False Start

Margaret got an email this morning announcing the inaugural issue of a glossy magazine dedicated to linguistics, to be called Babel. We’re interested enough in linguistics that it didn’t seem to be misdirected; I was a little uneasy about a linguistics journal directed to a mass audience — doesn’t that just seem to be begging for the kind of faux-linguistics that populates the peevological columns of conventional newspapers and magazines? — but it seemed to have reputable scholars on its Board of Advisors, so Margaret clicked on the ‘free PDF of first issue’ link, to our mutual disappointment.
The issue begins with an editorial whose first words run:

In the Biblical story of the tower of Babel, God punishes his people for their pride by destroying the enormous tower they have been constructing as a monument to their own greatness. And as if this isn’t enough, he ‘confounds’ their single common language, breaking it up into a myriad of languages and dialects, presumably on the grounds that this act will make it difficult for them to organise themselves to perform such hubristic acts in the future. The myth of Babel is designed to explain the number and variety of human languages. Moreover, it suggests that, for humans, having many thousands of languages is much worse than having a single shared language. One thing we do know about the Babel story, then, is that whoever thought it up was obviously not a linguist.


News flash! Babel myth not accurate about academic linguistics! Woah, my world is shaken! (As students in the New Testament Intro class that I once TA’ed used to say, ‘That existentially confronted me!’)
In less than a printed paragraph, the editors have signalled multidimensionally that they’re off to a bad start. First, the adjective ‘biblical’ should be set with a lower-case ‘b’. Second, in the biblical story of the tower of Babel, God does not destroy the tower. Third, although you might well think that human hubris triggers God’s action, the biblical account itself says nothing about punishment or pride. Fourth, the ‘as if that weren’t enough’ clause is entirely pointless, since the only thing God seems to do in this story is confound people’s languages. Fifth, the ‘presumably’ sentence expresses a discordant hesitancy, since the authors have just firmly asserted several imprecise claims; here they say something that’s more or less just what the Bible seems to say itself, and they feel the need to qualify it with ‘presumably’. Presumably, they didn’t bother to look at the Bible before they start writing. And finally, of course, they make the stumbling transition to linguistics by asserting that the story they have just called a ‘myth’ doesn’t reflect the reality of linguistics scholarship. That’s as opposed to all the three-thousand-plus-year-old origin myths that do accurately divine the origins and effects of linguistic difference.
We’re not so annoyed by ‘wrong about the Bible’; hey, presumably it’s not their specialty, and anyone can say silly things about other people’s areas of expertise. The breezy, fatuous glibness does set off my ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ alarms, though, and in a zone characterised by so very much fatuous glibness that runs contrary to reasonable linguistic scholarship, I’m not inclined to trust these editors to be sticklers for accuracy in their presumed area of competence. No subscription sold at this address, guys.



* I did have a student once named Will Robinson. I think I managed to go through our entire pedagogical relationship without making any Lost In Space jokes. At least, I hope so.


2 thoughts on “False Start

  1. From FB:
    Jeremy Hunsinger but do go see the traveling exhibition Babel if you have time, i saw it in Lille, was well worth it.
    Yesterday at 12:13 · Like

    Akma Adam I’ll watch out for it, Jeremy.
    Yesterday at 12:16 · Like

    Judy Stack-Nelson Glad to see Disseminary back to more regular publication.

  2. I’m a linguist and I found the entire issue pretty bad. Glib is right. Nothing to intrigue an actual linguist and very little to hold the interest of a layperson. Super-superficial.

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