GOODBYE TO BO.

People keep sending me this BBC story, “Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India,” so I guess I’d better post it. I’ve posted enough dead-and-dying-language stories I was going to let this one go, but the fact that you can actually listen to a clip of Boa Sr, the last person who knew the language to any extent, is unusual and worth applauding. (I don’t suppose anyone here knows what the deal is with that odd-looking name? On the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese website, it’s given as “Sr.” with a period, for example in their brief obituary for her, but I suppose it’s probably not short for “Senior.”) I will add, as an irritated aside, that Alastair Lawson upholds the sorry tradition of BBC science “reporting” by proclaiming that Bo was “one of the world’s oldest languages.” Attention journalists: that is a meaningless statement. Please recalibrate your gobbledygook generators.

Comments

  1. Vance Maverick says:

    When it was highlighted on the front page of the Guardian, the drop-down subhead within the highlight said the language was 65,000 years old. I was all set to bring this to the attention of the readers of Language Hat or Log, but clicking through, I found alas that the article didn’t come close to claiming that itself (and where’s the fun in mocking the writers of sub-headlines?). That article also spells the name as “Boa Sr”, which I took as “Senior”, spelled British-style without the dot.

  2. Trond Engen says:

    [...] proclaiming that Bo was “one of the world’s oldest languages.” Attention journalists: that is a meaningless statement.
    On the face of it that might be a Doctor Who reference.

  3. It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times,” Professor Abbi said.

    “The Andamanese are believed to be among our earliest ancestors.”

    What on earth does that mean? Nobody with training as a linguist would spout that nonsense, so presumably Professor Abbi said something else. Or are we to read this as her report on what is generally, but mistakenly, believed in India?
    Given that, I can’t blame the journalist this time.

  4. John Emerson says:

    Anthropologically, the Andamanese are are supposed to be one of the few peoples who’ve never had significant contact with neolithic or agricultural peoples. (Pre-Western Austraian aboriginal peoples are the others, but the Andamanese culture is still pretty much intact.) Genetically, there is speculation that they’re survivors of on of the earliest out-of -Africa migrations. Per Wiki there seems to be no consensus as to whether it’s an isolate language or not; relationships to Papuan and some Timorese languages have been suggested.
    It might be a case of “If a lion could speak, we couldn’t understand him”, since no one has ever gotten close enough to one Andaman group to hear their language, and if I’m not mistaken the various groups don’t even talk to one another much.

  5. Actually, a participant on Wikipedia said that Abbi had mentioned that in a listserv mail she sent out. Here’s the quote:
    ‘One of the mails which Anvita Abbi wrote to several linguists, was forwarded to me, she gives links to the BBC article but didn’t say that Boa Sr didn’t spoke the language. She would have mentioned that in her e-mail, I guess. But I know that’s not a verifiable source. However, she demented the stuff that the BBC invented, not sure if I am allowed to cite her here: “What BBC said about the antiquity of the language is all wrong but journalists make their own judgements.” ‘
    I am really amazed at all the press that this story’s getting. I guess, if it were actually true—that there was some oldest language in the world, and its last speaker just died—that would be very newsworthy. Nevertheless it’s unusual to have maybe five different people or discussion groups say, ‘hey, did you see this news article?’ and for me to have to explain the basic tropes that the BBC ALWAYS gets wrong when it writes these stories.
    For what it’s worth, the the wikipedia talk page for this language seems to be the most up-to-date and factual assessment of its recent state and this lady. Who… doesn’t actually seem to have been a speaker, at all. But I have seen that Sr. expanded to ‘Senior’ in other accounts. Given the amount of empty-headed parroting that’s already gone on today, though, who knows if that is meaningful.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Aka-Bo_language

  6. komfo,amonan says:

    It strikes me as much more likely that her name is correctly reported as “Sr”, than that it is actually the designation “Senior”, especially if the Grauniad is correct in reporting she had no children. And it’s not that hard to guess how it might be pronounced. Some two-letter combinations would make me think there was an error, but not this one.

