Sunday, June 13, 2010

What (some) journalists think of linguists: McCrum

Imagine a journalistic piece about a linguist that starts by describing them as "that rare beast, an academic who talks good sense about linguistics, his chosen field." Sadly, you don't need to imagine it.

Robert McCrum has published it in the Observer, here. If you've forgotten, McCrum is the author of Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language. I would note that many people actually trained in linguistics are far from convinced that McCrum knows enough about linguistics to talk good sense about it. (For one example, see here.)

The piece is headlined "Language alters how we think" and it's about Guy Deutscher. The opening continues:
In his new book, Through the Language Glass (Heinemann), he fearlessly contradicts the fashionable consensus, espoused by the likes of Steven Pinker, that language is wholly a product of nature, that it does not take colour and value from culture and society.
I have no comment at this time.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reader poll suggestion: Post that headline and those quotes and get reactions to what piece is weirdest, most wrong or silliest.

Mr. Verb said...

Good idea, will have to consider that.

By the way, the slam in the opening is of course against academics in general.

Harry Campbell said...

Surely someone who claims that "in German, a young lady has no sex, though a turnip has" is either wilfully misunderstanding or genuinely doesn't get it.

Mr. Verb said...

That's a reference to Mark Twain's Awful German Language, where he gives that pair of examples.

Harry Campbell said...

OK, but from a non-specialist writing for a general audience it does risk implying he just doesn't understand the concept of gender. (OK, maybe I'm just defending the fact that I didn't notice the reference even though I did know the quote!)

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, the whole piece seems written in that style and tone to me, at least. Deutscher certainly understands stuff like gender, but it's hard not to wonder if McCrum does.

goofy said...

I thought that the Australian language that had been researched re direction words was Kuuk Thaayorre, not Guugu Yimithirr.

http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

N said...

Journalists should be penalized for being incorrect, especially about something which they could easily find good information about. I understand if you write something inaccurate about a current even where all the facts aren't out, but they shouldn't get a free pass for being wrong.

anggarrgoon said...

@goofy, the recent one is Thaayorre but there was earlier work by John Haviland in a somewhat similar vein for Guugu Yimidhirr.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Anggarrgoon. It's good to hear it from a specialist ... I had been meaning to track down what was what and hadn't gotten around to it.