doesn’t it? But is really is a most interesting book. As the reviewer in the title link says:

This is a real gem of a book – especially if you’re a translator. Eco does a great job of exploring the complexities of the translation process and the problems faced by literary translators in particular. Translation is not just "typing in a foreign language"; translators are forced to continually analyze, interpret, evaluate and – as Eco puts it – negotiate with a text in order to craft a translation that conveys not just the "meaning" but the intent of the original. As both a translator and a "translatee", Eco has a unique insight into translation, and he provides numerous intriguing anecdotes relating to how the trickier passages in his own books and the books of others have been dealt with successfully – and sometimes less successfully – by translators. Being a translator myself, I couldn’t help but nod and smile in agreement all through this book…

The Guardian reviewer exaggerates the book’s difficulty, though there are indeed some knotty passages. On the other hand very many of the anecdotes and examples are highly amusing as well as instructive, such as the passing of the opening of Genesis through several languages in a computer translator by which the Spirit turns into alcohol…


The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

I am storing a copy for future reference: Edge_ HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE pdf.


Who are you calling an ideologue?

I get very cranky about the way something as important as the teaching of reading is framed by some in the media and out there (consequently?) by the public. It really ought not to be framed as a white hats versus black hats conflict. Anyone who sees everything in terms of left-wing conspiracy and thus sees literacy teachers as mindless idiots pushed around by “ideologues” really doesn’t deserve any respect at all. Certainly such right-wing ideologues don’t deserve to be listened to, but unfortunately they too often are. They cash in on our tendency to think someone has been conning us.

I have argued this case again and again for several decades, let alone on this blog, and am rather tired of it all. However, I enter the fray again prompted by this letter in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

As one who taught many a struggling child to read, I bridle at Miranda Devine’s denigratory labelling of Brian Cambourne as the "godfather" of whole language learning ("The crazy politics of learning to read", March 21-22).

Cambourne has produced a wealth of impressive evidence to substantiate his advocacy of holistic approaches to literacy. He is one of many dedicated literacy leaders who rightly emphasise the centrality of meaning in learning to read and that excessive emphasis on fragmented decoding achieves only limited results. Such reductionism can produce "readers" who are able to decode print, but who seldom go near a book.

Whole language advocates are not averse to teaching phonics; they teach embedded phonics as one strategy among many necessary to help children with reading problems. How many times must it be said that almost all schools teach phonics thoroughly?

MULTILIT, or Making Up Lost Time In Literacy, is a program aimed primarily at low progress readers. It is demanding in terms of time and resources and there are question marks about the persistence of some reading gains made. Like more holistic approaches, it also recognises the importance of reading interesting material to and with children, building up sight word competence, linking spelling and writing with the reading program and so on.

To characterise whole language advocates as those who think "children learn to read naturally just by being exposed to books" is insulting. It fails to recognise the wide acceptance of whole language emphases on skills being taught in context, literacy across the curriculum and quality literature at all levels of the reading experience.

Well-implemented whole language approaches, far from being discredited, are preferable to those that treat reading in isolation and splinter the complex process of becoming literate.

Ron Sinclair Bathurst

How about we look at what Brian Cambourne has actually said? Then we might consider what reading teachers actually do, which has been well characterised in that letter.

One articulate exponent of whole language has been Brian Cambourne who emphasises the crucial role in literacy development of what he called conditions of learning (Cambourne 1988) which may be summarised as follows:

Learners need:

a) immersion in appropriate texts.

b) appropriate demonstrations.

c) responsibility for making some decisions about when, how and what they read and write.

d) high expectations about themselves as potential readers and writers.

e) high expectations about their abilities to complete the reading and writing tasks they attempt.

f) freedom to approximate mature and/or ‘ideal’ forms of reading and writing.

g) time to engage in the acts of reading and writing.

h) opportunities to employ developing reading and writing skills and knowledge in meaningful and purposeful contexts.

i) responses and feedback from knowledgeable others which both support and inform their attempts at constructing meaning using written language.

j) plenty of opportunities, with respect to the written form of language, to reflect upon and make explicit what they are learning.

