LINGUIST List 3.58

Wed 22 Jan 1992

Disc: Proto-World

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  1. Geoffrey Russom, Re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC
  2. Susan Newman, re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC

Message 1: Re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC

Date: Fri, 17 Jan 92 08:10:57 ESRe: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC
From: Geoffrey Russom <>
Subject: Re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC

The "long-rangers" reconstructing proto-everything have been quite
effective in their public relations. Articles in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
have been rather starry-eyed, it seems to me. Debunking will require
a similar amount of effort, but won't be effective unless the journalistic
community is persuaded that critics are motivated by the search
for truth rather than by empire-building considerations. One problem,
I think, is that mainstream linguistics has set aside, for practical
reasons, some questions of interest to folks on the street.
The number of people theorizing historical problems is relatively
small, and they can probably not be expected to do much outreach in
addition to persuading their colleagues that diachronic phenomena are
worth more attention (I'm thinking of e.g. Elan Dresher and David
Lightfoot). Since the folks on the street remain interested in historical
questions, somebody's going to cater to them. Scientific journalists
no doubt see in all of this an opportunity to recycle their formulas
for articles on "theories of everything" in physics, and might not
easily be persuaded to abandon such an attractive prospect. No doubt
the journalists also see themselves as defenders of lonely geniuses
against an unsympathetic "establishment" that "said it couldn't be done."
Tough problem!

-- Rick
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Message 2: re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC

Date: Fri, 17 Jan 1992 17:15:31re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC
From: Susan Newman <>
Subject: re: 3.42 Linguistics on the BBC

In response to Alexis Manaster Ramer:

I am not a linguist (though I am interested in various aspects of
linguistics) but I am generally very concerned about the
representation of things in the media, in particular the
representation of "expert" knowledge. I am aware of similar
travesties in the representation of technological development and
scientific knowledge (areas that concern me professionally) and share
your frustration and concern about the effects -- and motives -- of
such misrepresentation. One question that comes to mind in reading
your message is what interests are served by the representation of
diverse languages as originating from a single source? The interests
I have in mind need not be crassly obvious -- for example, linked in a
straightforward way to producers' economic or personal involvements --
or even completely conscious. Instead, especially in the case of the
press, they may be more murkily linked to global trends and agendas
and express themselves through producers' intuitions about what will
sell. I find it interesting to ask, for example, what sort of picture
of human diversity, and human nature, is implicit in the
representation of a ProtoWorld and our emergence from it. What sort
of comparison among post-Proto World languages is proposed? What
makes the idea of a ProtoWorld appealing and "sexy" (marketable) in
our current world economic and social situation? These may not be the
right questions for this particular documentary but understanding more
about what underlies these sorts of one-sided reports might be helpful
in combatting them.

(I say all this without actually having studied, and formed a position
on, the question of the monogenesis of the world's languages.
Regardless of the credibility of the relevant theories, I think it's
important that we be watchful of the representation of scientific
knowledge and practice in the media and press for more sophisticated
reporting on both controversies and "settled" understandings.)

On the more pragmatic side, I should think that if a significant
number of respected linguists wrote letters protesting this
misrepresentation and sent them to the show's producers, the head of
programming, and the office of the president at the BBC, it would have
some effect. Editorials in relevant newspapers or literary magazines
might be helpful too. As in all such matters, organization and
concerted action (so difficult to manage) count.

Susan Newman
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and
University of California at Berkeley
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