  7. John Emerson says:

    I was asking elsewhere: Why are journalists always ignorant of the things they’re writing about? Why do we always read things by journalists who have educated themselves, or not, on the topic, rather than people who know about the topic who have learned how to do journalism?
    The professionalization of journalism is a big part of the answer. If journalism is a skilled trade, of course it would be wrong to ask an anthropologist or economist or biologist to do economics, or biology or anthropology journalism. Sort of like having a butcher do surgery.
    The other part is that low-information journalists are much less likely to produce copy which bothers the publisher, the advertisers, or the readers. He learns to produce bland cliches that fit into the already existing template. “One of the oldest languages” is an already-existing template that doesn’t bother anybody…. who counts.

  8. komfo,amonan says:

    Of course someone will be by in a minute with the correct name complete with IPA, proving me wrong. I almost forgot where I was.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I have just been reading the BBC story, which has two pictures of the lady Bo, one with Anvita Abbi. Bo may have been a semi-speaker of her family’s language, since she lost her grandmother (i think) as a child and no longer had anyone to speak with in her language.
    About the Andamanese languages, there seems to be more than one language family represented. Juliette Blevins of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig recently wrote a paper in which she relates the two closely related Ongan languages (spoken on the island of Onge) to the Austronesian group.
    Blevins thinks that she has found in Proto-Ongan (which she claims to have reconstructed) a “sister language” to Proto-Austronesian (the reconstructed ancestor of close to1000 languages!) , a fact which suggests to her that the ancestor of Proto-Ongan and Proto-Austronesian might have come from the Andaman islands. From the data she presents, it is not implausible that there might be a relationship between the language families, but that does not mean that Proto-Austronesian necessarily came from the Andamans. Given the early navigating prowess of the Austronesian people, it seems more likely that some early Austronesians arrived by sea in some numbers, settled on Onge and merged with the local population, which adopted their language, at some remote point. In one of his works, Joseph Campbell described the beautiful and complex bow used by some of the Andamanese, which he thought had been imported as it was technically much more complex than other Andamanese artifacts. This would fit in with the arrival on the islands of a technologically more sophisticated people such as an Austronesian-speaking group, which did not remain distinct as an ethnic entity. The Andaman islands are in the Indian Ocean, closest to India, and on the Western side of that Ocean is Madagascar, which was itself settled by Austronesians centuries ago.

  10. I don’t know whether they translate existing terms or are English inventions, but it appears likely from the list of Great Andamanese People having Boa Sr. married to Nao Sr. and Nao Jr. married to Boa Jr. that these abbreviate Senior and Junior just like like they seem to.

  11. Philip Spaelti says:

    Well, marie-lucie, it is certainly true that the Austronesians are fantastic sailors, but the problem here is that Blevins is talking about the level of Proto-AN. And one of the more solid proposals for the where and when of Proto-AN is that of Bob Blust, which places Proto-AN in Taiwan (and ultimately mainland China—the “out of China” Hypothesis.) So any proposal that links Proto-AN and Andaman is going to have some serious explaining to do.
    The settlement of Madagascar happened at a much later date, and, surprisingly, the settlers seem to have come from Borneo.

  12. Of course someone will be by in a minute with the correct name complete with IPA, proving me wrong. I almost forgot where I was.
    You cannot make the omelet without the breaking of the eggs, Amonan. Even I am wrong occasionally, ask Trond.

  13. it was highlighted on the front page of the Guardian
    It’s currently their fifth most-viewed story of the past 24 hours.

  14. Why are journalists always ignorant of the things they’re writing about?
    Optimistically, so thay can ask stupid questions, in reality because they
    are ignorant. After all, the British ones believe that front page news is the sex life of a footballer.

  15. The sex lives of footballers is no more boring than the football itself.

  16. For a front-page story about the sex life of a footballer, I would not ordinarily send a science reporter. What do they know about footballers?

  17. marie-lucie says:

    Philip Spaelti: the problem here is that Blevins is talking about the level of Proto-AN.
    Indeed, and I agree with your other points. I mentioned Blevins’ hypothesis, I did not say that I accepted it. Her Proto-Ongan is extremely shallow: there are only two languages, which are closely related and spoken in geographically close proximity (correction from my post above: one on Önge island, the other just North of it, in a portion of another island). There is no way that Proto-Ongan (even if well-done) can have the depth of Proto-Austronesian (and in my opinion there is still a lot of work to be done on PAN). If there is indeed a connection between the two families (assuming that JB did not just jump to conclusions), it is more likely to be much more recent and due to some Austronesians ending up on the Andamans, not Andamanese starting the Austronesian expansion.

