Slate’s Lexicon Valley

Slate magazine has a new language podcast, Lexicon Valley. If the first episode is any indication, the podcast will be a good one.

Hosts Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo do not appear to have any formal linguistic credentials, but their first show on preposition stranding was first rate. They gave a thorough history of the idea that one should not end a sentence with a preposition, rightly putting the lion’s share of the blame for the false belief on poet John Dryden. The episode features input from linguists Jack Lynch and Nuria Yáñez-Bouza, who is one of the leading experts on the history of preposition stranding, so the pair get kudos for going to real experts on the subject. They didn’t rise to the bait of attributing the “up with which I will not put” to Winston Churchill. And the show is professionally produced and fun. While at one point they did go into a lengthy digression about Restoration theater in England which was only tangentially related to the topic, the digression was informed and interesting, so it can be forgiven. Besides, digressions and going off on tangents are part of the joy of podcasts.

My one nit is with their description of Robert Lowth, an eighteenth century grammarian who is often unfairly categorized as prescriptive and blamed for the preposition stranding taboo. (Lowth said that preposition stranding was often inelegant and not appropriate for certain formal registers, but never claimed that it was ungrammatical.) Garfield and Vuolo accurately characterized Lowth’s position on the subject, but they described him as a “bishop” and a “self-styled” language expert. In truth, Lowth was not a bishop when he wrote his grammar; he was a very young clergyman at the time; the episcopate came much later in life. And all linguists of that era were “self-styled.” It’s not like there were many linguistic PhD programs in the eighteenth century. He was an expert, plain and simple. His methodology would be considered dodgy by today’s standards, but by the standards of his era he was a paragon of academic excellence. But as I said, this criticism is very minor, and I only mention it because I’m writing a paper on Lowth and fellow eighteenth-century grammarian Joseph Priestley, and it’s a current hobby horse of mine.

I don’t know how often they will produce their program, but I’m looking forward to the next one.

The show is available from the Slate website and via iTunes.

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