April 01, 2005

No word for "lazy hack parroting drivel"?

Marc Ettlinger at Berkeley tells me he watched with mounting annoyance as 60 Minutes did its story on the Moken (the "sea gypsy" hunter-gatherer tribe living on islands in the Andaman Sea off Thailand). I can understand why he was irritated. You can read a transcript here. It doesn't content itself with the news story (covered elsewhere too) about how the Moken knew the tsunami was coming (just like the animals of the jungle) and fled to higher ground so that not a single one of them was taken by the wave; it wanders on into a whole slew of traveler's tales about how their language has no word for "when", no word for "want", no word for "take", no word for "hello", no word for "goodbye", no word for "worry", and of course if you have no word for worry you never worry...

Many will want to believe this drivel, notwithstanding the critique that Marc offers; but not me. Having seen how little work people are prepared to do to check claims about languages even when they are well known and readily accessible (remember, President Ronald Reagan once got away with claiming in a speech that Russian had no word for "freedom"!), I would not bet a cent on any of the claims about the Moken being true.

Ben Zimmer points out to me that while the statements made by anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff were bad enough ("risible pseudo-Whorfian arguments about the Moken language," says Zimmer), Bob Simon took the ball and ran with it. Note the illicit shift in the following sequence:

Ivanoff: "Time is not the same concept as we have. You can't say for instance, 'When.' It doesn't exist in Moken language."

Simon: "And since there is no notion of time, it doesn't matter if the last visit was a week ago or five years ago."

Simon takes the (utterly unsupported) anthropologist's claim that they don't have the same concept of time as us westerners and stretches it to get to the notion that they have no concept of time. That, of course, will link to why they have no word for "hello": they have no idea whether anyone has been away. No concept of time, so no way absence could make the heart grow fonder. Utter, self-refuting nonsense, of course. If the Moken had no concept of time, how would they have known to flee to higher ground when the tsunami was coming, rather than three hours later? And how would they know that time had passed so it was OK to come back to the beach? How can people believe these things?

I tell you honestly, I wish English had a word meaning "lazy journalist eagerly repeating hogwash about natural languages". Oor a word for the state of not knowing whether to feel pity or simply barf when told stupid things about implications of lexical poverty. Or a lexical item with the sense "absurd and unsubstantiated thesis about some language allegedly lacking words for elementary concepts basic to all human life". Such words would be used so often here at Language Log. The corridors at Language Log Plaza would ring with them. (But you'll notice we manage to reflect upon these concepts anyway, despite not having the words.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 1, 2005 01:05 AM