  18. There’s another version of this at http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/8500108.stm
    Read the comments and cry.

  19. Sr.? Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri
    “In Sanskrit grammar, Sri belongs to the feminine subjunctive gender but nowadays it is used as a masculine name prefix, equivalent to ‘Mister’ in English. It is gender-specific in Sanskrit, but the assumption that it is masculine has resulted in the titles of Shrimati (abbreviated Smt) for married women and Sushri for women (independent of marital status).
    It may also be found written in Roman script as Shri, Shree, Siri, Sree or Seri. It is used in most languages of the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia (Indonesian: Seri,Telugu: శ్రీ, Kannada: ಶ್ರೀ, Tamil: ஸ்ரீ, Thai: ศรี or ศิริ; ). It is usually used as an honorific. It is thought that this use may stem from the Puranic conception of prosperity[citation needed] and is frequently used in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.
    The term ” Sri” or “Shri” specifically refers to the Goddess of wealth, Goddess Mahalakshmi. Goddess Mahalakshmi is called as ‘Shri’ because she is endowed with six auspicious and divine qualities or Gunas. They are, One who surrenders to Parabrahmam so as to liberate jeevas, one who accepts the surrender of jeevas, one who listens to the prayers of jeevas, one who passes on the prayers of jeevas to parabrahmam, one who annihilates all sins which form as obstacles in acheiving liberation and one who nurtures and develops good gunas and qualities in jeevas. Actually speaking Goddess Mahalskhmi, who is aclled as ‘Shri’ is the source of strength even to Lord Sriman Narayanan.[citation needed]
    The honorific can also be applied to objects and concepts that are widely respected, such as the Sikh religious text, the Shri Guru Granth Sahib. Similarly, when the Ramlila tradition of reenacting the Ramayana is referred to as an institution, the term Sri Ramlila is frequently used.
    Significance
    Sri’ is an epithet of some Hindu gods. When used as a title for gods, Śrī is sometimes translated into English as Lord.
    Sri Devi (or in short Sri, another name of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu) is the devi (goddess) of wealth according to Hindu beliefs.
    Śrī is one of the names of Ganesha, the Hindu god of prosperity. The origin of the word Sri is traced to the account of Lord Ganesha losing his head while protecting his mother Pārvatī. This is why he is the first to be worshiped in all the yagyas.[citation needed]
    Current usage
    Sri, along with the forms Srimati and Susri, is often used by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains as a respectful affix to the names of celebrated or revered persons.
    There is a common practice of writing Śrī as first word centralised in line at the beginning of a document.
    Another usage is as an emphatic compound (which can be used in multiple: sri sri, or sri sri sri, etc.) in princely styles, notably in Darbar Sri, Desai Shri, and Thakur Sri or as in Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a Hindu spiritual Guru and leader.
    It is a common part of names in Javanese language, for example in the name of current Indonesian Finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati.”

  20. That recording of Boa Sr on the BBC site sounds less like speech, and more like incantation, or just babytalk. Can anyone make out what she is supposed to be saying ?
    The site links to VOGA (Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese), which contains biobriefs on the people interviewed by VOGA. There are delightful examples of that just-slightly-haywire English (to the Mid-Atlantic ear, natch !) of many an educated Indian:

    Peje M: is one of those who still spend most of his time hunting and gathering in the scant but virgin jungles of Strait Island.

    Golat M: One of the most introvert and submissive of the Great Andamanese men, Golat has physical features surprisingly closer to the mongoloid type than to the Negritos.

    Nao Jr.: He is very intelligent and interacts well with the outsiders, so much so that he often displayed a remarkable understanding of the linguistic nuances hidden in our relentless queries. He too is unrelenting in giving. He is employed as a paramedic at the medical dispensary in Strait Island , which he is very negligent with. He breathed his last on 22nd February 2009.

