AUTHOR: Engh, Jan
TITLE: Norwegian Examples in International Linguistics Literature
SUBTITLE: An Inventory of Defective Documentation
SERIES: Linguistics Edition 62
PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, Department of English Language and Literature, National
University of Singapore
Research in linguistics has been guided by the assumption that in order to
understand language, the uncountable referent of the word hailed as the object
of linguistic inquiry, you observe languages, in turn assumed as manifestations
This review does not concern this assumption, because its discussion is not the
purpose of Jan Engh's book. But it concerns the consequences, for the holders of
the assumption, of Engh's troubling finding that they are quite likely to have
based, and to continue to base, their analyses and conclusions about language on
''defective documentation'' of particular languages.
Chapter 1, ''Introduction'', states the object and method of Engh's inquiry, and
explains the conventions used in the presentation of results. The goal is to
offer an inventory of errors about Norwegian, gleaned from international
linguistics literature and authored by non-native speakers of the language. To
this purpose, Engh searched several volumes of 18 journals, including their
electronic versions, and some 1500 printed books from the past 50 years up to
2005. The resulting database concerns ''approximately 346 excerpts, containing at
least one case of deficient documentation, made by 139 linguists under 167
titles'' (p. 2, see also the book's abstract and blurb).
Chapter 2, ''Published and/or refereed material'' and Chapter 3, ''Unpublished and
non-refereed material'', form the bulk of the book. Engh lists types of errors
under 15 dedicated headings (all 15 for Chapter 2, eight for Chapter 3) such as
''Norwegian characters'', ''Syntactic errors'', ''Odd sentences'', ''Absurdities'',
''Strange assertions'' and ''Spurious references'', following the same order in each
chapter. Both chapters end with the full list of references reviewed in each.
Examples of defective information are highlighted in grey, all numbered
according to the original texts containing them, including the examples quoted
in quoted references found in these texts. Each example is followed by Engh's
own discussion, equally clearly laid out on the page, including the material he
Virtually all examples concern syntax and syntactic analyses. Engh explains in a
footnote on p. 2 that he found very few examples of Norwegian in the literature
on phonetics, phonology or morphology, none containing significant errors.
Instead of surveying the defects as listed in the book, I choose to give here a
sample of examples meant to highlight their range and depth, arranged according
to headings of my own. Engh's own list corresponds to the headings in the book's
table of contents. The page numbers below are not exhaustive, in that several
types of errors are recurrent, and the word 'authors' refers to authors in
Mixed-up languages and language varieties.
There is consistent confusion between the three Scandinavian languages,
Norwegian, Swedish and Danish (pp. 26ff.), and between the two Norwegian
standards, _Bokmål_ and _Nynorsk_ (pp. 40ff.), whereby authors freely quote
instances of the ones as examples of the others and/or mix different languages
and Norwegian standards in the same example.
Mixed-up printed language.
The Norwegian letters 'å, æ, ø' are conspicuous victims of misprints, randomly
swapped with 'ä, à, ǎ, ḁ, a', with 'ae, ä', and with 'ö, oe, o', respectively,
or with letters from the Greek alphabet and other letters of the Latin alphabet
itself. Besides resulting in illegible Norwegian text, this also creates
semantic nonsense like _sa_ 'said' for _så_ 'saw' (p. 12) or _ä_ (a non-word)
for _å_ (infinitival marker, p. 9). The letter 'å' further gives rise to a new
Norwegian 'word', _aring_, which Engh speculates may be due to a misinterpreted
printing instruction ''a ring'' (i.e. ''a overcircle'', p. 24).
In my own experience, accidental or intentional neglect of printed standards
recurrently affects languages whose orthographies comprise non-English
characters and symbols, including cedillas, tildes and stress marks. Like the
three Norwegian letters, these appear to be taken not as legitimate
representations of spoken language but as fancy ornaments or ''accented
version[s]'' of their English counterparts (p. 9), hence disposable and/or in
need of typographical improvement.
Besides inexact copying and pasting from other references (pp. 78, 85),
including authors' names in those references (pp. 92, 106), Engh's database
shows examples of sentences quoted from references where they are not found (pp.
67, 97) and examples of references which cannot themselves be found (p. 109).
There is also a tendency to rely on non-native informants and linguists (pp.
102-103, 113), or on marginal and outdated sources, for information about
Norwegian, despite easy availability to proper documentation. Examples are uses
drawn from popular normative language teaching book series, and a reference from
1937 quoted as supporting information about present-day pronoun usage (pp. 106
and 149, respectively). Sources such as these can only produce, at best, strange
examples of Norwegian. Conversely, Engh notes the ''alarming'' detour made by
authors who resort to obscure sources ''in order to state a very simple, basic,
and well documented fact about Norwegian'' (p. 103).
