Archive for October, 2011

I thought polygamy and illegal immigration weren’t polemic enough, so I decided we should talk about abortion, too.  Actually, I found the quote below at a fantastic blog called “But Now to Live the Life” at http://goodfellowfamily.blogspot.com/ and I wanted to share it with you.  This family has moved to Peru with their 4 small children to be part of an organization that is teaching poor women in Lima how to knit and then selling the hats that they make to conscientious consumers in places like the US.

As someone who self-identifies as Christian, I often have a hard time articulating my stance on abortion in a coherent form, especially since I was fervently pro-choice before becoming Christian.   (I had this quote on my wall for years: “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body.” – Margaret Sanger.  Shabam – that’s a powerful quote.)  Obviously becoming a Christian who is against abortion has resulted in some serious whiplash for me.  (I hate those terms, btw: pro-choice and pro-life.  They are an excellent example of a linguist shamelessly using their powers for the purposes of evil fear-mongering.  But I digress.)

The family at But Now to Live the Life talks about [Tony] Campolo, who gives my position a name: consistently pro-life*.  He writes that this means, “…life is sacred and should be protected not only for the unborn but also for the born. This requires that there be commitments to stop wars, end capital punishment, and provide universal healthcare for all of our citizens- in addition to stopping abortion.”

Christians today display a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance when they vote against education about contraceptives, against abortion, and then refuse to fund public welfare programs.  How are these mothers supposed to raise the unwanted children that will result from this policy?  Where will these unwanted children go?  How can you protect the life of a fetus and then show no concern for the life of a child?

As a consistently pro-life Democrat, I believe that the first step to preventing abortions is providing affordable health care, affordable day care, a living wage, and appropriate education.  I do not believe that making abortion illegal is some panacea that will stop women from making tough choices when they cannot provide for unwanted children.

My point today is more that if you oppose abortion you should also oppose the death penalty, and support caring for living children.  However, on the issue of making abortion illegal, I recognize that there are many complex issues at play here.  Let’s assume that you don’t know when life begins.  Is it at conception?  After certain neural systems develop?  In the absence of clear evidence, it might be best to err on the side of caution and support life at conception.   If that’s the case, then having an abortion might be killing a life, which means that from the perspective of people who think life begins at conception, this is murder and should be stopped at all costs, even if it takes longer to set up affordable day care or a living wage.  After all, who would put off stopping genocide in order to pass other laws first?  In that sense, I get people who want abortion to be illegal immediately.

And yet, I think the best way to reduce abortions (you won’t eliminate it, as in the case of women whose lives are in danger) is to make it viable to bear and take care of a child, and that these involve long-term policy changes in many arenas.  I like this idea of being pro-life in a consistent manner for people of all ages, and yet I think my personal stance of long-term change rather than immediate change doesn’t make sense in the context of life beginning at conception.  I believe this anyway even though within the logical framework I’ve set up (we should assume life begins at conception until we know otherwise) it’s not rational.

Do you see any inconsistencies in what you think about abortion?  What principal are you basing this stance on – the sanctity of life?  Or personal freedom?  How do those two principles interact when the rubber meets the road?  I think the most interesting question on this issue is, can you put yourself in the shoes of someone on the other side?  Zealots make me nervous.

*A shout out to all you Whorfian Hypothesis folks – isn’t it satisfying to have a label for your political stance?  I love how this neatly ties in opposition to the death penalty.  Most excellent.

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Okay, Catholics.  I know you’re out there.  I want to know why you think the Virgin Mary died a virgin.  After all, she was…married!


I studied theology at a Catholic seminary that trained monks and nuns for one semester.  I was the only non-priest, non-monk, non-nun in this class, which in theory was supposed to be about the history of the modern in church.  In practice, the coursework reached the Reformation during the first week and never advanced beyond it for the entire semester.  Periodically, my professor would beseechingly ask me questions about why I was a protestant heretic.

My favorite such encounter was when he stopped mid-sentence during one lecture and said to me, “FierceLinguist, why don’t you love the Virgin Mary?  Your church is motherless!” *cue much gasping from the nuns and monks in the audience*  I offered a halting explanation in Spanish at to why Protestants think the Virgin Mary is a Very Nice Lady and yet not someone who can help you with prayers.

I’m actually a big fan of the Virgin Mary, but I’m really not sure why it’s so abhorrent for people to think that she eventually had sex with her husband.  My husband has requested that I not  ask our priest about this at mass this weekend.  I’m pretty sure he’d just start talking about Tradition with a capital “t” anyway.  Or say it’s a “mystery” of the church, which means, “Bless your heart, it’s rude to ask about the sex lives of saints.  This is why you’re one of the separated brethren.”


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Dear FierceLinguist,

Why do you make fun of prescriptivists who write into your blog when you are a prescriptivist yourself?