  21. One of the Research AssistantsMasters Thesis has an aside about how the informants found him boring because he’s a teetotaller.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    the informants found him boring because he’s a teetotaller
    Maybe that was his rationalization. As a teetotaller he probably was not participating in social activities where he might have relaxed with his informants in their own circle, so he and they did not get to know each other as friends outside of the formal work of “elicitation” (which can be very boring to the informant if not relieved at least by a comfortable relationship with the questioner which allows for more personal give-and-take and some humour).

  23. John Emerson says:

    The optimum number of drinks four not being boring is 2-5. Drunks are boring too, just differently. Everyone should be required to have 2-5 drinks per day.

  24. João Lucas says:

    Would anyone here be kind enough to actually explain to those of us who are not well-versed in linguistics, but still have interest on the subject and follow up this blog’s discussions so devotedly, why exactly the referred statement is meaningless?

  25. What do people mean when they say “Genetically, there is speculation that they’re survivors of on of the earliest out-of -Africa migrations”? Do they mean that there has been no evolution of humans in the Andaman Islands since the first ones arrived, whereas the rest of us have evolved like billy-oh?

  26. What do people mean when they say “Genetically, there is speculation that they’re survivors of on of the earliest out-of -Africa migrations”? Do they mean that there has been no evolution of humans in the Andaman Islands since the first ones arrived, whereas the rest of us have evolved like billy-oh?

  27. marie-lucie says:

    JL, you mean about Bo being “the oldest language in the world”.
    This statement is meaningless in more than one way:
    - any currently spoken language is modern, just like any young person is young, regardless of whether their genealogical tree (= known ancestors and relatives) goes back centuries or they are an orphan with no known parents;
    - “the oldest language” is sometimes used to mean “the oldest attested language”, meaning the one which is attested by the oldest documents and still spoken. For instance, the oldest written documents known are in the Sumerian language, but that language ceased to be spoken millennia ago. The oldest continuous written tradition is probably that of Chinese, but Chinese is much older than its writing.
    - alternately, “the oldest language” could mean “the oldest continuously spoken language”, but that is meaningless because any writing system is much more recent than the beginning of language, and while it is possible to assign approximative dates to written documents even if quite old, it is impossible to know exactly when the language of these documents started being spoken, so that there is no reference point that could be called “oldest”.
    All documented languages show changes through history (eg with Latin and Greek, both very well documented, the latter over almost 3000 years), and historical linguistics is the branch that deals with those changes and also with how to use the details of those attested changes in order to infer or reconstruct earlier stages of one language as well as what must have been a common ancestor of languages which have many features in common. For much of Western Eurasia a common ancestor has been demonstrated and reconstructed, called Proto-Indo-European, but no doubt this ancestor did not appear fully-formed at a certain date but had had earlier stages and may have had “sisters”, other languages descended (= evolved) from its own ancestor just like Spanish, Italian and others descended from Latin (by a continuous evolution in different places, so that there was never a sharp break from Latin in favour of another language). In a way, PIE has never stopped being spoken, it has only evolved into a variety of known languages, some long-attested (Sanskrit, Latin, Greek), some never written until much later (eg Czech), some formerly spoken over a wide area but later abandoned in favour of other languages (Continental Celtic in Spain, France, Germany, etc before the Roman empire; Iranian languages in Central Asia before the Turkic conquests; many native American and Australian languages before European conquests, etc).
    When journalists write “Bo was the oldest language in the world”, they probably mean that it was the language with the oldest continuously spoken tradition, but that is only an assumption based on the geographical and cultural isolation of the Andamanese population: there is no way of determining, for instance, whether Bo or one of the native languages of Australia or New Guinea (all of which went through long periods of isolation from the rest of the world) could qualify for this description. Should Blevins’ hypothesis of an Austronesian connection be confirmed, then Bo could no longer be considered in this context.

  28. Trond Engen says:

    Even I am wrong occasionally, ask Trond.
    No, AJP, that’s so wrong.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    The Voices website linked to in LH’s post has a list of books, one of which is Anvita Abbi’s Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands. Clicking on the book icon opens a review which mentions typological features of the languages and which quotes Abbi’s conclusion that the Ongan languages (Önge and Jarawa) are quite different from the rest and probably result from a later migration to the islands.

