When (often plausible) claims about substance get recast as (unsound) claims about language.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

More than a decade ago, linguist Geoff Pullum (Language Log) coined the terms "linguify" and "linguification":

To linguify a claim about things in the world is to take that claim and construct from it an entirely different claim that makes reference to the words or other linguistic items used to talk about those things, and then use the latter claim in a context where the former would be appropriate.

His example:

A writer named Alexis Long apparently wanted to say that bisexuality was increasingly being seen by mainstream news media as fashionable. But what he actually wrote (in an Australian newsletter for bisexuals) was: "It's difficult to find a piece of writing in the mainstream press which mentions the word 'bisexual' without finding that it is immediately followed by the word 'chic'."

Now here he recognized that the linguification was meant to be jocular—no-one really thinks that it's hard to find mainstream writing which uses "bisexual" without adding "chic." (I omit the possibility that the author meant "bisexual chick," a phrase that actually seems to have 8 times the Google hits of "bisexual chic.") But it occurs to me that the recent posts about the word "right" (inconceivable, superscript -1, rights vs. powers) as well as about "republic" and "democracy" are actually responses to serious examples of linguification:

  1. People have a plausible claim about a morally significant distinction or principle (e.g., that governmental claims of right are often importantly different from individual claims of right, or that negative rights are often importantly different from positive rights).
  2. But instead of casting these claims as moral, legal, or philosophical claims, or arguing about how certain terms should be defined, they cast those claims as claims about what the words actually mean. They set forth a definition of the word and claim that anyone who departs from the definition is actually misusing the word, or is a postmodernist, or is denying reality.
  3. And these linguified claims are provably wrong, if one understands English words as meaning what actual English speakers have long used them to mean, and if one understands American legal or political terms as meaning what actual American legal or political figures, speaking to the American public, have long used them to mean.
  4. Indeed, to accept those linguified claims, we have to conclude that the linguifiers actually are more authoritative explainers of American legal and political language than are Chief Justice Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, the drafters of the Articles of Confederation, and many more. And while we should always be open to the possibility that even an anonymous commenter has a better argument than Chief Justice Marshall, we should be skeptical of claims that an anonymous commenter is entitled to redefine a word in a way that makes Chief Justice Marshall's usage—together with the usage of many people both before and after—"wrong."

Just say no, friends, including friends from the libertarian and conservative movement (in many ways my ideological home, and yet the place where I have seen a disproportionate share of such linguification). Just say no to weakening your possibly valid substantive arguments by recasting then as patently invalid linguistic arguments. Explain what you think is normatively or legally right, and why you think it's right, without claiming authority over the definition of words, authority that you cannot possess.

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  1. Professor Volokh,

    Perhaps you are concerned that your home movement seems to becoming sloppier in its arguments and more intellectually dishonest of late.

    And if that’s your concern, I would add one more issue: George Orwell, both in essays like “Politics and the English Language” and his book 1984, wrote of the tendency of totalitarian thinkers to control and redefine language and narrow its meaning so as to make views disagreeing with theirs not merely socially unacceptable or illegal to say, but impossible to articulate. It was one of the main themes of his later work.

    The fact these tendencies are recurring in our society, even among commenters who claim to be pro-libertarian, says that we have a real problem, and the shared discourse necessary even to entertain ideas different from ones own, let alone to hold a meaningful discussion with others, seems to be disappearing.

  2. I believe this gets into the Wittgensteinian idea that language is nothing but little games we play with one another. Ignoring the claims he later makes about how this relates to metaphysics, I think there is a lot of value in this idea.

    Language is used largely as a tool for communication, there is probably an implicit assumption we all make here. We have general agreement about what things mean, but they are not set in stone, but what is important for any conversation is that we generally agree on the meaning of the terms we are discussing.

    These semantic arguments then are barely useful. They often become arguing in bad faith. The word takes some ideal quality, and then people argue over whether they fit that ideal. You always see this with libertarians, where the word “libertarian” has some ideal, and everyone wants to be it, but then they argue over what the word means so that it applies only to them.

    This is useless, and this linguification as you call it is clearly a sibling, if not precisely the same as this fallacy. It shifts argumentation to taking a certain word or moral statement for granted, and then just arguing around that statement.

    I hope this rambling makes sense to anyone. I am not a clear writer, but this post is getting at a idea I think about fairly often.

