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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wednesday Wonders #9: George Lakoff

This week I have a lot of work and a lot of evening appointments, so I can’t write as much as I’d like to.

Nonetheless I just have to give a little “shout out” (not my favorite recent idiom) to someone I always wanted to be when I grew up (or a female version thereof): George Lakoff. I know, in the past four years I have mentioned him a bunch of times. But he popped back up again today, so it’s time to make him an official Wednesday Wonder.

Why today? I ran across an article he wrote in the Washington Note that does a wonderful job of analyzing Barack Obama’s use of language to present ideas in a new light.

I’d been waiting for an article like this for some time, having grown very weary of reading about how the conservatives took nice, neutral words and turned them into awful things (liberal, choice, feminist, atheist, Democratic) and turned anyone who self-identify themselves with one of those terms into demons. (I still can’t find my horns or pointy tail, but I’m sure they’re somewhere.)

The article above points out seven very interesting tenets that come through the things Obama says and writes. My favorite one is making progressive values American values. It hints I could even be proud to care about others, want a fair wage for all, care about the state of the whole planet, and other fine progressive ideas.

But, back to Lakoff. He is the linguistics professor who most impressed me in grad school. I loved how he looked at how people really use language, without trying to force it into an artificial model of how language should work (a la Chomsky). Sadly, I didn’t go to grad school at Berkeley, and I didn’t get to use all his ideas in my own work. I truly wanted to be able to take my skills in looking at language and people and do something useful with it. I never have gotten the chance, but Lakoff did.

He’s managed to take his ideas beyond academia and apply them to current events—things people are actually interested in! He’s managed to get interesting jobs in fun liberal think-tanks, where he can interact with other smart people and apply pragmatics and semantics concepts in all kinds of ways that provide real and useful insight into how humans communicate concepts way beyond the actual literal meanings of words.

What I really admire about him is that he stuck with his beliefs even when they weren’t popular in the mainstream. He didn’t shrink away from his point that conservatives were not-so-subtly manipulating the American population until finally more and more people actually paid attention to him. Then he spent a lot of time trying to get progressives (as he calls us, so as not to use the tainted word “liberal”) to come up with our own metaphors for our viewpoints. He must be so thrilled with Obama and his advisers! We finally have someone who CAN use language to convince people of a point on our side!

I used to get sort of nauseated by the repeated themes of the day blared out on every news medium by the people in charge of G.W. Bush (I don’t care if he DID say all the decisions were his, I just can’t believe it—though there WERE a lot of bad decisions). Even though nothing got through my thick skull, I felt battered by talking points and inane reinterpretations of events, with my only respite the lampooning of those very things by Stewart and Colbert. I am now soothed by the subtle and nuanced shapings that Obama’s team comes up with. Yeah, the goal is the same, to get people on board with some plan or another, but the delivery sure is different (see the link above for examples.)

What to Read by Him?

I’ve said it before: Lakoff’s wonderful book, Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004)is one of my all-time favorites. It really helped me see how conservatives were messing with us and we weren’t messing with them back near enough. I haven’t gotten his latest, The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (2008), but I will.

Want to know more theoretical underpinnings to all his political analysis? I recommend Metaphors We Live By (1980) by him and Mark Johnson. It’s where I started thinking more deeply about metaphor, and a book I treasure—I realized metaphors are not just cheesy things in poems and songs, but ways of shaping human thought! It just about killed me! (Ha ha, snuck in a war metaphor—English is full of them.) I also recommend Women, Fire and Other Dangerous Things (1990), an academic book that does a great job of defining the entire field of cognitive science, which is the thing I’d be doing if I were still doing what I always wanted to do (other than knit).

Well, that was me, not being long-winded. I will try not to put any more linguistics professors on the list. I guess I have just been thinking about linguistics a lot lately.

More on Lakoff

Books on Amazon
Rockridge Institute: where I always wanted to work, but it’s dead now. Lakoff founded it.

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