Monday, July 19, 2010

Human nature

I'm picky about language, but most things don't bother me seriously. I know people are going to quotation marks around random words and misuse expressions, and I know they do it innocently, so I tend to ignore it. But my rant for today really annoys me, because the people doing it should know better.

I have been listening to courses from The Teaching Company, courtesy of my father-in-law.  These are various series of lectures on specific courses, given by college professors, at a level suitable for college (but without the homework, grades, or credit).  In two of the courses I have heard recently, different professors have referred to the timeless desire to understand "the nature of human nature."

Just roll that phrase around in your mind for a moment.  I hope it should be obvious that what these professors meant was the desire to understand human nature.  If not, a few moments reflection should clear it up.  When we speak of human nature, what do we mean?  Surely it can only be "the nature of humans," i.e. what humans really are.  Therefore, to say "the nature of human nature" is to say "the nature of the nature of humans," which could possibly make sense in some abstract, logical way, but it certainly would not refer to the same thing as the nature of humans.  If Joe Schmoe made a mistake like this, I would totally understand, but we're talking about professors here -- and professors of philosophy, no less, who should be able to parse a phrase.  These are the best professors the Learning Company could find to deliver these lectures.  In short, they should know better, and it drives me nuts that they don't.

This particular phrase bothers me because it should be obvious on the surface -- you should hear the phrase and immediately think, "that can't be right, based on the meaning of the words in it."  Other mistakes, such as mispronunciations, are more understandable.  Even so, I was shocked to hear, in a different lecture series, a professor of Chinese history pronounce "fief" as "fife."  I'll grant that maybe the feudal period of Chinese history is not his specialty, but still, he does teach Chinese survey courses that cover that period, and he did mention the word several times.  If no one has ever corrected him, I suppose it is possible for him to have his misconception of the pronunciation, and I can't really blame him for not looking it up (I rarely bother to look up a word unless I hear someone pronouncing it differently, and I want to know whether I am wrong or he is).  Still, it is a matter of some astonishment that a professor at an Ivy League school of over 20 years tenure could have gone through life saying this word incorrectly and never have had his error politely pointed out to him.  Or never have heard anyone else pronounce it correctly, and have been curious enough to check for himself.  It's the kind of thing you just don't expect to see.

In this case, I think part of the reason may be that he teaches in a very obscure and difficult foreign area.  My experience is that people who do research in difficult languages -- Arabic, South Asian, or East Asian, for example -- tend to get a pass on a lot of what they claim.  The reason is simple:  very few people know enough to contradict them.  If your research area is Western Europe, there are going to be many more prying eyes; and if you research about America, you will be very unlikely to get away with anything.  (Of course, this is because we are talking about professors in American universities.  The situation would be reversed in China.)  Mispronouncing "fief" is not, of course, directly related to this same cause, but it seems symptomatic of the leniency provided to these obscure areas.  If you were a French historian and mispronounced fief, you would certainly be skewered.  (Incidentally, I don't mean to diminish the difficulty of doing research in difficult languages.  It is certainly a fact that people in these fields must spend a vastly greater proportion of their time mastering their research languages, which leaves them less time to learn other things.)

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