When Whitfield examined the practices of reading teachers K-12 in the Botany region of Sydney in 1993 he found this to be the dominant approach, aside from a minority who favoured such skills-centred, bottom-up approaches as the Macquarie Probes, for example. However, many teachers were taking up the genre pedagogy advocated by the various Metropolitan East Disadvantaged Schools projects on literacy and the then developing English K-6 syllabus document, the final version of which has recently been published. In very many cases the genre pedagogy was deployed in a whole language framework. Typical of this blend of approaches is this STLD (support teacher learning difficulties) teacher in an Infants School:

We work within a framework of a Whole Language Classroom, which reflects also a Naturalistic Approach, and by Naturalistic Approach we mean that the conditions which are operating when a child learns to talk can also be applied to the classroom. Within that Whole Language framework we also do the Genre Writing Approach based on Halliday’s Systemic Functional Model of language and learning. What we are actually talking about is that children have a purpose or a social goal and an audience in mind. So we work with all these frameworks, so I guess we’re a bit eclectic in the approaches and methodologies that we actually use. (Whitfield 1993:4.)

Yes, I am Whitfield (1993) and those with access to university libraries or the State Library of NSW may find that old work of mine: Whitfield, N. J. (1993), Best Practice in the Teaching of Reading, 1993 DSP Action Research Project, Metropolitan East Region, Botany Cluster, Erskineville, Disadvantaged Schools Program. You see, the nonsense was being promulgated way back then and it is just as silly and harmful now as it was then. The extract above comes from 03 — an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. While that essay is aging it is still relevant and is supplemented by links to the latest resources in the area.

In that 1993 project I had access to Infants, Primary and Secondary reading classes in about a dozen schools from La Perouse to Mascot, from Maroubra to Eastlakes. Some of those schools were challenging places to work. I ended up admiring the dedication and intelligence of the teachers involved, and certainly found very little evidence of dumbos swept every which way by airhead lefties. Further, in the course of that project I did extensive reading on the subject going back to the 1890s, and also had the benefit of conversation in the past with my grandfather, a reading teacher from 1906 through the 1940s, and my aunt who had taken up the role in the 1940s through to the 1970s.

Perhaps you can see why I get cranky.

Further thoughts

Jim Belshaw addressed some issues suggested by this post in his Problems with words and measurements.

…Here I want to use an example from Neil. Not, I hasten to add, to attack Neil, but because he has actually brought out an example of what I see as sloppy thinking.

I suggest that you read first Who are you calling an ideologue?. This post deals with a debate in Australia about the teaching of English. Without going into the details, this debate links to Australia’s own unique culture wars, a clash of ideas enveloped in political venom on both sides.

If you look at Miranda Devine’s article, and assuming her reporting is in any way correct, then Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine’s response falls to the same class.

Neil, an experienced English teacher, is sympathetic to Brian Cambourne’s position, but also believes the whole debate misses the point – there is no single solution. Neil is right. I think that I can show quite simply and clearly that the debate is misdirected….

Jim then goes on to say some very sensible things about the standard complaints about literacy emanating from some academic and business circles – complaints I recall hearing for the past forty years and more. (I take that up in my 1998 essay.)

I have had another look at Miranda Devine’s article after reading Jim’s post. I am sure much she says is correct, but it is also very selective. (By the way, the Redfern Multilit program is run by Ashfield Uniting Church’s Exodus Centre in premises owned by South Sydney Uniting Church of which I am a member. I am sure it is doing a lot of good, but then most intensive programs with small groups tend to.) “Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine’s response falls to the same class.”  True enough, but I think 1) Cambourne has been a bit silly in his emails and 2) reporting has distorted his purpose. What Cambourne is talking about in statements like "When you rely on evidence, it’s twisted … We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true." – which out of context does sound bizarre – is Sociology 101 rather than “a postmodern justification for obfuscation.”

For example, see Framing explained from Values Based Management, hardly a site of rampant pomo.

Framing (F) is focusing the attention of people within a field of meaning. Tversky and Kahneman should be seen as the founders of framing theory, although Fairhurst and Sarr actually coined the term.

