Wednesday, June 10, 2009

No, don't 'teach the controversy'

Allow us a mild ray of hope here. It's after 10 p.m., and precious few hits are showing up so far for US news coverage of the purported arrival of the millionth word in English. That's not to say there's none; CNN checks in with a genuinely hopeless piece, and a few columnists have checked in with the usual blather, but in general, the news world -- knock wood -- is ignoring this thoroughly fabricated event.

Why is a non-happening worth noting? Well, because the creator of the million-word myth has ginned himself up rather a lot of free publicity in recent years because (a) very few people seem interested in asking him the basic stuff that needs to be asked of everybody who makes assertions about how numbers illuminate the world, (b) when asked to explain why his patently nonsensical stats mean what he claims they do, he explains that they aren't meant to be taken literally, and nobody seems to mind that, and (c) he's Just Another American Dreamer, flying in the face of those damn scientists!

The last one's actually a familiar, and pretty well-founded, complaint about how the press handles news of the empirical world: You get your one bold researcher standing up to the establishment, and all of a sudden there's a Controversy to teach. This case underscores the silliness of teaching the controversy because, beyond any shadow of any doubt, there is no controversy. There isn't a debate. There's one guy making a fictitious claim and a bunch of people who actually know something about his topic looking at him and going "well, no."*

The million-word assertion looks fairly harmless, compared with some of the large-scale semantic mendacity making the rounds these days. I'm not entirely sure. It can't be all that healthy for a news site's credibility to run fact boxes and blurbs** from an organization that makes stuff up in the same format as the sorts of data the site has actually taken some pains to verify. And whenever somebody starts to make flag-waving generalizations about how great a culture is because of some alleged quantitative feature of its language, right-thinking people should reach for their wallets and Brownings, respectively.

It'd be quite nice if, on principle, news organizations would decide that outfits like the Global Language Monitor should buy their own advertising space, not hijack it from the news department. But if newsrooms are actually looking at the million-word assertion and deciding on their own that it's crap, that's potentially more promising.

* Given that Paul Payack claims not to be a linguist, CNN is pretty vigorous about promoting him as one.
** And no, you don't use isolated letter forms in the middle of things that are supposed to look like Arabic "words." You guys at CNN might want to think about hiring this one out.

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Anonymous Stan said...

I called this nonsense a non-story, but since many media outlets seem determined to make a story of it, your description of it as a "non-happening" may be more accurate.

Really I oughtn't to be surprised that any news corporations are credulous or cynical enough to fall for it, but I am, and they are, and so I have defaulted to waiting for it to pass by with minimal damage. In the meantime, thanks for your post about it.

5:51 AM, June 11, 2009  
Anonymous raYb said...

Maybe its just me, but it bears surprising likeness to the earlier "friendship not trust..." posting. Somebody says something means something and that gets into print without any thought. No discussion of whether it really says something real. "Web 2.0" is not a word, even. By that count, the pieces that make up "wood house" and "brick house" account for five "words."

Perhaps the many of the people who decided to air this "bright" aren't. Bright, that is.

8:49 AM, June 11, 2009  

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