Someone who knows you IRL and knows you lecture people about grammar all the time
Dear Someone,

Let’s unpack these terms.  (Isn’t discussion always more warm and welcoming when it starts with “let’s” like we’re going to do something together?  Let’s do the dishes.  Now you get started.  I’ll catch up.)  A “prescriptivist” describes language the way it “should” be and by nature judges the current usage of language according to some standard.  A “descriptivist” merely observes how language really is and makes no value judgments about language variation.  Variation and change are considered natural and beautiful and not to be feared under the descriptivist paradigm, while prescriptivists are archaic and stodgy *boo hiss*.

These are very nice ideas, and I agree in principal that the most scientific approach to studying language is to be a descriptivist.  However, I went to school for a long time to be able to more effectively mock people who disagree with me for being prescriptivists, while still enforcing grammar rules that I find relevant with the kind of pedantic zeal that comes from having a very expensive framed diploma that I’m still trying to pay off.  And that is my right.  So even if you are my brother, I will still use my lofty position as a trained linguist to tell you that it’s stupid to worry about ending a sentence in a preposition.  And that you’re using the word “peruse” wrong.  I don’t care if it’s the wave of the future.


A prescriptivist in sheep’s clothing

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Today, Mark Krikorian, the executive direct of the Center for Immigration Studies, had an op-ed piece* published in the New York Times in which he stated that, “Some might argue that simply asking about legal status is tantamount to barring illegal aliens from the schools, since no one will want to confess to being an illegal alien. With illegal aliens filing tax returns and lobbying Congress, such a claim is not borne out by the facts. Living in the shadows? What shadows?”

I have so many things that I want to say about illegal immigration and especially about the draconian measures that have become law in Alabama, but I’m going to start with what I bring to this discussion that is different from all of the other people shouting to be heard.  It is not my expertise in economics or foreign policy or moral reasoning; it is my voice as a privileged American who was given a taste of the fear that undocumented immigrants live with each day when they get out of bed, when they drop their children off at school, when they drive to work.

I did not grow up around people who are afraid every single day that they will be deported; I did not internalize that fear as part of quotidian life.  I came of age as a member of a racial majority from a firmly upper-middle class family.  I attended a prestigious university and checked off all of the “right” boxes to have a successful life as an American who would never experience the hardships that these families face.  And yet, I fell in love with an illegal immigrant and married into his family, and as a result I married into his fear of being arrested and forcibly removed from this country.

That fear lived with us for five years like an ominous shadow that colored the way we viewed every situation we faced as a young couple.  I asked my husband what he feared the most in that time and he said, “That they would grab me and deport me and strip from me the life and the opportunities that I have here.”  The words “grab” and “strip” give a poignant description of the violence that we feared.  My deepest fear was that one day he would just not come home.  I had heard many stories of people being deported without even a phone call (since they don’t have the right to one).  I lived every day with the knowledge that the husband that I kissed before I left for work might disappear without warning.  I prayed obsessively each morning, “Keep him safe from watchful eyes and harm.  Bring him home safely tonight.”

I remember the second time we consulted with an attorney about my husband’s situation.  I told her how afraid I was that one day my husband would not come home and I will never, ever forget what she said to me.  “They usually don’t come for families in the night.  If you make it home safely, you’re probably safe until the morning.”  I wept when she said that, and I still cry each time I tell that story.  How many Americans fear people “coming for them” like we live in Nazi Germany?  How many Americans only feel relief from unrelenting panic when their family members are safely in the house for the night?

I remember when we had a big snowstorm in 2011 and many roads closed because of car accidents and the cell phone reception was bad.  I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone and I worried that he could have a car accident and be picked up as an illegal immigrant, since I live in a state where the police can legally demand to see proof of legal residency at any routine traffic stop.  I spent that night repeating the rosary again and again with the nuns on some TV program even though I am not a Catholic because somehow the rhythm made it easier to breathe.  I did that until he arrived home after midnight, having been waylaid by a tree that fell across the road.

When I think back to our life in the shadows, I remember the time that my husband’s boss refused to pay him for 2 months of work (more than $6000) and my husband was scared to take him to court because he didn’t want his (il)legal status to come to light.  We never recovered those two months of wages.

I think about my husband’s little brother, and the year that he was six.  I see him sitting at the kitchen table with his small feet kicking his chair.  We had forgotten he was there, and he was listening to his family talk (in Spanish) about new laws that were cracking down on illegal immigration.  The women were talking about how afraid they were while the men were making reassuring noises about the likelihood that these laws would be enacted.  My small brother-in-law squeezed my hand and asked me quietly (in English) why we have to be so afraid.  I hugged him to me and told him not to be afraid.  I explained that he was born in the US and everything would be okay, while I hoped that he was too little to notice what I was not saying about his brother.  Namely, that he were not born in the US, and that he should be afraid.

