Sunday, August 27, 2006

OK, I'm ticked

We here at HEADSUP-L generally take a pretty liberal attitude toward complaints about journalism, partly because we do rather a lot of complaining about journalism ourselves (as a career copyed, HEADSUP-L Six has been picking on journalism for a living since sometime in the Carter administration). So we're pretty tolerant of critics who have a point -- even if, like our good buddies over at Language Log, they risk missing a lot of the really interesting variance because they're having such fun with the obvious stuff.

So having suffered through, and complained about, a number of silly seasons, we kind of grinned along when the Logsters caught the Grauniad with its linguistic pants at half-mast: waving a patently clueless language statement ("there are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than English") into print with hardly a fare-thee-well. Hey, it's the kind of thing we whinge about here too.

As it turns out, the academic side is cherry-picking. That wasn't an error the Guardian introduced. It was one created by the scholar who wrote the piece in question: "[t]he thought that was in my mind when I wrote that part of the sentence was 'there are now more Spanish speakers in some of the United States than English'."

The technical term for which, of course, is "brain fart," and step forward the journalist who hasn't gotten X and Y bassackward in a similar fashion at some point or another. We all do. You can't do much but admit it and grin. Unless, that is, you're Prof. Alan Smithers:

"I, therefore, felt justified in going for a dramatic statement. But since it has attracted attention out of all proportion to its importance in the article (which was about why we in England should not be too bothered by the decline in the learning of French and German in our schools given the increasing interest in Spanish and other languages), it should perhaps have been more qualified -- though whether a more academic sentence would have survived the subbing is another matter."

Emphasis mine, because what Prof. Smithers is saying is that he has to write stupid for the proles. If he'd tried to make a real scholarly argument, the copydesk ("subeditors" are copyeds in British English, and "subbing" is what rim rats do) would have butchered it anyway. And that's a cheap shot, which he ought to be sent off for.

I'd rather folks didn't think ill of Language Log, whose proprieters do an exceptional job of making serious science accessible and fun. And somebody should point out on the Guardian's behalf that whatever it might miss about Spanish in the U.S., it has an Arabic speaker for a Middle East editor, and if you don't think there's a sociolinguistic fault line in that neighborhood, you aren't paying attention. But for Prof. Alan Smithers: If you put your words in front of the public for a living, you're going to screw up every now and then. Suck it up, buttercup. Don't blame your screwups on other folks' allleged ineptitude. Somebody might return the favor.


Blogger John Cowan said...

Alas, Smithers's correction is still false. There is no state in which Spanish-speakers outnumber English-speakers. There are some counties for which the claim is true: these are, generally speaking, on the border, desert, and very sparsely populated.

In short, no news here no matter how you look at it.

3:04 PM, August 29, 2006  
Blogger Lydia said...

There are broad areas of Texas where it is far easier for me to get around speaking Spanish than English, and in New Mexico, as well. "Some areas" is certainly correct. I've gone on three-day trips to San Antonio in which I've dealt with people who are best in English so few times that I can count them on the fingers of one hand. More of the employees of the upscale Galleria mall are better in Spanish than in English, even! The Christmas pageant on the river is done in Spanish with an English translation. There is a geographically large area of the US where it is easier to get by speaking Spanish than English. This isn't true for any other language in the US.

The man never claimed that there were states in shich Spanish speakers outnumber English speakers. He wanted to say there were some areas. And anyone whose visited or lived in those areas can tell you it's quite true.

4:46 PM, March 29, 2007  
Blogger fev said...

Here's what the guy wrote (Language Log copied it before it was tweaked on the Guardian site):

"Spanish is fast rising in importance and there are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than English."

Whether he _wanted_ to say that there are some areas where Spanish-speakers outnumber English-speakers is a different matter. Nobody disputes that. But what he said was what he said, and what yanked my chain was his blaming his own blunder on the presumed stupidity of the desk.

5:06 PM, March 29, 2007  
Blogger John Cowan said...

The man never claimed that there were states in shich Spanish speakers outnumber English speakers.

How else can you read "some of the United States" except as "some states"? If he'd said "some parts of the United States", that would be fine, and maybe that's what he meant and the word "parts" dropped out somewhere in the transmission chain.

1:57 PM, June 04, 2009  

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