July 28, 2005

A chronicle of signs and sounds

It's often the subeditors and headline writers, rather than the journalists, who make science journalism seem so crappy and trivial on linguistic topics. Take the article in this week's Science Times (in The New York Times on Tuesday, July 26, page D3) about the release of a new edition of the SIL Ethnologue. The Ethnologue is an encyclopedic listing of the languages of the world. The article is serious and sensible. It discusses the difficulties of doing a census of languages, the reasons for the slow increase in the number of languages listed in the book over the years, and the political issue of whether the missionary work and bible translation projects of the Summer Institute of Linguistics contribute to language death rather than language preservation. Interesting — and illustrated with a very interesting map of the world in which countries are given sizes corresponding to the number of languages they host (Papua New Guinea becomes the size of a continent). But what did the morons at the headline desk decide to stick in as the subhead? "Feeling misunderstood? A chronicle of signs and sounds explains why." The Ethnologue is not a chronicle; it is not about signs or sounds; and it does not aim or attempt to explain anything, still less why you might feel misunderstood. But when the topic is language, newspaper editorial staff, even in the Science Times department of the New York Times, believe they do not need to know anything at all about the subject matter or even the text of the article. They know enough already. Not for them any hint of dialect individuation or morphological systems or comparative reconstruction or cognate identification or mutual intelligibility tests or syntactic typology. Language is just funny sounds and signs and words for naming things and it's all about making yourself understood and we can write the subheads without even looking at the article. Michael Erard's nice article deserved better.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at July 28, 2005 11:20 AM