March 07, 2004

Say No More - Once More

Jack Hitt's New York Times Magazine article Say No More about the impending death of the Qawasqar language in Chile has evoked much criticism. Mark Liberman has criticized Hitt's apparent lack of interest in the language itself as well as Hitt's muddled statements about historical linguistics. David Beaver and I have criticised Hitt's claims about the relationship between language and culture. Claire Bowern has provided a recipe for creating articles like Hitt's, and Kerim Friedman has a discussion of what a good article on the topic might be like, along with some insightful comments on the whole issue of language endangerment and maintenance. The only sympathetic comment I've seen is by Language Hat, who acknowledges the numerous linguistic errors and the fact that the piece says little about language, but considers it to give a moving account of the human meaning of language loss.

I'd like to offer a qualified defense of Hitt and his editors. The fact that articles of this type are so similar, as Claire Bowern points out, isn't really cause for criticism. It reflects the way the journalistic world operates. Most mass market publications aren't going to be interested in a new and deeper perspective because their readership won't understand it or be interested in it. Furthermore, most of their readership won't be bothered at all by the fact that a similar article has appeared elsewhere because they won't have read it. Those of us who have a particular interest in language endangerment actively seek out material on it and read everything that comes to our attention, but we're a tiny minority.

It is also true that Hitt's article does not reflect much knowledge of language, but as John McWhorter has pointed out and Geoff Pullum has seconded, Hitt's linguistic gaffes merely reflect the generally low level of knowledge about language. Except for linguists and a small number of others with a particular interest in language, very few people know much of anything about language. Journalists typically major in English or Communication or perhaps something like Political Science, with the result that they know nothing about linguistics or natural science or most other subjects beyond the sort of basic general knowledge most university graduates have. Since linguistics isn't taught at all in secondary school, this means that they know even less about language than they generally do about math and science.

Journalists arguably don't need to know much about language unless they are going to write about it, but ignorance about language extends to people who really ought to know something about it. A prime example is school teachers. Some knowledge of linguistics would be helpful in teaching reading and writing, language arts, and foreign languages. It would be helpful in identifying developmental problems and in dealing with children whose first language is not English. It would be helpful in teaching social studies, history, and geography. Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow have written a paper entitled What Teachers Need to Know about Language [PDF file] that discusses what teachers ought to know and why. In fact, the great majority of teachers know next to nothing about language.

Lest it seem that I think that all journalists are ignorant boobs, I should note that there are exceptions. Indeed, one of my best friends is a reporter. One journalist by whom I have been positively impressed is Jonathan Manthorpe, the foreign affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun. He's one of the very few journalists writing on international affairs who really knows what he is talking about. As someone with a special interest in Asia, a part of the world of whose history most Westerners are quite ignorant, I've been especially impressed by his knowledge of Asian affairs.

Another is Gina Kolata, whose work I have admired, in Science, The New York Times, and several books, since the 1970s. The largest part of her writing seems to be about biology and medicine, but what first impressed me was that she wrote comprehensible pieces about mathematics. A large part of the time I find news items on developments in mathematics incomprehensible, which I believe to be attributable to the fact that the reporter does not understand what he or she is writing about. Her articles stood out in the understanding of the subject that they reflected. It turns out that she has a B.S. in microbiology and an M.S. in applied mathematics, plus two years of doctoral work in molecular biology. She's a terrific science writer. Knowing what you are talking about helps.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 7, 2004 04:53 PM