Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.
I am a professional writer with over 15 published books on a variety of topics. My first book was a guide to Africa’s wildlife parks, but the first book that I proposed and got published was about the language of children from birth to age 5. It was titled So Much to Say! and boasted of a blurb by Chomsky on the front cover. How I managed to land that nod is a puzzle. The book I’m most proud of is called Einstein Defiant!, although I like The Ice Finders and Babel’s Dawn as well. One of my brothers tells me his favorite is Remembering and Forgetting. I love telling stories. The book that was the most fun to write was my first for, as part of the deal, I got a free, three-month safari across eastern, central, and southern Africa.
You are a technical writer by profession. What inspired you to create your site, “Babel’s Dawn?”
It is true that I have earned my daily bread chiefly as a technical writer, that is to say by writing about using computer technology, but I consider myself to be just a writer. You need it; I can write it. My blog, Babel’s Dawn, reflects a general interest in language origins. It seeks to be the place to go to learn the latest news about the topic. When I was a boy, I lived in France for three years and was struck by the mystery of language origins. It seemed to me that we all learned the language spoken around us—hence, I (born in the USA) spoke English while my Parisian neighbors spoke French. But if you went back to “cave men,” there must have been a time when our ancestors did not have any language, so how could it have begun? Many years later I realized that instead of learning language from our parents, toddlers might create language on their own. The ultimate result of that idea was the book So Much to Say! which describes the interplay between innate capacities and culture. That book kept me content for a time, but eventually I came back to the mystery of language origins. I decided to start a blog on the subject so that I could simultaneously learn about the subject and develop the credentials to publish a book.
What is it about “Babel’s Dawn” that has made it such a successful blog?
Has Babel’s Dawn been a successful blog? It’s worked for me, but it has a pretty specialized readership. My basic format has been to report on a paper or book, telling readers what the paper has to say and giving my reactions to it. Thus, the blog is a kind of journalism rather than a diary or Montaigne-like series of essays. If you are interested in language origins, my blog (I hope) will keep the reader abreast of developments. I have tried to be honest, reporting truthfully what a paper says while giving my thoughts. A good example is a post I wrote some years ago in which I lay out Chomsky’s notion of language origins. That has been my most popular post, still drawing a few readers every week. My guess is they find it via Google. In that post I lay out Chomsky’s idea (which is very different from my own) so that a reader who just wants to know what Chomsky thinks can find out. At the same time I add my own commentary. This task is partly ego, but I think it also helps the reader decide what to make of Chomsky. The reader gets news plus one man’s reaction. If the reader likes my reaction, okay; if not, I trust that the readers gain a sense of why they prefer Chomsky.
Technical writing and blogging seem to be at opposite sides of the writing/creative spectrum. Do you prefer one over the other? How does the process of writing differ for each?
The basic task of any writing project is to give the reader some news about a topic and make that news as clear as possible. I want to shout out to my old writing teacher, the poet Donald Finkel, who insisted that the writer’s task was to make things clear. He taught me that metaphors and other figures of speech are tools for clarification of the obscure, not for making obscure what would otherwise seem trite. In every case, the writer needs to understand the news and find a way to report it to a particular audience. The techniques vary from genre to genre, but the point is the same. My greatest pleasure is in book-writing because the range of techniques is broadest and it is even possible to invent new (to me) techniques. For instance, when I wrote the book version of Babel’s Dawn I wanted to have the power of dramatic scenes but did not want to write a novel. I came up with the idea of taking a tour through a natural history museum in which the scenes are dioramas. That way I could tell a story without pretending it was literally true.
What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?
I am a humanist by nature, which means I am inherently interested in the things that make people alike and different. Language should be of interest to any humanist because it one of the few points where universality and diversity meet. We all speak, but we speak in different ways. The more a person understands how difference and sameness mix together, the greater that person’s sense of human potential and limits. Thus, my interest in the details of language rests on the clearer view I get of humanity itself. Another way of going about the same task is to study literature or history, and I love both of those fields too.
What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?
I once wrote a book about adoption that provided a phrase which for some years became a cliché in the adoption world. I believe the usage has faded now. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton… those guys have made unique contributions to the English language. I have not.
What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment in the world of language/grammar/blogging?
I have satisfied myself that I now have the outlines of the process I wanted to understand: how language could have begun. In the process I have learned much about the nature of humans (although probably nothing that Aristotle didn’t already know) and I have found a new question: what happened during the long period between the first word and the last common ancestor of all modern languages (if there was such a thing).
Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?
It’s not my job to tell people what they should be interested in. If you don’t give a hoot about language, I’ve got no quarrel with you. Perhaps, however, I have a warning. There is no escaping language. We all use it and are used by it. That is to say, language can put blinders on all of us. Understanding language means understanding the blinders and, at least to some extent, widening the breadth of one’s vision.
If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest and why does it matter?
I have no suggestions about speaking in the sense of making ad hoc conversation. When it comes to writing, meaning preparing statements for an audience, I recommend writing as precisely as possible. Choose your words carefully and organize them alertly. It is shockingly easy to be misunderstood.
What are the three most critical errors made most often?
I suppose I could explain why writers should say uninterested instead of disinterested, but good writing makes me a lot happier than bad writing makes me sad. So let me make three points about good writing:
a. It surprises. Why are my favorite essays consistently about things I don’t care about? Because they surprise me by showing that I do care after all. Actually, I think I’ll stop at point a, because I see that points b and c are just different ways of saying éttonez moi.