Saturday, 28 February 2009

A History of Words, the summary post.

So a few days ago, the BBC, in their glory, posted a story most of you have by now read about the work at the University of Reading about the progression of the English language over time. Of course the study wasn't actually about that, a fact which, thanks to Carl Pyrdum over at Got Medieval, will hopefully stop people from thinking those responsible for the study are as daft as the BBC would apparently have you believe.

Basically, This article, titled by the BBC "'Oldest English Words' identified", makes some pretty obtuse claims. For instance:

Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say. Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Anyone familiar with the history of the English language knows what a downright zany thing to say that is, first and foremost because the English language only dates back about 1500-1600 years (longer if you count its antecendants on the continent, but at that point it's some form of 'Germanic' and I'm out of my time period).

Of course what it probably means is that words that are in the English language today are descended from others that predate the English language altogether. But as far as I can tell, the BBC writer isn't aware of the distinction.

There are, thankfully, other things the article claims they say, like that a computer algorithm can be used to determine which words are more or less stable. The study, published in the journal Nature, and titled "Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history", seems to have a lot going for it. Their research seems to suggest that, over large swathes of time, simpler and more commonly used words change their sounds and meanings less than complicated ones that are used less frequently.

The abstract states, among other things, "We propose that the frequency with which specific words are used in everyday language exerts a general and law-like influence on their rates of evolution." I would add a few caveats to that statement, namely that other factors -- like contact situations with other languages, and in today's internet/media culture, hype or vogue -- can have a massive effect on the meaning of words, to the detriment of any "law-like influence". Other than that, it seems reasonable.

And so you sit there, thinking, wow, the BBC have really dropped the ball on this one.

And then you read, back in the article, that Professor Mark Pagel, whose name appears first in the list of authors, said this:

"You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future... From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror."

And then you shake your head, and read this post at Got Medieval about all the things that are wrong with that statement.*

Pyrdum ends his post with this advice:

So let this be a lesson to you. If you're a smart person with a clever new theory or process, stay as far away from the BBC's science reporters as you can.

But I find myself thinking that no amount of BBC science reporting could have made Prof. Pagel's quote about talking with William the Conqueror any worse. Thus, in addition to his advice, I must add my own: Don't let your scientists talk to the BBC about history until they've learned a little bit about that history. Like crime, it just doesn't pay.

Also, if you're from North America, and you're wondering what "Chinese Whispers" is, it's the horribly racially and linguistically insensitive version of what you or I would call the game of "Broken Telephone." Purple Monkey Dishwasher.




*For example, that William the Conqueror would have spoken a variety of Old French, or that even if he had spoken Old English, that we already have dictionaries for that.

UPDATE: Carl Pyrdum over at Got Medieval has posted again about the kerfuffle, deciding that it's at least as much Professor Pagel's fault as the BBC's. And that most newspapers are run by people who know next to nothing about the history of the English language.

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