  30. John Emerson says:

    What do people mean when they say “Genetically, there is speculation that they’re survivors of on of the earliest out-of -Africa migrations”? Do they mean that there has been no evolution of humans in the Andaman Islands since the first ones arrived, whereas the rest of us have evolved like billy-oh?
    There have been several migrations out of Africa. According to this theory, The Andaman islanders are descended from only one of them and has not mixed with the others. Second, Whatever evolution they’ve done is on their own track, and not part of the evolutions that other groups have had, so their could have been a divergences — independent evolutuionary divergences from a point 20,000-50,000 years ago.
    That’s what was being suggested, but I’ve talked to others since I posted and I believe that the consensus is that the Andaman origin is from the same group as most of southern India, except with considerablely less mixing with other populations for the period of time (of unknown length) during which the Andamaners have been isolated. So there’s less there than I originally suggested.

  31. I think that’s right, marie-lucie; the journalist seems to have meant ‘the language that changed the least for the longest period ’til now’.
    -
    why exactly the referred statement is meaningless?
    Any assertion of some particular language “go[ing] back to pre-Neolithic times” begs extremely difficult questions of evidence and method – which difficulties are no bar against venturing hypotheses, but which do indicate a powerful call for tentativity in making such hypotheses.
    One reason someone might call the statement attributed to Abbi “meaningless” or ‘nonsensical’ is that such a contest-magnetic assertion appears to have been made confidently, in a blanket manner (“It is generally believed [...]“). Given that Abbi is a “Professor”, the interviewer seems to have elided any qualifying phrases that Abbi might have used to bracket the assertion as being greatly, and in substance, speculative rather than especially empirically compelled.

  32. Correction: ” . . . the journalist seems to have meant to have quoted the linguist accurately as saying that . . . ”

  33. Would anyone here be kind enough to actually explain to those of us who are not well-versed in linguistics, but still have interest on the subject and follow up this blog’s discussions so devotedly, why exactly the referred statement is meaningless?
    As usual, marie-lucie did a better job than I could have.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    Please, LH, don’t underestimate yourself. I am a historical linguist, I am used to talking and writing about this sort of thing. I could not write about Pushkin or Belin or Tzetzes, for instance.

  35. João Lucas says:

    Thank you very much, marie-lucie! Your explanation couldn’t be clearer.

  36. I meant “in explaining historical linguistics.” I’m a lousy teacher (I tried at two colleges), and I know a good one when I see one.

  37. John Emerson says:

    M-L, we really don’t want LH to get overproud. That way lies …. something.

  38. From that wikipedia article on “Sri”: “In Sanskrit grammar, Sri belongs to the feminine subjunctive gender [...].”
    I don’t remember having studied ‘gender moods’ – I mean, as a aspect of Sanskrit (or any language). What does the phrase mean? Does it refer to a participle, which must be gendered, used as an imperative?

  39. I second Hat! Such a concise and clear explanation, m-l!
    @ John Emerson on journalists. My particular theory is that in the Old Days, journalists were people who had good, broad educations, knew a great deal about the world, could write, and were very curious. They learned all the journalism stuff — ledes, three sources, etc. — on the job. Today journalists went to J School, or majored in journalism in college. They know a great deal about constructing a story, and the ethics of journalism, and how to do a lay-out, but they don’t actually know anything about the world.
    And now of course it’s all about numbers. They know that if, say, there is a photo of a celebrity on the cover of their glossy, sales will be 50 percent higher (or whatever). Their headline writers (in the US these are not the people who write the report) know that they need to write an attention-grabbing (ie sensationalist) headline to grab the readers, and every time they do and they see that the report got 50 percent more hits than the report with the accurate but “boring” title, it encourages them (or encourages their bosses to make them) continue to write more of the same.
    Which is why I hate the Huffington Post, and hate myself for glancing at it.

  40. John Emerson says:

    As I understand, in the old days journalists were of low social standing, learned on the job, and often were failed literary men or Ivy League dropouts. There also was a lot of competition between newspapers and a wide range of types of newspaper.
    I don’t like the Huffington Post either, but they’re far from the worst.

  41. SnowLeopard says:

    feminine subjunctive gender
    deadgod, nothing in my experience or in either of my Sanskrit grammars yields a context in which the questioned phrase would be intelligible. Indeed, the subjunctive (verb) form appears to have mostly been supplanted by the optative in the classical language. But I am neither a linguist nor a Sanskritist and, as usual in this crowd, defer to any corrections from my betters.

