September 15, 2007

Where do people get this stuff?

A couple days ago I got the catalog for the University of Northern British Columbia's new Continuing Studies offerings, which means typical community college fare. Scattered throughout are little "Did You Know?" boxes. The one in the Languages section asserts that "China has more English speakers than the United States", which I doubt. It is certainly not true if native speakers are meant, and I very much doubt that there are 300 million fluent non-native speakers either. Even if the standard is the ability to carry on a less than fluent conversation I am doubtful. I suspect that the figure they are using is that of the number of people who have studied English.

The really strange item, though, is the claim that: "The language most closely related to English is Flemish.", which is indisputably false. What exactly one means by "Flemish" is actually problematic as the term is used in a number of ways, not all of which describe a meaningful linguistic unit. All of these uses, however, describe one or more varieties of Dutch, and there is no classification of the Germanic languages on which English is closer to Flemish than to other varieties of Dutch.

The subgrouping of the West Germanic languages is somewhat controversial. One common view is that West Germanic contains four subgroups: High German, Low German, Low Franconian, and Anglo-Frisian, where Low Franconian contains Dutch (including Flemish), and as its name suggests, Anglo-Frisian contains English, along with Scots (English) and Frisian. If one takes an expansive view of "English" and includes Scots English as a variety of English, the closest relative of English is Frisian. The subgrouping given in the Ethnologue is a bit different in that it has Frisian as a sister of English (along with High German and Low Franconian-Low Saxon), but again, Flemish is not in any sense the closest relative of English.

What I wonder is, where do they get such factoids? Obviously not from the Ethnologue or Wikipedia. I haven't checked all the encyclopaedias, but in my experience they usually follow the Anglo-Frisian view, and I've never seen any source that put English and Flemish together. UNBC has no linguistics faculty or even Germanicists, so it isn't likely it came from faculty. Is there some source of misinformation that I don't know about? Did they somehow confuse Flemish and Frisian?

Footnote: Actually, the term Frisian is somewhat problematic too. What is usually meant by "Frisian" consists of West Frisian (in the Netherlands) and North Frisian (in Germany) together with Saterfriesisch in Germany. "East Frisian" (in Germany), on the other hand, is considered by some to belong with Low Saxon-Low Franconian and not to be closely related to the other Frisians.

Posted by Bill Poser at September 15, 2007 07:46 PM