Semantic and pragmatic oddities.
In addition to forms which simply do not exist in Norwegian (pp. 58ff.), the
meanings which can forcibly be assigned to sentences proposed as exemplary of
Norwegian grammar range from ''peripheral'' (pp. 55, 135ff.) and ''idiomatically
wrong'' (p.143), through ''rather farfetched'', to ''borderline of nonsense'' (p.
90). Engh also wonders about examples which sound like ''stuttered utterance[s]''
and could possibly only arise out of self-corrections on the fly (p. 92), or for
whose interpretation he hesitates to propose a style between nursery rhyme and
officialese (p. 75). Pragmatically anomalous examples abound (pp. 74ff.,139ff.),
as do uses which can only be found, if at all, in child language (p. 56) or in
archaic literary versions of the language (p. 83), all invoked as tokens of
everyday, mature, contemporary fluent Norwegian.
The authors resort to baffling analytical moves which include generalizing
exclusively Swedish examples as evidence for ''Scandinavian languages'', and
confusing and/or missing generalizations about Norwegian constructions (p. 102).
The procedure is embraced by novice and recidivist authors alike, snowballing
into serial analytical ''hoaxes''. One example is detailed on pp. 99-101, where
several publications up to 2003 repeatedly quote, cross-quote, self-quote and
misquote a nonsensical analysis made in 1997. This particular analysis is only
possible if we assume Norwegian speakers to be, in Engh's words, ''clearly
Chapter 4, ''Other languages -- a small sample'', follows the same presentation
format of the two preceding chapters to give a brief list of defective examples
in other languages, found while compiling the Norwegian inventory. There are
examples for Swedish and Danish, two languages which deserve extensive attention
in the previous two chapters for obvious reasons, and for Icelandic, German,
Portuguese and Hebrew. The list of reviewed titles again closes the chapter.
In Chapter 5, ''Final observations'', Engh notes two recurrent patterns in his
data. First, that examples containing ''more than one error are commonplace''
(p.156). That is, there is no reason to blame typos or other technical hazards
for their occurrence. The errors are instead ''systematic'' and ''a clear sign of
lack of competence'' (p. 156) in the language in question. Support for Engh's
conclusion comes from the repetition of errors in updated editions of the same
texts and, more tellingly, in different publications by the same authors, often
addressing the same issues: ''The examples are reused and so are the errors'' (p.
156). The second observation is that there is no significant difference between
refereed and non-refereed material, as far as the extent and the type of errors
are concerned. Besides authors, on whom the ultimate responsibility for work to
their name lies, this finding puts editors and proofreaders, as well as the
referee system and the solidity of academic institutions themselves in an
equally uncomfortable spotlight. Engh concludes that ''linguistic publishing has
a problem too'' (p. 157).
The last chapter in the book is a ''Bibliography'', this time of flawless academic
work on Norwegian, used and/or quoted by Engh throughout the book.
This book is of core interest to any linguist, regardless of research field,
theoretical allegiance or language focus, because it concerns the nature of
evidence in their discipline. The book besides adds to a number of publications
on this topic, e.g. Labov (2001), Postal (2004), Wasow and Arnold (2005),
Featherston and Sternefeld (2007). Speakers of Norwegian and of other
Scandinavian languages, whatever their professional pursuits, will also find
good reason to peruse this book, not least to discover the hilarious ways in
which a language that they are familiar with can be misquoted in serious
linguistics literature. They will find assertions that, for example, people sing
singers instead of songs in Norwegian (p. 133), that repeating the word
'nothing' for hours is the way to express the meaning 'not saying anything for
hours' (p. 142), that you persuade someone to fornicate when what you want is
for them to listen (p. 152), or that, in Swedish, you can write goats instead of
books (p. 55).
When the giggles subside, Engh's message comes through as decidedly sobering.
His book is itself an analytical tour de force, in that he took the additional
trouble to check errors in the original research pieces against errors made in
turn by those who quoted these defective sources. Although his goal is to
present an inventory of defective documentation, laying no claims to assessing
''the validity of the argumentation that the examples are meant to support''
(p.3), he rightly points out that the issue inevitably arises. My take is that
Engh's book is best evaluated through examination of this issue, to which I now
Linguists are not required to acquire native-like proficiency, or even
proficiency of any kind, in the languages that arouse their analytical
curiosity: according to the assumption delineated at the outset of this review,
any language is a legitimate research object. But this means that linguists must
know where to find reliable resources on those languages, or where to look for
them, if the goal of their inquiry is to learn about language and in turn teach
about it through publication of findings. This is why several mechanisms are in
place that are meant (or so we thought) to safeguard against major analytical
blunders of the kind described in this book: linguists rely on pooled resources,
including duly refereed publications and informants who are proficient in those
languages. What Engh shows instead is a dismal portrait of ignorance mixed with
overall ''lack of rigour'' (p. 58) in finding ways to deal with that ignorance.