  42. I was asking elsewhere: Why are journalists always ignorant of the things they’re writing about?
    Because very few news agency journalists are, or are allowed to be, specialists. And news agency reports, sometimes, but mostly not, re-written by the end user, form the vast majority of the news as reported to the public.
    Agency journalists normally handle several totally different stories each day, mainly from local news sources. So the hack in New Delhi, for example, might have stories about a lost tourist, new economic data, a polticial row with China, and the death of “the world’s oldest language” come across his desk in one shift. He simply can’t be an expert in all of the endless possible stotries.
    And the journalist may be required to suddenly rush to cover a story in a different country he knows little about.
    You simply have to use your common sense and what little background knowledge you may have. My saying has always been that as an agency journalist, “you’re an expert in three days or 10 years.”
    This is why people who happen to be experts on a particular subject so frequently say that “journalists always get it wrong when they write/talk about XXX.”
    On the subject in question, it was probably an agency story that ended up with the BBC Science service, along with a huge mass of other material, and that department doesn’t happen to have any linguists, or the linguist was off duty, and the story had to be used or spiked.
    Don’t be quite so hard on the hacks, or the BBC. In the circumstances, they do a reasonable job, I maintain.

  43. John Emerson says:

    It’s not really the hacks, but the institutions that I’m talking about. And it isn’t just specialized boutique topics like anthropology, but topics of major significance like economics. And not just the agency reporters, but the specialist reporters of proud newspapers like the New York Times. There’s really no excuse for economic reporting to be done by someone who doesn’t understand economics, but that happens all the time. (Read Brad DeLong or Dean Baker, and sometimes Krugman touches on this — Krugman is an opinion writer only and doesn’t control reporting. Granted, not all economists disagree, but critics are always finding basic errors involving not understanding basic statistics or basic terminology).
    There was a day when newspapers would contract out specialized topics to expert non-journalists on a piecework basis. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be done now. Or second-rank but competent specialists could go into journalism in their specialties.
    The same thing happens in education, where PhDs in many places are forbidden to teach high school if they don’t have a teaching certificate.

  44. Yes, Paul, that’s true, too. Now I think I’ve been too hard on those J-school kids… It should also be said that there are some good business/financial/economic writers, some very good science and tech writers. And of course many excellent food writers. The problem is definitely with non-specialist journalists picking up a specialist story.
    But now that I’ve been nice, I should say I’ve been rather horrified by the lack of general knowledge about the world and history among young journalists in Moscow. But this is when I snort and say Sheesh! Kids these days!

  45. At least when it comes to covering linguistic issues and non-Western peoples, I sincerely doubt journalists 50 or 100 years ago were any better, or any more eager to look beyond cliches. Certainly if Evelyn Waugh is any guide…

  46. There’s another version of this at http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/8500108.stm
    Read the comments and cry.
    Keith: Why cry ? Many of the comments seem very reasonable.

  47. marie-lucie says:

    More on “the oldest language in the world”
    I made a mistake above – the status of Bo has nothing to do with Blevins’ Austronesian proposal since that proposal concerns quite different languages.
    On the other hand, there is no reason to call Bo “the oldest language” (whatever definition one uses) any more than its relatives (or perhaps non-relatives) among the other Andamanese languages, or than still-spoken languages in places such as New Guinea, or than Basque or Burushaski, for instance.

  48. I agree that journalists should learn on the job, and I have little or no time for J schools, ditto tabloids, but it’s clear why they exist (and always have – Grub Street). Rather than imposing on LH, I’ll do something on the subject on my blog shortly and we can brickbat back and forth gaily…

  49. From that wikipedia article on “Sri”: “In Sanskrit grammar, Sri belongs to the feminine subjunctive gender [...].”
    Good lord. I deleted the absurd “subjunctive.” I have to say, Indian languages are the object of some of the worst nonsense ever written; this is just one tiny example.
    Don’t be quite so hard on the hacks, or the BBC. In the circumstances, they do a reasonable job, I maintain.
    In general, this is probably true, but when it comes to science in general and linguistics in particular, it is not, especially at the BBC. I think one aspect of the problem is the emphasis on getting points of view to the virtual exclusion of concern with reality. When it comes to politics journalists have a gut sense of reality that protects them from some forms of error, but this is not true when it comes to science and language, and if some idiot sends out a press release saying (to take a recent instance) “English is about to get its millionth word!” they don’t say “What bullshit” and crumple it up, they write a breathless story about it and it gets published just as if it meant something. In any event, let us know when your post is up; I look forward to the discussion.

