January 29, 2006

Rare in the same sentence

What I immediately noticed about Ben Zimmer's post about hiphop research was that the claim that "It's rare to use the words ‘hip hop’ and ‘serious academic research’ in the same sentence" is one more case of someone writing for the press (this time a publicist rather than a journalist) deliberately and quite pointlessly disguising a topic of discussion as linguistic when it isn't. Journalists are drawn to irrelevant but checkable corpus-content statements like moths to a flame. They'll write that some word is always accompanied by the qualifier such-and-such, or that some other word is invariably followed by the phrase thus-and-so, and they'll never try to substantiate these claims, which are in any case nothing to do with what they want to discuss.

Sometimes the linguistic claims are screamingly, massively false. But I'm not really interested in the question of the truth of the present rarity claim. It took about ten seconds to find the sentence "I would also like to express my appreciation for Brother [Cornell] West, who, with the recording of his hip-hop albums, showed me that, even in the midst of academia, non-scholastic pursuits don't have to be put on hold for serious academic research" at Generally Awesome, but that's not the interesting thing. The interesting thing is that although it contains the two phrases in question, it very clearly implies by what it says that hiphop does not have anything to do with academic research. The mere presence of the two phrases has nothing to do with how common it is to find academics studying hiphop. Why would it ever seem sensible to a journalist or publicist to take a claim like "Serious academic research on hiphop is extremely rare" (ravingly false, but that's not my point) and transmute it into a claim with different subject matter, about frequency of co-occurrence of phrases, which the journalist or publicist in question knows nothing about and has no interest in, but we at Language Log can so easily fact-check? It's very odd.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 29, 2006 10:58 AM