January 31, 2006

Jeopardy! strikes the wrong tone

The game show Jeopardy! has something of a mixed record when it comes to language-related clues. Last night's installment had a whole category on "Language," which was rather unremarkable except for the $400 clue:

In the Kootenai tongue, a word's pitch changes its meaning, as in this most widely spoken world language.

This clue follows a typical formula for Jeopardy!, where the wording may refer to something quite obscure even though the correct response is nice and obvious. In this case the requisite obscurity is Kootenai, also known as Kootenay, Kutenai, or Ktunaxa, a nearly extinct language isolate still in use by only a handful of speakers in southeastern British Columbia, northern Idaho, and northwestern Montana. I checked online and could find no references to Kootenai being a tonal language, and fellow Language Logger Sally Thomason verified that Kootenai is indeed not tonal.

So what's the deal? Did the usually meticulous clue-writers have some other tonal language in mind? My best guess is that they confused Kootenai with one of the many Athabaskan languages that are tonal. The most likely candidate for confusion is Gwich'in, also known as Kutchin or Kootchin. I can imagine the show's researchers consulting a list of North American languages, with Kutenai/Kootenai listed right after Kutchin/Kootchin. Of course, it didn't matter what exotic-sounding language was mentioned, as long as it served to spice up an otherwise uninteresting clue about Mandarin tonality.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 31, 2006 01:46 PM