  50. Keith: Why cry ? Many of the comments seem very reasonable.
    True, there’s quite a few reasonable ones there, but the ones who think 2 or 10 languages are enough are what bother me.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    Actually, most of the comments are reasonable, only a few are extremist, and some of them are being taken to task by the reasonable commenters.

  52. I get blinded by the worst when reading comments pages on news sites.

  53. Yes, SnowLeopard and language hat, “feminine subjunctive” sounded to me like a bit of gibbering that Sanskriters would shrig at and pass by, but I wondered if there weren’t an interesting, and interestingly rational, explanation. As opposed to, say, Shriking of the Gods?.

  54. LH: I don’t know which BBC version of the story you came across, but this on-line print version is quite sceptical and nails down the originators as a profit-making on-line stats company. It points out the sceptical case clearly. At least someone at the Beeb doesn’t seem to be all-bad.

  55. I hate the Huffington Post
    Well, sure, the Huffington Post is tarted up a bit. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t get the traffic it gets – and the enemy whom hits-metering registers is . . . us.
    But compared to fact-free sensation zones like Fox and the Wall Street Pravda??

  56. keith,
    I read them and wept.
    “Language is just for communication, so we only need one”.

  57. marie-lucie says:

    Paul, what and where is this on-line print version? is it one that you have to be a subscriber for? I can’t open the link.
    Isolated languages: I have just run across an ad for a description of Burushaski as an Indo-European language. The author claims to have found so much IE material both lexical and grammatical that one wonders how it could have been missed for so long. However, since the book is issued by Lincom Europa, a publisher that is not very choosy about its authors (the excellent being mixed randomly with the abysmal, without any process of peer review), I would not rush to buy it, let alone accept its conclusions without a jumbo dose of skepticism.

  58. marie-lucie says:

    “Language is just for communication, so we only need one”.
    The people saying that would of course be quite happy if it was decreed that Chinese, having the most speakers, would therefore be chosen to become the single world language.

  59. M-L (and LH): I don’t know why the BBC link didn’t work when I href’ed it.
    It’s http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8092549.stm

  60. Your link didn’t work because you forgot the URL. I just added it. My secretary will bill you.

  61. If the code isn’t right, Hat’s comment utility will strip out the URL–even if just one character is typed wrong. That’s why I like to format and test links using the HTML editor in my (ahem) free blog.

  62. Teh guy in the BBC link thinks “N00b” is a word. LOL!

  63. I particularly dislike HuffPo because virtually all their commentators do it for free. The idea is that a platform is more valuable to the writer than the writer is to the readers. This bodes badly for someone who needs to make a living at the computer. I also dislike intensely the promotion of Ariana — personality is more important than news. And the fact that I get sucked in to clicking on some stupid story about Madonna.

  64. I think there’s far too much newspaper & tv coverage of things like wars and sports and politics. I’d like more animal stories and news about the visual arts and gardening. I also hate the bloody weather forecasts, they’re so conservative, so drab and humourless. I’d replace the forecast with a 5-minute book programme; I can look out of the window if I want to know the weather (which I don’t).

  65. Something they could have more of on television is obituaries.

  66. marie-lucie says:

    Teh guy in the BBC link thinks “N00b” is a word.
    No, it’s the guy who is counting the words who thinks just about any sequence of letters (and numbers) that appears in print is a word.

  67. Yeah, that’s the guy. He thinks “web 2.0″ is a word, not two words, and I’ve never heard of it, also n00b, spelled with zeros. In that case, the two other words I used, LOL and teh should be on the list, since you can’t have LOLcatspeak, the hottest thing on the intertubes, without them. I also seem to recall someone at the Log writing about this guy before, since he has kept pushing up his prediction date of the arrival of the millionth word. He sounded a bit nervous in the interview.

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