Gather round, children; it’s time once again to hurl insults at that bastion of smug insularity, the New York Times. In today’s Metro section there’s a touching story by Corey Kilgannon about a NYC doctor, Ian Zlotolow (a gold star, incidentally, to anyone who can explain to me the morphology of that name, which is clearly based somehow on Slavic zlat-/z(o)lot- ‘gold’), who first treated and then adopted a boy from Sierra Leone. So far, so good, but in an attempt to dramatize the boy’s change of surroundings, the reporter produces the following:

Early last year, Lansana spoke only his tribal dialect, Mende, and hoarded food in the house. He had never been to a city, watched television, flushed a toilet or taken a shower. He had never had a real change of clothing.
But once in New York, the boy picked up English quickly, and, with his magnetic personality, made friends just by walking down the block…. When some West African cabdrivers and a college professor engaged him in dialect, he ignored them.

His “tribal dialect”? Excuse me? Mende is a language, just like English and French and all those sophisticated languages spoken by Times reporters and the people they sip aperitifs with. It is, in fact, one of the two major languages of Sierra Leone (along with Temne), with around 1.5 million speakers; it’s an offshoot of the great Mande family of West Africa, which was producing epics when the ancestors of most Times reporters were chomping on radishes and waiting for Chaucer to come along and give them a literature of their own. (Apologies to devotees of the Ancren Riwle and Layamon’s Brut.) Tell you what, next time you interview Nelson Mandela, why don’t you ask him to say a few words for you in his tribal dialect? I’ll bet a good time will be had by all.


  1. Gaaaaaah. I thought the AP stylebook had a section on this. I could be wrong, though, as the last time I did any heavy use of the AP stylebook was over a decade ago.

  2. (Screams, tears hair out). Oh dear. I do hope someone lets them know how unbelievably crap they are.

  3. Well said. The condescension that lurks in that word ‘dialect’, especially in such contexts, is amazing.

  4. I remember John Simon, the proscriptive grammarian, on the old Dick Cavet Show, telling the audience why Yiddish didn’t qualify as a language, because it didn’t have a literature. What? People have some mighty strange ideas about language.

  5. Did I type “proscriptive” rather than “prescriptive?” Well, color me red-in-the-face. I meant to type “normative.” Yeah, that’s it.

  6. he condescension that lurks in that word ‘dialect’, especially in such contexts, is amazing.
    Exactly. There’s a not-so-subtle implication of becoming civilized by dropping the old “dialect.”
    Yiddish didn’t qualify as a language, because it didn’t have a literature.
    Hence Uriel Weinreich’s much repeated quote:
    “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

  7. Anthony says:

    The meaning of ‘dialect’ in linguistics (in itself only roughly defined) is different from its lay usage, where it seems to mean ‘not a national language’, probably with connotations (either bad or good) of provincial backwardness.
    I have more of a problem with the word ‘tribal’ here.

  8. Baloney says:

    Yiddish didn’t qualify as a language, because it didn’t have a literature.
    What the hell was he talking about???

  9. Well quite. “Tribal”. Sums it up entirely. Along with “never… flushed a toilet or taken a shower”. Prejudice so completely and deeply engrained, straight back to the Victorian anthropoligists who decided, on similar grounds, that various people they came across weren’t human. (Tears remainder of hair out)

  10. Personally, I find it bizarre that along with the toilet/shower/TV thing, it seems to be considered some kind of “progress” to ignore people who speak to you in your own tongue. The whole thing sounds rather tragic.

  11. It seems to me John Simon made a good argument but accepted an obviously wrong premise. However, in the late 19th century, when I.L. Peretz and Shalom Aleikhem had just begun to publish their work, it was much closer to being true; indeed, many Yiddish speakers referred to their language as “jargon”.
    But that’s not particularly important, since Mende does have at least an oral literature. What is striking, I agree, is the NYT’s condescending attitude. I wouldn’t mind that much if it were their overt stance, but it runs counter to their liberal-multicultural ideology. In any case, I strongly prefer open bigotry to hypocrisy.
    The bit about not speaking to your former compatriots in your shared mother tongue reminds me of George Mikes (the author of “How to Be an Alien”).

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