Yes, I go on and on and on about it (and I’m not even including my bouts of Safire-bashing), but dammit, it’s a scandal that the Newspaper of Record is so smugly ignorant about language. They wouldn’t permit a news story to leave the impression that protons and neutrons are pretty much the same thing, but look at these excerpts from today’s story “Mongolians and Koreans: Twins With Minimal Sibling Rivalry” by James Brooke (I’ve put the more idiotic bits in bold):

Mongolians and Koreans are ethnically related peoples cut off by centuries of history. In the 13th century, Mongolians swept across China and down the Korean peninsula, and were on the brink of invading Japan until several naval disasters changed their minds.
Mongolia’s occupation of Korea left linguistic affinities, shared genes and wild horse herds, known to this day as Mongolians, on the South Korean island of Cheju, the staging base for the frustrated invasion of Japan…. On an ethnic level, Koreans and Mongolians are like fraternal twins.

Kim Sung Chul, a South Korean pastor who has been here three years, said, “We look the same; our skin is the same; our grammar structure is the same.”…
“After two years, Koreans can speak Mongolian,” said Kim Wan Jin, a translator who is one of the roughly 1,000 Koreans who have moved here in the last five years. “But it is even easier for Mongolian people to learn Korean.”

So what have we learned? Mongolians and Koreans are “like fraternal twins,” and their languages are so closely related it takes hardly any work to learn one if you know the other, sort of like Spanish and Portuguese. All of which is balderdash. The ethnic stuff presumably means that the Mongols interjected a few genes into the Korean pool during their stay, which is doubtless true but basically meaningless—they did the same everywhere they went, as do all conquering armies, without substantially affecting the local ethnicity. And the language stuff means that some people consider Korean part of the Altaic language family. Ethnologue is conservative (as am I), and includes only Mongolian, Tungusic, and Turkic languages in Altaic; it’s possible that Korean is related (which would of course have nothing to do with “Mongolia’s occupation of Korea”), but as Andrew Dalby puts it, “If so, it must have separated from the remainder of the family many thousands of years ago”—which means that any obvious traces have long been effaced, and it’s no easier for a Korean to learn Mongolian than, say, Chinese. Here, I’ll put the numbers from one to ten side by side and you tell me if they look related.
M: nig   khoyor gurav döröv tav   dzorghaa doloo naym yös  arav
K: hana tul      set      net     tasôt yôsôt      ilgop  yôdôl ahop yôl
However, this investigation did lead me to one of the best 404 pages I’ve ever seen; it starts “404 Вам будет удача” [you will have good luck/fortune] and goes on (in Russian)

This page is good luck. The good luck has gone around the whole world. Karl Rodriguez [Карл Родригес] putышьздуюреьд instead of into the address bar of his browser and wound up here. Petya Solomkin got the name of a site that had been closed down, and he too wound up at this page. Afterwards they all had good luck. It won’t pass you by either.
If you got to the Happiness Page from a Yandex link, share this joy with ten friends.

So I’m sharing it with you all!
…Except that I just double-checked the 404 link and discovered it’s entirely different now: fairly normal, except that it ends И помните: вы это не читали. [And remember: you didn’t read this.] I guess they have a number of different pages for you to hit upon. If you read Russian, go there and see what you get!


  1. Well, I wonder how much of the “Korean is just like a twin to [xyz] language” myths are due to Koreans themselves. After all, the poor bastards spend their primary and secondary education banging their heads against English, which has basically no common words, no common idioms or cultural referents, a completely different grammatical structure, etc., with Korean. Worse yet, most of the time they’re learning it largely from non-native speakers who are teaching only what the students need for the college entrance exam, not what they might actually wanna communicate about in every day life, or from unqualified native speakers.
    After that kind of a miserable experience, a few Koreans go on to learn a language that’s closer to Korean, e.g. Japanese, or maybe not even closer but just has easier spelling and pronunciation and vaguely similar grammar, e.g. Turkish. And they’re learning it from a college prof who is a native speaker and has relevent degrees, or from travelling. So of course it must seem like a breeze and makes them think that whatever language they’re learning is just like a brother to Korean, because they have such a bad reference point.

  2. There are a number of reasons why Koreans and Mongols should want to feel close. Both fear the Russians and the Chinese, and both are Buddhist (though weird forms of Christianity have made enormous inroads in Korea). And the Koreans are prosperous enough that some of them can be cultural dabblers now the way some Americans are.

  3. It isn’t just language – reporting about scientific research is awful in just about any newspaper you can find. The BBC has awful science reporting. I think part of the problem is the need, as in this case with the “twins,” to use metaphors to make complicated issues seem palatable. They almost never actually discuss the nature of the data upon which the “story” is based.
    The tracing of genetic and linguistic family trees (famously done by Cavalli-Sforza), is prone to over-interpretation because they are basically using the same computer models to analyze very different kinds of data. The end results look the same because the computer spits out similar charts. Also, as a population-genetics research told me, those charts shouldn’t really be interpreted as tree diagrams, because the algorithms used are actually just probability distributions, not definite relationships.