There is, first, ''a remarkable lack of familiarity with the literature on
Norwegian grammar'' (p. 105). Norwegian is a documented and documentable
language, in current use in a developed country whose international connections
are accessible through the latest sophisticated electronic means. Quite a few
native speakers of the language besides enjoy the double luxury of boasting
fluency in a foreign language (English, in which most work on linguistics is
published, as is also apparent from Engh's database) and of being linguists
themselves. The authors reviewed in this study prefer instead either to resort
to non-native sources or to create their own examples. Engh notes time and again
that examples are ''[v]ery much a linguist's sentence'' (p. 74) and that ''[i]n
general, the deficient examples seem to be of the linguists' own invention'' (p.
111). He briefly dismisses these examples as ''Nonsensical'' or ''Complicated
beyond comprehension'', as is the case for e.g. ''This is the policeman that I
wonder which girls the judge will want to know which drugs he thought they had
sold to the children'' (p. 63). Although Engh has no comments about English, I
should note that in this and similar examples, authors' English renditions like
the above are not word-by-word glosses, but apparently acceptable translations
of the assumed meaning of the Norwegian material. Perhaps not surprisingly, Engh
notes that most of the references in his database are authored by ''linguists of
a theoretical rather than descriptive orientation'' (p. 113).
There is also straitjacketing of a patchwork of language snippets into theories,
arising from an intriguing focus on marginal and ''very complicated aspects of
the language that even linguist native language users may have hesitations
about'' (p. 59). Forced dissimilarities are found where no dissimilarity in fact
exists (pp. 31, 53), and non-existent similarities are asserted through gross
generalization of very specific uses (p. 48). The lasting impression from Engh's
study is that the reviewed authors appear to want to create linguistic truths
out of sheer repetition of uninterpretable language data: authors agree with one
another because they quote one another, often inattentively, with no awareness
that their data are wrong and their interpretations are therefore untenable.
They besides show no awareness that attempting to support theoretical claims on
arcane evidence is only evidence of theoretical fragility. Engh likewise wonders
about the reasons behind the choices of data among these authors, and doubts the
usefulness of their claims, unless, as he notes, ''one wishes to confirm a
preconceived truth'' (p. 90). In this connection, Geoffrey Sampson's remark comes
to mind, as cogent today as it was almost three decades ago: ''… to my mind by
far the greatest danger in scholarship (and perhaps especially in linguistics)
is not that the individual may fail to master the thought of a school but that a
school may succeed in mastering the thought of the individual'' (Sampson 1980: 10).
Upon closing the book, one wonders what will happen next. In scientific research
worthy of the name, public retractions with apologies are the honorable step
when honest mistakes are made, which Engh assumes to be the case for all of his
examples, and exposed, which Engh does beyond reasonable doubt. The painstaking
demolition of these and ''other results of lack of understanding'' (p. 147) can be
summarized in one question: do linguists want to deal with facts or fiction? The
scope of misinformation about Norwegian raises alarm bells far beyond the
language in question. If, despite widespread availability of resources, both
data and analyses concerning Norwegian end up mangled in the way described in
this book because of inexplicable reliance on dubious sources, one is more than
justified to feel unsettled about what may have happened and what may go on
happening in reports about languages whose users are either dead or otherwise
less accessible for consultation than Norwegians. To my knowledge, Engh's book
offers the first systematic examination of data from a particular language,
dedicated to the accountability of data sourcing and of authoring, refereeing
and publishing in linguistics. I certainly hope it won't be the last.
Featherston, Sam and Wolfgang Sternefeld, Eds. (2007). _Roots. Linguistics in
Search of its Evidential Base_. Berlin/New York, Mouton de Gruyter.
Labov, W. (2001). Qu'est-ce qu'un fait linguistique? _Marges Linguistiques_ 1: 1-44.
Postal, Paul M. (2004). _Skeptical Linguistic Essays_, Oxford University Press.
Sampson, Geoffrey R. (1980). _Schools of Linguistics. Competition and evolution._
Wasow, Thomas and Jennifer Arnold (2005). Intuitions in linguistic
argumentation. _Lingua_ 115(11): 1481-1496.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Madalena Cruz-Ferreira teaches linguistics at the National University of
Singapore. Her research interests include (child) multilingualism, linguistic
science and linguistics pedagogy.