January 14, 2004

Strange linguistics in this week's Economist

It was a big week for our subject in The Economist (January 10th, 2004). The Science and Technology section led off with linguistics, the topic being David Gil's report about Riau Indonesian grammar, already discussed here by Mark Liberman. (Very suspicious stuff that I'm not yet ready to believe, incidentally; I wish more details were given. I have seen only superficial essays citing a single two-word utterance that is supposed to have dozens of meanings. I'd want to see a lot of very detailed argument before I would be prepared to believe that there is a natural language with no nouns or verbs. For one thing, that would mean no word order rules whatsoever, because word order rules always make reference to syntactic category, e.g., whether some item is a noun or a verb.)

But there was another linguistic item too, about an even stranger topic than the allegedly grammarless province of Riau.

After two other short items (about Mars and SARS, respectively), the Science and Technology section returned to language with a piece about the Voynich manuscript. This strange document may date back as far as the 16th century, and has been intensively analyzed since it was purchased in 1912 by antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich. It has never been deciphered, even in part. Its elegant script is unknown from any other source, and not one clue as to its semantic content has emerged. It might be randomly assembled nonsense, or it might be a genuine message that has been encrypted. Right now, nobody knows. The linguistic science story actually comes out of computer science: Gordon Rugg, a computer scientist at Keele University in the UK, has worked out a way of showing that the text shows certain regularities that might have been produced by a cryptologic technique due to an Elizabethan era con-artist, Edward Kelley, which I guess means that he just might have been the creator of the manuscript.

What an odd, wacky, thoroughly peripheral pair of language-related items. And they appeared in the week of the Linguistic Society of America meeting. You'd think there might have been actual results presented at the meeting that could have provided fodder for the science journalists (which always happens every year with the meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). If we linguists didn't have any positive, refereed results that would make a dozen column inches in the science section of a magazine or newspaper... Well, then perhaps we should try harder.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 14, 2004 02:09 PM