November 30, 2003

Twang scholar on "the constraints of journalism"

I figured it was something like that.

It was great to see Ralph Blumenthal's piece on "Scholars of Twang" featured so prominently in the New York Times yesterday. It's not often that we see an engaging story about an interesting linguistic project on the front page of a national newspaper! But there were a couple of puzzling things in the interview with Guy Bailey that formed the core of the article. One was an account of the origins of U.S. r-lessness in terms of plantation owners sending their sons to England for schooling. Another was Guy's response when asked where fixin' to came from: "who knows?"

Pretty much any linguistically well-informed person would be puzzled about these aspects of the story, as Geoff Nunberg and I were, because there is a well-known story about the American distribution of r-lessness that is more complicated but also more interesting, and there is an obvious sort of answer about fixin' to, in terms of the specific history of fix and the general tendency of verbs of intention or preparation to get semantically bleached into mere tense or aspect. And I'd have bet money that Professor Bailey knows all of this much better than I do.

So I wrote to Guy to ask him what happened. His response with respect to r-lessness (posted with permission):

It was good to hear from you. The article was nice, but the stuff on the origins of r-lessness reflects the constraints of journalism. When asked about the origins of r-lessness in the U.S., I offered two or three different theories (including colonial education in England, an old theory by the way) and indicated that in the South, r-lessness was probably heavily influenced by the speech of slaves. Ralph (I assume, although editors may have shortened the article) chose to write about only one of them. Unfortunately, it's not the one I favor, at least for the South. On the whole though, Ralph did a good job.

And with respect to fixin' to:

The comment on fixin to was also part of a much longer explanation. I began by saying "who knows?" and then outlining "one possibility" -- a long, involved step by step process that Jan worked out a decade or so ago (but which she hasn't published) using OED and other dictionary citations. I have to admit that her derivation probably wouldn't make good news copy, although it is a process that parallels the similar grammaticalization of gonna.

In other words, as I thought, a combination of journalistic focus and editorial compression led to Guy being quoted in a way that doesn't accurately reflect what he knows and what he thinks.

This happens all the time, and not just to linguists. I've hardly ever read a piece of popular journalism, on a topic where I have independent knowledge, that didn't have at least one instance of this sort of thing. Journalists do misunderstand sometimes, and they want a good story, and they need a short one.

Does it matter? Well, it can be personally annoying -- and sometimes professionally embarrassing -- to be made to seem to say things that one didn't say and didn't mean. Also, the content of the mistake is sometimes significant. In this case, as Geoff Nunberg observed, a social change is attributed to social influence from above (rich kids schooled in England), instead of social influence from below (the effect of the speech of slaves). On balance, though, I feel that the result (an entertaining story about linguistics on the front page of the New York Times) is well worth the cost (a couple of misrepresentations of Guy Bailey's views on linguistic history). Of course, that's easy for me to say, I'm not the one being (mis)quoted. But more of us should be willing to take the risk.

I'll let Professor Bailey (who is also provost of the University of Texas at San Antonio) have the last word:

One thing we as linguists probably need to do is to figure out how to make technical linguistic descriptions easily available to a public which has a more general education. Interestingly enough, as an administrator, I always try to give reporters sound bites that reflect the message UTSA wants communicated; as a linguist, I never do.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 30, 2003 12:02 PM