Contrary to the central concept of of rational choice theory (people always strive to make the most rational choices possible), Framing theory suggests that how something is presented (the “frame”) influences the choices people make.

Frames are abstract notions that serve to organize or structure social meanings. Frames influence the perception of the news of the audience, this form of agenda-setting not only tells what to think about an issue (agenda-setting theory), but also how to think about that issue.

F is a quality of communication that leads others to accept one meaning over another. It is  the process by which a communication source defines and constructs a political issue or public controversy.

F is an important topic since it can have a big influence on what people think! Try the first example on the right to test if you can withstand framing…

Framing is not per se a bad thing and in fact is an unavoidable part of human communication. We find it in the media as events are presented within a field of meaning.  We find it in politics as politicians attempt to characterize events as one thing or another; we find it in religion, and we find it in negotiating when one side tries to move another towards a desired outcome. Finally it can also be used by leaders of organizations with profound effects on how organizational members understand and respond to the world in which they live. It is a skill that most successful leaders possess, yet one that is not often taught.

According to Fairhurst & Sarr (1996) F consists of three elements:

1. Language,

2. Thought, and

3. Forethought.

Language helps us to remember information and acts to transform the way in which we view situations. To use language, people must have thought and reflected on their own interpretive frameworks and those of others. Leaders can and should learn framing spontaneously in certain circumstances. Being able to do so has to do with having the forethought to predict framing opportunities. In other words, leaders must plan in order to be spontaneous.

Fairhurst and Sarr (1996) described the following Framing Techniques:

a) Metaphor: To give an idea or program a new meaning by comparing it to something else.

b) Stories (myths and legends): To frame a subject by anecdote in a vivid and memorable way.

c) Traditions (rites, rituals and ceremonies): To pattern and define an organization at regular time increments to confirm and reproduce organizational values.

d) Slogans, jargon and catchphrases: To frame a subject in a memorable and familiar fashion.

e) Artifacts: To illuminate corporate values through physical vestiges (sometimes in a way language cannot).

f) Contrast: To describe a subject in terms of what it is not.

g) Spin: to talk about a concept so as to give it a positive or negative connotation.

Miranda’s columns are usually classic examples of framing or filtering an issue through an ideology – hence the title of this entry.

The theory is known and used by many linguists worldwide, including this Indonesian blogger. In the world of linguistics the theory is often associated with George Lakoff.

Lakoff acknowledges that both academic and political cultures are slow to change. But he is optimistic, pointing to the way in which the growth of cognitive psychology has undermined the rational-actor model that long dominated economics. In his own field, Lakoff predicts that "brain-based linguistics" will soon become the new standard — indeed, eclipsing Chomsky.

And despite his setbacks, Lakoff is not giving up on politics. He is still confident that his ideas can make a difference to Democrats. When he wrote Thinking Points, his handbook for progressive activism, he sent the first copy to Barack Obama. "I don’t know if he read it," Lakoff says, as a wide grin flashes across his face, "but a number of people have observed that if you look through Thinking Points, it is the Obama campaign.

Since, unfortunately, the gurus at Macquarie University (or their enthusiastic supporters) seem to frame promotion of their product at $349.00 a kit as a negation of Cambourne’s reputation and life work he was drawing on framing theory to determine a counter-strike. Whoever persuades the people with the purse strings is likely to prosper of course, though Cambourne isn’t actually selling anything – except perhaps his reputation, that of his department, and the potential for research grants. Further, the conditions of learning – the concept he is most famous for – outlined above really apply whatever one may think of phonics, a point made in the letter with which I began.

And you will note, won’t you, how I have been deliberately framing that paragraph. It does work. Ask Barack Obama.

Miranda ends on a grand irrelevance, except it is part of her framing of the issue: “This has been as futile and damaging as the notion that we cannot prevent catastrophic bushfires unless we stop climate change. It is using the tragedy of illiterate children as the means to achieve an ideological end.”


Literacy s—teracy – I get so frustrated…

…but aside from my little bit of tutoring, it’s not my problem any more. What is frustrating is that during forty years (round figure) of teaching, mainly English at secondary level, I read statements like the following just about every year, beginning at least in 1965!

Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a behavioural scientist to know that literacy standards have declined. The problem is self-evident in the generation of twenty and thirty-somethings, with whom most of us work and play, who struggle to write anything more than a simple sentence and to read and comprehend anything more complicated than sports or gossip magazines.

That 2008 variant of this boring anecdotal meme is from David Long on ABC Unleashed today. You may note that in my essay on literacy (1998) I allude to the same allegation, as I could have in 1988, 1978 and so on…   Go and read the essay as I am tired of arguing. I should add, I suppose, that I am not complacent on the subject, that anyone I taught in that forty years left me knowing what a subject and verb are and how sentences are constructed, how paragraphs are constructed, and so on. Nothing in any English syllabus in that forty years forbade imparting that knowledge, though how it was explained and how it was tested have varied. I know this is the case in NSW not just because I was there, but because I also know the person who framed the 1972 “New English” Syllabus, and during the 70s I knew just about everyone at the top of the NSW English Teachers Association, being on the State Council myself in the late 70s. I also knew Leonie Kramer, Rob Eagleson, Bob Walshe, and (less well) Michael Halliday… People who have been around English teaching for long enough will know who they are. Not that this proves anything, except that a healthy discussion has been going on among English teachers for decades and I have been part of it, and teachers have been in all that time, as was my grandfather from 1906, totally committed to fostering reading, writing and thinking among our students, not all of whom are willing participants in the process, which is and always has been one of our challenges — that and the great variety of abilities and circumstances one must deal with. Teachers are constantly seeking ways to meet these challenges, partly as a matter of survival as well as to better serve (or “better to serve” if you follow that fetish) the community. I still regard as possibly my greatest success as a teacher getting a 14-year-old (in 1970) to be able at last to write his own name despite his having an IQ too low to assess. 

In more recent years English Studies has added to what we were taught and (maybe) learned. We think rather more than I did in the 1959 Leaving Certificate about how, where and why texts are uttered/written or (as we say these days) composed, and we pay more attention to the variety of texts, linguistics having shown us a lot more about that than we knew fifty years ago. That is a plus, and very important.

Why are people so irredeemably illiterate (or anecdotal, or dogmatic) when it comes to talking about literacy? Why too don’t a few more people point to the place where language learning begins, and where its development is most fostered: the home?


I had to come back and fix a subject-verb agreement problem in this post! At least I could spot it and knew what to do about it, though it was one of those cases where most readers, probably including Mr Long, would not have noticed if I had left it uncorrected! But I am a bit of a pedant… My coachees of 2008, even the one in Year 8, also know about subject-verb agreement, even if getting it right can be a bit harder when, as is that Year 8 student’s  case, one’s first language is Chinese. (Chinese languages survive without marking subject-verb agreement grammatically.)

Oh go and read English/ESL if you are interested in such things. I’m out of here!


There is another possible subject-verb agreement problem in this post, but I am not going to correct it, as arguably it is notionally correct. Can you find it?

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Posted by on October 31, 2008 in curriculum, education, English language, English studies, linguistics and language, literacy


Who Framed George Lakoff? –

In the so-called “linguistics wars” I find myself most impressed by those who, like Michael Halliday, root their linguistics in anthropology and sociology rather than in neural science or genetics. While I am aware that the old parable of the elephant applies, my principal reason for my preference is pragmatic; as a teaching tool and as a means of critique of actual language in use — “critical literacy” for example — that approach to language study is most useful. It provides the best framework for thinking through who says (and sometimes does) what, to whom, when, where, why and how? 

Lakoff200 Who Framed George Lakoff? is one of the weekend offerings on Arts & Letters Daily. Lakoff [right] is within the camp of linguists I find useful, even if he presents as a “brain-based” linguist. From a teaching perspective, I have found the likes of Chomsky and Pinker fairly useless — I speak of the linguistics, in the first instance, not the political commentary.

