LINGUIST List 14.5

Tue Jan 7 2003

Media: Ricoh Ad in The Economist/An open letter

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum, Linguists and Advertising: An open letter

Message 1: Linguists and Advertising: An open letter

Date: Thu, 2 Jan 2003 08:38:44 -0800 (PST)
From: Geoffrey K. Pullum <>
Subject: Linguists and Advertising: An open letter

Re Linguist 13.3309: Linguists and Advertising

Geoffrey K. Pullum has sent the following letter to the Ricoh

 December 30, 2002

Executive Vice President Jim Ivy
Ricoh Corporation
5 Dedrick Place
West Caldwell, NJ 07006

Dear Mr Ivy,

The Ricoh Corporation's advertisement on page 2 of The Economist
Technology Quarterly [insert following page 48 of The Economist,
Dec. 14--20, 2002] shows a picture of a Khoi tribal leader named Chief
Obijol. The legend reads:

 "With a series of simple clicking sounds, he can teach a force
 of 200 men to hunt, to treat an illness, even how to find an
 appropriate mate."

This is not the first time I have read racist nonsense about the
hunters of the Kalahari desert just clicking and grunting at each
other rather than using a proper language with sentences like the rest
of us. Your corporation and its advertising agency should be ashamed
of repeating such stupidness.

The ad makes an unobjectionable point: for explaining traditions and
skills to a couple of hundred people in the face-to-face context of a
hunter-gatherer tribe, oral communication in a human language "works
exceedingly well," it says; but for the kind of communication involved
in running a large modern business one needs document and image
sharing of the sort Ricoh offers. The trouble is all with the
unnecessarily demeaning and offensive way the first part is put. It
makes Khoi-speaking people sound more like exotic animals than like
human beings speaking a human language.

The Khoi people of Southwestern Africa do not communicate in "a series
of simple clicking sounds." Their languages are ordinary human
languages with the same kinds of complexities as are found in English
grammar. It's true that Khoi languages have velaric suction
consonants that are informally described as sounding like clicks, but
they are merely consonants, and they occur with vowels and more
ordinary non-click consonants in syllables, words, phrases, and
sentences as in any other human language. To refer to Chief Obijol's
speech as "a series of simple clicking sounds" is as stupid as calling
your own speech "a series of simple uh sounds."

I will be sharing this letter with the 16,500 linguists who subscribe
to The Linguist List (<>) as well as the editor
of The Economist. I very much hope you will share it with the people
at your advertising agency who did this to you.


 Geoffrey K. Pullum
 Professor of Linguistics
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