July 19, 2004

Emergency call for the pragmatics police

There's a story today in the New York Times about a planned " major expansion of the city's information hot line, 311, ... undertaken just in time to help thousands of visitors to the Republican National Convention next month navigate the city by simply picking up a phone". Terrific, but can somebody tell me why the picture that runs with the story -- at least in the online edition -- shows a sign on the wall in Yiddish?

There must be a journalistic variant of the famous Chekhovian law of relevance for suggestive details in literature, two versions of which are:

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." ---Letter to A. S. Lazarev-Gruzinsky, Nov. 1, 1889.

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." --- from the Memoirs of Shchukin (1911)

Let me propose a journalistic lemma: one must not put a foreign-language sign on the wall in a picture of an American municipal office, if the story is not going to comment on it. If it's not going to be mentioned, it shouldn't be hanging there.

I can guess that the information hotline is multi-lingual -- as it should be -- and that there are signs on the wall in many languages, and that this picture happened to capture one of them. And indeed the caption under another picture says that" New York City's 311 hot line operates 24 hours a day, in 170 languages". However, the story doesn't mention anything about languages, and the other picture caption doesn't tell us anything about the featured sign. Really, Timespeople, read your Chekhov if not your Grice.

[Note: I originally identified the sign as being in Hebrew -- but although it's in Hebrew letters, the language is Yiddish, and it says "Call 311", as reader Geoff Nathan emailed to point out. He adds that "Yiddish is, of course, one of the widely spoken languages of New York ([which is] probably one of the few places on earth where the number of native speakers is actually increasing)". This reinforces my point, since it's interesting to know that there are apparently a significant number of people calling for information in NYC who are more comfortable in Yiddish than in English. Or are there? the story doesn't tell us.]

[Next question: what are the 170 languages? And do they have employees to take care of all them, or do they contract it out to a company like Language Line -- which only advertises services in 150 languages?

Language Line's 150 languages are given here (in an uneditable MSWord .doc file, for shame! Do they think that their competitors are incapable of retyping the list, or what?) The NYC 311 web site repeats the claim of 170 languages, but if there's a list somewhere, I can't find it.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 19, 2004 01:09 PM