  3. Some of your readers might not have already read Arguing “By Definition” which describes a very similar situation.

    Link here

  4. I would think people pick terminology based on factors like logos, ethos, pathos. That is, logical utility, authoritativeness, and connotation.

  5. Eugene: Explain what you think is normatively or legally right, and why you think it’s right, without claiming authority over the definition of words, authority that you cannot possess.


  6. I think conservatives and libertarians prove especially susceptible to this kind of error because their political, philosophical, and moral views tend to proceed, analytically, from premises (assumed to be inviolate) via (what they purport to be) valid chains of logic, and whatever results is just taken to be correct, even if highly implausible or absurd.

    [This kind of thinking is so thoroughly engrained that I suspect half of the comments I receive will attack me for suggesting that there could be any other way to think or reason. Oh, how naive…]

    And so “linguification,” as you put it, has disproportionate power, insofar as it hides tenuous claims and obscures necessary reasoning within terms that are to be found, just-so, tucked away in those inviolate premises. Once placed, they lead ultimately to results that “feel right,” even if a critical analysis would find them highly suspect. Every time I see this, I try to pry open the premises and pluck the term out for examination, but this proves often futile with the numb-nuts that tend to dwell pseudonymously online.

    1. a critical analysis

      What other form can said critical analysis take than to proceed, analytically, from premises via valid chains of logic?

  7. I think these kinds of usage permeate the current political climate where all sides redefine language to further their agenda. Consider the relatively recent trend away from “undocumented immigrants” or even “undocumented aliens” or even “illegal aliens”to just using the term “immigrants” which does not discriminate between those here legally and those who are here illegally.

    In fact there are an estimated 13.8 million permanent legal residents, millions more legally here for various reasons and about 11.5 million here illegally out of 43 million foreign born residents. I could not find the total number of naturalized citizens but something like 6.8 million were naturalized in the last decade.

    On the other hand definitions are defined by usage which shifts over time and may not be the same for all people or groups.

    1. This was also my objection when post-9/11 Fox News took it upon itself to refer to suicide bombers as “homicide bombers”. While we can generally assume that those who detonate explosives in crowds of people intended to kill, the term “suicide bomber” conveys additional useful context that “homicide bomber” does not.

  8. Weren’t your first two posts examples of linguification themselves? You didn’t discuss the underlying point about distinctions between what governments can do vs. what they cannot do to people. You wrote two posts about what you think the correct meaning of “rights” is (more accurately, what the correct meanings are or at least include).

    1. Asserting that a word *can* have a particular meaning is not the same as asserting that a word has *only* a particular meaning. The former might still be misleading if the meaning you’re ascribing to the word is novel, but I don’t think that was the case here.

    2. tkamenick: I don’t see how — the comments were making (linguistic) claims about the true meaning of the concept of “rights,” and I responded that those claims were incorrect.

      To the extent the comments were substantively claiming that certain kinds of rights were different in certain ways, I actually agree with that, though the comments weren’t specific enough for me to respond in detail — and I’m not sure I have that much to say generally about the different ways that, say, the rights of individuals and the rights of governments play out. So I responded on the one issue that I had something to say about, which is the (unsound) linguistic claim.

    3. Perhaps not linguification per se, but part of the same problem your criticism of linguification addresses – people arguing over language instead of substance.

  9. Linguification is a stupid term. And since I’m a more authoritative explainer of American legal and political language than those with experience/training, I am right that it is incorrect.

  10. I often have to explain to people that when the Founders wrote that we HAVE certain rights (“…are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…’) they really meant that we OUGHT TO have those rights.

  11. I’m not getting this.

    It seems to me that what Pullum is talking about is just the use of a figure of speech.

    After watching a tournament I claim that Boris Badenov, a chess grandmaster, has “forgotten how to play chess.” Is this linguification? It seems not much different from the example EV quotes, or the one about forgotten nouns that Pullum himself cites in the linked article.

    But Eugene, I think, is talking about something else – sneaking in a definition in lieu of an argument. The claims he is discussing are meant to be taken literally. They are serious assertions. And I don’t think the term “linguification” helps to explain the fallacy.

  12. The debates over “marriage,” “sex,” and “gender” that have been occurring over the past several years are highly linguified.

  13. Your ideological home is likely to be where you see a disproportionate share of bad arguments such as linguification, for one simple reason: you’re likely to be much more selective about who you read/listen to/watch from opposing ideological viewpoints.

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