  4. Thanks for your harsh words.
    I’m sort of a jack-of-all-trades reporter and cover everything. Journalists, by their nature, don’t have the time to understand what they write about with any depth. We really do miss a lot. Also, I’m a new arrival to the region.
    I’ve alread been fisked a few times about my sloppy spelling (or “Romanisation”) of Korean geographical names.
    If you catch me on anything in the future, please let me know at
    Many thanks.

  5. James, here’s a tip for your next story:
    Basque and Sumerian are fraternal twins.

  6. After that you might like to tackle the origin of Etruscan which is, as we all know, a close cousin of both Tamil & Malay.
    Further reading.

  7. Well, I understand that everyone is afraid of Russians, and Mongolians might still be fearing retribution for the excesses of Ghengis Khan’s successors, but Koreans surely aren’t scared of Russia. I can’t speak for the North, of course, but South Koreans care much less about Russia than about Japan and China; those I’ve met are pretty positive on Russia. It was China, not Russia, that helped out the North in the war, and the worst thing that happened between S. Korea and Russia was probably the latter’s shooting down a Korean Boeing in 1983. There is a visible Korean community in Russia; quite a few Koreans enjoy nationwide fame or recognition in Russia, e.g., poet Yuly Kim, writer Anatoly Kim, rock star and subcultural icon Victor Tsoy (d. 1988), triple jumper and sports news host Iolanda Chen, and so on. Most Russian Koreans are descendants of the peasants from the north of the peninsula who fled Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Deported to Kazakhstan in the late 1930s, most of them did not return to the Far East after Stalin’s death; many moved out to the big cities to go to college and join the educated class.
    Here’s an interesting site on Korea (esp. the North) and Koreans maintained by two Russians researchers.
    According to the CIA World Factbook, 49% of Koreans are Christian, and 47% Buddhist. According to Dr. Lan’kov (a Russian/Australian expert on the Koreas), half of the South Koreans don’t profess any religion, and the rest are split roughly 50/50 between Christians and others, mostly Buddhists; apparently, there are three times as many Protestants (presbyterians, methodists, baptists, etc.) as Catholics. Christians are overrepresented among the educated, urban residents, business and political elites.

  8. Link fix: the site is at

  9. James: I’m glad you don’t seem to take too much offense from my harsh words, which were directed at the newspaper and not the reporter (though I always mention the byline when I quote a news story, whether I’m praising or complaining). I certainly don’t expect reporters to be up on the details of linguistic science; what I do expect, in a better world, is that a newspaper with as much clout, financing, and pretensions as the Times would either have somebody on staff who knew something about such matters or routinely call a linguist at, say, Columbia to vet statements about language (as they check with economists to vet statements about the economy). But it seems they consider statements like “Korean and Mongolian are closely related” to be more like “politician X is a big fat idiot”: an expression of opinion, which the Times will report without fear or favor but has no obligation to verify. As someone who considers linguistics more of a science than economics (though less of one than nuclear physics), I take offense. But thanks for dropping by, and for the e-mail address; you’re a brave man!
    Oh, and pay no attention to that mischievous John Hardy, he’s trying to get you fired.

  10. So now we have to be polite to people who might be surfing by. Gotta give the guy credit, though.
    I have also read the argument that Japanese is a Dravidian language. FWIW, a book of translations of Tamil poetry had a vaguely haiku-ish esthetic, though you could probably also call it pantoum-ish.

  11. …or a promotion!
    Cheers, James.

  12. James Brooke says: “I’ve alread been fisked a few times…”
    Does this count?
    “Ah, James Brooke and the New York Times. You’d have thought they had seen enough shoddy journalism at that paper this year.”

  13. Mark Chackerian says

    I’ve generally found that the media always gets the story wrong, perhaps just a little wrong. But you won’t notice unless you know more than the reporter, and that usually happens only for your specialty. This was confirmed again and again for me in the mid-90s when stories about the internet first surfaced in the media. The New York Times was no exception to the widespread gross misunderstanding of technology reported in the media, reporting that helped fuel the internet bubble. So don’t think that the New York Times is better about topic X than about language reporting.
    Anyway, “hats off” to James Brooke for joining the discussion.

  14. [idiot spammer] says

    I agree with comment posted by zizka
    [I’m leaving this comment here because it’s the first example I’ve seen of comment spam that actually refers to the thread it’s in, a scary development. — LH]

  15. [idiot spammer 2] says

    Great post Zizka. Rite on. I totally agree with you.
    [see above]

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