Pakistan is playing England in a series of cricket matches, and on Sunday, August 29, Mike Brearley filed from the famous Lord's cricket ground an unbearably pompous article in The Observer about how things are going. "Cricket is the cruellest game," he began; "It is also, by the same token, the kindest" — I will spare you the rest of the self-contradictory pseudo-literary drivel of his first paragraph. But with his second paragraph he moves into linguistics and theology, and I think Language Log has to comment on the former:
There is no future tense in Urdu; the future is in the hands of Allah, it is not for mortal men to speak as if they presume to know what it holds. But Pakistan's players must at least have feared for their future as the day wore on.
Can you guess what I did on seeing this, Language Log readers? (Apart, that is, from muttering imprecations under my breath, not for the first time, about how I simply do not understand the tendency for people to talk about language as if they can just make stuff up and nothing needs to be fact-checked.) I know a little about the Indic languages, and I do have some of the right books. So I got up, walked across my office, and plucked my rather ancient (1962) copy of Teach Yourself Urdu from the shelf.
This is from page 44, in the chapter on the verb, first subheading:
FUTUREI shall or will escape
məyŋ bəcuŋgahəm bəcenŋge tu bəcega twm bəcoge ap bəceŋge voh bəcega voh bəceŋge
Feminine changes -ga to -gi and -ge to-gi.
Notice that the book is giving single inflected forms: the first word in each example above is a pronoun (1st, 2nd, and 3rd person downward, singular and plural across), and the second word is a verb inflected in the future tense.
It is English that does not have a future tense (see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, chapter 3, for a detailed argument). Urdu quite uncontroversially does have one.
So what the hell did Mike Brearley think he was doing? What is the strange nature of linguistic subject matter that leads journalists, and writers of all sorts, to mouth off about it without a care, announcing random falsehoods as fact? Metallurgical claims are treated as needing at least some kind of fact-checking with metallurgists: you can't just assert that lead is highly brittle at room temperature or that vanadium explodes if put in contact with water. But linguistic claims are left to the same sort of uncontrolled mouthing-off as totally subjective opinions about food or fashion.
Brearley could describe the Pakistanis' uniforms as looking awful if he wanted: it's just a matter of a personal opinion. He could say their play was inept and clumsy; that's presumably something he is paid to know about. He could even comment on the disgustingness of the post-weekend corruption story that has broken in Britain about members of the Pakistan team planning to fail deliberately at certain times by advance arrangement with betters who want to place money on their failures: that would be a moral judgment that it would be quite reasonable to assert.
But how on earth did he form the impression that he could treat factual claims about their well-known language in just the same way, and make random assertions about its tense system? Urdu has between 60 and 70 million speakers, all of whom know the future tense; taken together with Hindi, with which it is almost identical in its grammar, it is in fact the 4th most widely spoken language in the world. The Wikipedia page on Urdu grammar actually gives an analysis under which Urdu has two future tenses, a contingent future and a definite future. So much for not offending Allah by presuming to talk about events that are to come. Brearley was just spouting garbage.
Was thirty seconds of fact-checking just too much for The Observer (supposedly a quality newspaper) to manage?
Never mind; I ask only rhetorically; do not bother to answer. I mean my questions merely as exasperated exclamations about a world in which people do not grasp the idea of human language being the subject matter of an interesting empirical discipline.
Hat tip: Language Log reader Maurice Buxton