Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reporting language "discovery"

Turning on the BBC yesterday, I was surprised to hear a descriptive linguistics story, about the "discovery" by linguists on the Enduring Voices project of a previously unknown Tibeto-Burman language called Koro in Arunachal Pradesh: Indian language is new to science. Insofar as one can judge from the report, it sounds like Koro is clearly distinct from its neighbours rather than being an ambiguous dialect-continuum case, so this should be interesting for comparative Tibeto-Burman.

What struck my attention most is that this made it into the news! There have been a couple of discoveries of new languages in Africa over the past decade or so - Baka, for example, and Tondi Songhay Kiini. And the belated realisation that Bangime is a clear isolate, rather than a dialect of "Dogon", actually reshapes our picture of West African linguistic history much more than finding any of these languages has. Where was the news coverage of these? Have media attitudes towards the newsworthiness of "new" languages changed? Is it because they're in Africa? Or did the linguists in question simply not issue any handy press releases? Publicity is a hassle, frankly, and no one wants to sound like they're playing Indiana Jones. But stories like these are a big part of what gets people interested in linguistics in the first place, and the general public who fund most linguistic work, whether through taxes or donations, need to know what they're getting for their money.


Wintz said...

I was shocked too by it being reported on BBC and a few other news outlets (plus, it was in the science section, which is also a pleasant shock). I think you're also right on the value of news stories in getting people interested in linguistics. This is especially true in my case where the reporting of Dan Everett's work on the Piraha captured my imagination, and subsequently guided me in the direction of pursuing a career in linguistics.

bulbul said...

Have media attitudes towards the newsworthiness of "new" languages changed?
Nah, don't think so. I think this one has a lot to do with the fact that K. David Harrison is involved. He's become sort of an ambassador for search and rescue linguistics and God bless him, too.

Somewhat OT, did anybody else wince at the way the article was written? I mean, c'mon:

... encoded in its mental grammar of words and sentence structure that helps shape thought itself
... where so many languages are spoken that they seem to intermingle effortlessly in streams of thought