January 24, 2008

The last blondes, or the blonde?

Just to add one indisputably linguistic point to make Mark's post about the blonde extinction legend eligible for our site (for this is indeed, let me remind you, Language Log, not a hairdressing industry magazine or the newsletter of the Board of Governors of the BBC), let me point out that the BBC also badly miswrote the opening line of its ridiculous story. "The last natural blondes will die out within 200 years, scientists believe" is what they wrote. But of course the death of the last few natural blondes is not the point.

It is true that they used die out rather than die, and that is a relevant difference; but that is really the point I am making: we speak of people, or random groups of people considered as arbitrary collections individuals, dying, and we speak of genetically defined classes like breeds or races or species dying out. (Languages are rather like species. Notice the sad news in Sally Thomason's post: Marie Smith Jones died; but Eyak died out.) Now, "the last few natural blondes", whoever they might ultimately turn out to be, would be a contingent, arbitrary group of individuals, not a genetically defined group.

Of course those individuals — the last few natural blondes — will die within 200 years, in a sense. All the blondes alive now — and at the moment they are the last ones we have — will be dead in 200 years. That won't matter at all in the long term, because some of them will have had blonde babies by then. The point was supposed to be about the fair hair gene.

I know it is true that if a group of people really were the last of their kind, and they died, then their kind would have died out. But I still think the BBC's writing betrays a certain carelessness about the individual/species distinction. The way they put it confuses individuals with blonde hair dying, which happens every day and has no implications for the disappearance of their genes, with the entire genetically defined class of humans becoming extinct.

They could have written "Within 200 years there will be no more natural blondes", using a quantifier; or "Blondes will be extinct within 200 years", using the generic plural for the group; or "The natural blonde will be extinct within 200 years", using the definite singular generic; but they sort of blundered about in the stylistic wilderness in between. It's ill-expressed. Which raises the question of whether BBC stories not only go without fact-checking, they don't even get read by a literate editor before they are popped on the web to mislead people forever (and provide Mark with opportunities for volunteer work as an unpaid public science journalism inspector).

And I find another question is raised in my mind as well. Can it really be that no one at the BBC reads Language Log?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 24, 2008 03:46 AM