Naturally, I also relate to this:

George P. Lakoff  is falling asleep. It is a bright summer afternoon in San Francisco, and Lakoff is nursing a latte at a small table near the entrance of a bustling, sun-dappled cafe. “This is what happens when you are 67,” he explains sheepishly after dozing off midsentence. A stocky man with a wide smile and a well-trimmed white beard, Lakoff doesn’t seem tired so much as beleaguered…

I have occasionally referred to Lakoff before, and his 1995 study Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust has long been on my Links Page.

Here, according to “Who Framed George Lakoff?”, is the gist of where he is now:

…In his new book, Lakoff takes aim at “Enlightenment reason,” the belief that reason is conscious, logical, and unemotional. Harnessing together work from several fields, particularly psychology, neuroscience, and linguistics, he mounts a polemical assault on the notion that people think rationally — which, he argues, is fundamentally at odds with how the brain actually functions.

Approximately 2 percent of the millions of pieces of information the brain absorbs every minute are processed consciously. The remaining 98 percent are handled by the unconscious brain. The mind, in other words, is like a tiny island of conscious reasoning afloat in a vast sea of automatic processes. In that sea, which Lakoff calls “the cognitive unconscious,” most people’s ideas about morality and politics are formed. We are all, in many respects, strangers to ourselves. Lakoff’s book grandly describes what he believes are the revolutionary implications of his findings: “a new understanding of what it means to be a human being; of what morality is and where it comes from; of economics, religion, politics, and nature itself; and even of what science, philosophy, and mathematics really are.” (He singles Chomsky out as “the ultimate figure of the Old Enlightenment.”)

It is the political ramifications of Lakoff’s theory that preoccupy him these days. An unabashed liberal (he insists on the label “progressive”), he says that Republicans have been quick to realize that the way people think calls for placing emotional and moral appeals at the center of campaign strategy. (He suspects that they gleaned their knowledge from marketing, where some of the most innovative work on the science of persuasion is taking place.) Democrats, Lakoff bemoans, have persisted in an old-fashioned assumption that facts, figures, and detailed policy prescriptions win elections. Small wonder that in recent years the cognitive linguist has emerged as one of the most prominent figures demanding that Democrats take heed of the cognitive sciences and abandon their faith in voters’ capacity to reason…

…Lakoff acknowledges that both academic and political cultures are slow to change. But he is optimistic, pointing to the way in which the growth of cognitive psychology has undermined the rational-actor model that long dominated economics. In his own field, Lakoff predicts that “brain-based linguistics” will soon become the new standard — indeed, eclipsing Chomsky.

And despite his setbacks, Lakoff is not giving up on politics. He is still confidant that his ideas can make a difference to Democrats. When he wrote Thinking Points, his handbook for progressive activism, he sent the first copy to Barack Obama. “I don’t know if he read it,” Lakoff says, as a wide grin flashes across his face, “but a number of people have observed that if you look through Thinking Points, it is the Obama campaign.”

See also George Lakoff on Edge.


Xin nian kuai le, Lu Kewen

In case you didn’t know, Lu Kewen is the Prime Minister of Australia, in much the same way as Wu Ninglun is the author of this blog. And I just wished him a Happy New Year.

Apparently Lao Lu is very big in China these days.

THE latest Chinese blockbuster is not about a boy wizard, although the hero of the tale looks a bit like him. Appropriately, for the Chinese Year of the Rat, it’s about a politician – Lu Kewen, better known here as Kevin Rudd.

Fujian Education Press is so convinced the “legendary life” of Lu Kewen will run off the shelves it has ordered its biggest ever print run.

The introduction to the biography gives readers a hint of the excitement to follow: “This book will fully interpret the legendary life of Lu Kewen. How he was born in a poor family in 1957, how he stepped into the palace of success through endeavour and effort, how he fought in the political waves and stepped proudly through the tide.”

Such has been the interest in the Chinese translation of Kevin Rudd: The Biography that FEP has been forced to stop popular Chinese websites — particularly, which was inundated with hits — running excerpts because it had already tied up the online rights with a Shanghai newspaper.

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Posted by on February 2, 2008 in Australia and Australian, Chinese and China, Kevin Rudd, linguistics and language