The Washington Post misleads readers on linguistics

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You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside the field of linguistics who can accurately describe what linguists actually do, which is study the way language is used by speakers. Count the press among those who don’t understand: Nearly every article I, a linguistics student at UT-Austin, read about the field in the press suffers from a frustrating lack of corroboration by expert sources.

In one particularly egregious example of poor linguistics reporting, published just last month in The Washington Post, science writer David Brown parrots the claim of evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel that the words for fire, man, worm, bark, mother, spit and others in many of the world’s languages have largely remained unchanged for the past 15,000 years. 

This is an astonishing claim; conventional wisdom has it that relationships between words in related languages become unrecognizable after 5,000-9,000 years because of normal language change. Much of the controversy stems from Pagel’s attempt to reconstruct earlier forms for the words above and more based on some slippery criteria. As linguist Sally Thomason of Language Log, a popular linguistics blog with more than 20 contributors, explained in a May 8 posting, “... While acknowledging that linguists often ‘propose more than one proto-word for a given meaning,’ [Pagel observes] that these proposals ‘can reflect … uncertainty as to which of the words ... are most likely to be cognate to the ancestral word.’ But … [w]hat does this indeterminacy do to their claim that words for certain meanings are super-stable, unlikely to be replaced over thousands of years?”

There are those who cast a skeptical eye on the study of linguistics as a whole. In 2001, the late author David Foster Wallace wrote a scathing essay for Harper’s Magazine in which he sounded a warning call against linguistics: “In this age of technology, Descriptivists contend, it’s the Scientific Method … that should determine both the content of dictionaries and the standards of ‘correct’ English … These principles look prima facie OK … but in fact they’re vague and muddled.” Nevertheless, Wallace was mistaken; linguistics allows us to scientifically study language, one of man’s most important tools — even if the press occasionally reports incorrectly on it.

While this may seem far removed from our campus, both linguistics students and professors here at UT have experience with the press’ uncritical reporting of questionable findings. Richard Meier, chair of the linguistics department, describes the problem more bluntly: “I don’t think people know what linguistics is. ... There’s confusion about ... what the object of study is of linguistics, and the object of study of linguistics is language as it’s actually used and spoken and signed, not so much the prescriptive norms that society may have for how language ought to be used.” However, Meier is careful not to cast aspersions on those outside the field, admitting, “Undergraduates [here] don’t come to college knowing what linguistics is.” 

Linguistics professor David Beaver, also a contributor to Language Log, was not surprised to see the story run in the Post. Despite sharing Thomason’s frustration, Beaver does not lay all the blame on the paper, however: “They’ve picked up on a story in a reliable outlet [the journal PNAS], and although [the article] is a little silly, it’s really not entirely their fault... given that they did in fact consult at least one qualified linguist before going to press with the story.”

Jenna Tipton, a Portuguese and linguistics senior, shares Meier’s reluctance to judge the press.

“Honestly, until I was a junior in high school, I had no idea [linguistics] existed either, so I try not to take offense at it,” Tipton said in an email. 

Like Meier, Tipton finds that the general public’s knowledge of linguistics leaves something to be desired, although she made a more generous assessment than Meier.

“Most people either know what linguistics is or can make a tentative guess at it (i.e., ‘that’s like, languages, right?’) but … [i]t is very rare to meet someone who actually understands what linguistics actually is: the study of the structure of language and languages,” Tipton said.

The question of why the press so often gets it wrong remains difficult to answer. Why does such sloppiness get a pass from the press? Recent linguistics alumna Marla Rosner believes it might have something to do with the field’s history. 

“Historically, linguistics was a disorganized discipline occasionally verging on pseudoscience; linguistics as a modern, cohesive, and most of all scientifically rigorous area of study is something of a new phenomenon,” Rosner said.

Another possibility is that language, an inextricably human trait, is so wrapped up in our identities that stories like Brown’s allow us to find “answers” about who we are, regardless of whether they are true. Associate English professor Sara Kimball believes that the press’ coverage of research in language helps to validate certain cultural assumptions.

“I teach a course on language and gender, and one thing that is pretty clear about popular coverage of research in language and gender is that it emphasizes socially sanctioned ideas about differences (e.g. Women talk more than men, men are from Mars, women from Venus type things),” Kimball said in an email.

But that isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the goal of science reporters. While it may seem like an easy ploy to pull in more readers, reporters ought to aim higher. While they may have resigned themselves somewhat to the generally sorry state of linguistic knowledge in the press, linguists deserve to have their work analyzed seriously and honestly, with no easy outs.

Brands is a linguistics senior from Austin and an associate editor at The Daily Texan. Follow Brands on Twitter @ribran.