I remember fearing that I would lose the security clearance that lets me work in my field because my husband was here illegally, and being told that for my career advancement, I needed to attend a conference in Arizona during the boycott.  I remember the way my protests fell on deaf ears when I explained that I felt wrong about going to any conference that took place in a state where some scholars would feel uncomfortable coming to present their research since they might be stopped and harassed for looking “like an immigrant” (read: hispanic).

More than the panic attacks when I couldn’t reach my husband on the phone, more than the injustice and feeling of impotence when employers cheated my husband, more than the creeping certainty that I was teaching the children in our family to be afraid, more than the anxiety that my husband’s status would rob me of a job, I resented the ignorant comments that people made.  I burned when they spoke of illegal immigrants who taxed our economy and unfairly jumped the line.  I raged inside every time a co-worker or a neighbor or a family member made some stupid comment about immigrants like they were engaging me in an academic debate with no faces in it, no real people.  I wanted to snap back, “You are talking about my husband!  You are talking about my family!”  I felt like I could never scream loud enough so that they would shut up and stop talking about something that they know nothing of, that they will never understand.  More than anything, I want to scream until the whole world hears the voice of these people who are nameless and faceless to the majority of Americans.


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Dear FierceLinguist,

Why do you feel so free to end sentences with prepositions?  Don’t you fear reprisal?


A Prescriptivist

Dear Prescriptivist,

I’m so glad you asked.  The first book about English grammar was written in Latin, because of course that makes a tremendous amount of sense.  In Latin, you can’t end a sentence with a preposition.  Early grammarians based their rules for English grammar on Latin.  That was stupid, and modern linguists don’t hold with that nonsense.  Also, modern English speakers are mostly unaware of that nonsense.



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I’m really interested in alternative family life styles, particularly when they are connected to religious beliefs.  I’ve been thinking a lot about polygamy of the type that is practiced by Fundamentalist Mormons.  I believe that it is none of the government’s business how consenting and informed adults structure their marriages.

Why are modern Christians so opposed to polygamist marriage?  (I just used “Christian” in a way that excludes FLDS members, but that’s a post for another day.)  Many of the important biblical patriarchs like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and David practiced polygamy, and nowhere that I know of in the New Testament does the bible state that polygamy is a practice of the old covenant, but not of the new.  (I read the bible every day.  I’m kind of a Pharisee.)  For that matter, why are modern day Jewish people opposed to polygamy?

To clarify, I am not personally interested in practicing polygamy.   However, I’m deeply interested in the extent to which Protestants rely on extra-biblical tradition (rather than “sola scriptura”) when defining church doctrine. It seems to me that the Catholic church has a very coherent position opposing polygamy since they can call on Tradition with a capital “t” to justify their doctrine, but that people who believe that the bible is the literal and infallible word of God with nothing to add or subtract are standing on shakier ground when it comes to this issue.

Do you think polygamy should be legal?  Protestants, what are you basing your (presumed) opposition to polygamy on?*

*Yes, I ended that sentence in a preposition.  It’s okay – I’m a trained linguist.

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If you have ever stayed silent while someone said something prejudiced about illegal immigrants because you are afraid of drawing attention to someone you love, you are not alone.

If you have researched other countries that you could live in because it seems like you will not be permitted to stay in the country that you were born into and that you love, you are not alone.

If you have woken up early and stayed up late, slept little, visited every specialist under the sun, and paid for the privilege of being given more impossible tasks to complete while they condescend to you about how little hardship you would endure if separated from someone you love, you are not alone.

If you have risked everything including your job and the respect of people you care about to keep someone you love safe, you are not alone.

If you have ever knelt by your bed to pray that someone be safe, that someone be granted clemency, and found yourself flat on your face pleading with God for mercy, you are not alone.

If you have ever cried until you threw up because you worried that your life would never be okay again, you are not alone.

If you have put every part of yourself into a quest like this, your sweat and your blood and your flesh and your tears, you are not alone.

I was married to an illegal immigrant.  We were together for 5 years before the US government granted him legal permanent residency.  I wish that someone had told me that I was not alone.

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If you had to choose one comic that defines your life, what would it be?  I’m pathologically curious, and I like to conduct experiments and collect data points.  Here is me:

XKCD is a great place to look for a life-defining comic.  That’s where I got this one, which I’ve kept on my wall for the past few years.  I have only conducted one experiment today, but the day is still young.  I recently bought some base to put on under my foundation, so today I put my foundation on half of my face when the base was wet.  I waited 10 minutes, and then put foundation on the other half of my face when the base had “soaked in” somewhat.  Then I made my husband come to the bathroom and examine each side of my face to determine whether waiting for the base to dry really matters.  He asked me what the instructions said to do, which I hadn’t read of course.  But the important thing is that I did a clinical trial.  Of a sort.

Which comic are you?

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