Punctuational Outburst

A friend in academe sent me a paper on the evolution of language, from this month’s Science. I’m reposting it here, so you can read it for free. Academic journals are a racket.

Even free, I’m not sure you want to bother. “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts” is boring and largely self-evident*. But mostly just boring: If real language was as dry and devoid of life as most academics make it, I’d give it up. I’d stop reading, stop talking, and just grunt.

The authors lead with an implied claim that American English emerged abruptly as a language when Noah Webster introduced his first dictionary. You could say that publishing a dictionary is a sign that a language has emerged–that dictionaries are symptoms of language. But they insinuate that Webster published his dictionary and, ipso facto, the American Language was created. I can’t imagine the authors actually believe this, but it’s how their forced analogy comes out.

They then present the thesis that, basically, language evolves more rapidly during times of social upheaval. Sure, but how did they discover this? It was “inferred from vocabulary data,” and in a footnote they say their “materials and methods are available on Science Online.” Their methods would have been more interesting to me than their conclusions, and I wish they’d included at least a precis of them in the paper*.

I have no idea of the actual merit of “Punctuational Bursts.” I am, clearly, totally ignorant when it comes to, among other things, linguistics, and in general the academic side of language and words. But wadding through academic writing like this makes me want to cry tears of vomit. Can anyone recommend an intro to or overview of linguistics that’s actually pleasant to read?

* UPDATE: Maybe I was a little gassy or something when I wrote this. I just reread the paper, and yes, it’s rather dry, but I think that’s almost a requirement to get published in a fancy journal like Science. And I wasn’t previously aware of some of the limits imposed by them. See the comments for a response from one of the authors, and yet another lame, arm-flapping mea culpa from yours truly. Note to self: work on impulse control.

2 thoughts on “Punctuational Outburst

  1. I’m very sorry to hear that our paper made you want to cry tears of vomit. However, each to their own.

    A few comments:

    First – “is boring and largely part self-evident” – yes, linguists have known for quite a while that languages can change in rapid bursts. What we did, which IS new, and not self-evident, was to quantify this, and to try and show WHEN in the language history these bursts occurred.

    Second – yes, the Webster quote is rhetoric. It should be quite obvious that we did not mean that the American language sprang fully formed from Webster’s dictionary, but it was a cute example of the type of social processes that could cause these bursts of change.

    Third – “I wish they’d included at least a precis of them in the paper”.

    Unfortunately, that’s the style that Science goes for. The technical details go into the supplement, the overview goes into the journal. You can find better explanations of these methods in some of our previous publications as well.

    Finally, off the top of my head, some good, non-vomit-tear-inducing introductions to linguistics can be found in John McWhorter’s book “The Power of Babel”, or Melvyn Bragg’s “The Adventure of English”.

    –Simon Greenhill.

  2. Oh Geez. It’s like a law of, er, Science that every time I put on my cranky pants, it’s responded to with more grace than I’ve exhibited cumulatively in my entire life (well, most of the time).

    This paper was sent to me as a PDF, and seeing it out of context, I think I forgot what universe it came from. My comments apply to almost all academic writing. Complaining is kind of like taking exception to the prose quality of a product warranty; expectations should be appropriate to the context. And I hadn’t realized that “Punctuational Bursts” was published in the “Brevia” section of Science, which imposes strict space limits. Hence the need to offload some of it to the web site.

    I’m still not a fan of the anecdotal lead, but I guess I understand the impulse to start with something on the soft side.

    From now on, all Errata posts are going to be about unicorns and rainbows. No more vitriol, I swear.

Comments are closed.