Imperial BS flows?

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Does the network of journalistic credulousness still follow the connections established during the glory days of the British empire? I'm not sure how else to explain the diffusion pattern of Mark Pagel's little jokes about his estimates of cognate-replacement rates in language change.

In my post a couple of days ago ("Scrabble tips for time travelers"), I linked to a calvalcade of foolishness that included coverage in the Times ("A handy little guide to small talk in the Stone Age"), the BBC ("Oldest English words' identified"), the Guardian ("Word facing extinction: 'Dirty' will be scrubbed from the English dictionary"), and the Daily Mail ("Revealed: The world's oldest words… and the ones that will disappear"). And a Google News search yields a cornucopia of other giddy idiocies in British-empire media.

There's the Globe and Mail ("No surprise: 'I' is our oldest word"), the Scotsman ("Three is first among equals in oldest words in English"), the Times of India ("I, we, two: Oldest words in English"), Pakistan's The Nation ("Oldest English words identified").

My favorite is the Daily Express ("The World's Greatest Newspaper"), whose version rises to a level of delirious fatuity that only a picture of the page can do justice to:

The only non-British-Empire outlet to run a version of the story, as far as I've been able to discover, is Agence France Presse, perhaps because the English did conquer parts of France at one time: "British scientists uncover oldest words in English".

But two days after the press release, two days after the stories in the Times and BBC News, two days after a prominent segment on the BBC News Hour (widely broadcast by public radio stations in the U.S.) not a single U.S. outlet has picked this up. Not the New York Times, not the Washington Post, not the Baltimore Sun, not the Deseret News, not even the National Inquirer. Now, there's ample evidence that American news media are not immune to bullshit. So I guess that this is telling us that information in the modern world still flows along lines laid down a century ago.

Note that in the preceding paragraph, I've used the word "bullshit" in its technical sense, following the definition proposed by Harry Frankfurt:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Though I still hold out some hope that Prof. Pagel is being systematically misquoted, I'm afraid that I'm now reluctantly coming to believe what a colleague of his told me in confidence: "He knows better, but he just doesn't care".

[Update: Further research turns up an outbreak in the Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos ("Identifican las palabras más antiguas del inglés), and another isolated case in the Austrian Die Presse ("Das älteste Wort: „Ich“").]


  1. micah said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    That article makes no sense! It ignores the fact that the TARDIS auto-translates for the Doctor.

    Man, when you can't even get the technobabble right…

  2. Mark F. said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    Is it just me, or do the New York Times and NPR have a better record than, say, the Times of London and the BBC? It really feels as if the NYT science coverage is intended as a sop to the geeks among their readership, while the BBC feels like it's trying to make scientific stories palatable for the widest listenership possible.

  3. Cheryl Thornett said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    Isn't it odd, when it is 'common knowledge' in the UK that Americans are anti-intellectual, that it is the British press that so often takes a trivialising, sensationalist or otherwise derogatory attitude towards science? If Charles Darwin hadn't been an Englishman, I wonder how the theory of evolution would be represented today.
    (NB: I write as an American who has lived in the UK for many years.)

  4. James Kabala said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Where is the William the Conqueror angle coming from? Previously Pagel was speaking of 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. We already know William the Conqueror spoke Old French (or a Norman dialect thereof) and a fair amount about what that languge was like (although there would obviously be about a thousand caveats to the idea of actually holding a conversation with him). Why is he entering a discussion on Proto-Indo-European? Perhaps Professor Pagel knows even less about history than about linguistics.

  5. Picky said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    Sorry, but isn't "Reading's" Prof Pagel from the other side of the Atlantic? What on earth do you expect them to do with stuff as fascinating as this from a real live professor?

  6. MM said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    (I am British, in Germany)
    Agreed that the BBC and the Times 'of London' have a bad record, but note that for some years now the Times has not exactly had the reputation of the most serious paper in the country. Try The Independent (I haven't checked it on Pagel, but I did see a 2003 Independent article on Pagel et al. 'Scientists unravel the mystery of man's hair loss (down to the short and curlies)').

    I did note an excellent weblog by an American in Britain reporting enthusiastically on the story (Baroque in Hackney), so I do think (or hope!) this has more to do with location than nationality.

    [(myl 16:34 2/28/2009) Mark Pagel is actually a serious and respected scientist, who does excellent research, including some worthwhile work on language change (e.g. Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, and Andrew Meade, "Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history", Nature 2007). That's why I've been clinging to the hope that he might have been misquoted in this flurry of stories. But some of the silliest stuff, including the reference to William the Conqueror, the discussion of a phrase-book for a time traveler going 2,500 years into the past, etc., is in the original University of Reading press release. That might have been due to misunderstanding by the university PR office – but the interviews with Prof. Pagel all echo and even extend the same ridiculous talking points, making it harder and harder to blame the flacks and hacks in this case. It's truly sad. ]

  7. bulbul said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    The Slovak press agency SITA also ran with the story, but so far, it's not been picked up by any major media outlet, only a few online places (e.g.). Give it a few days, our journalists will swallow anything.
    It's shown up on a few Hungarian sites as well (try googling "legősibb angol szavak"), though I can't really tell if any of them is a major player on the media market. Only 8 ghits for the Polish version ("Najstarsze angielskie słowa") and only one of them appears to be something other than a direct link to the BBC site. Nothing else I can find in Eastern Europe, but there's few other items in Spanish Spanish.

  8. Amy Vaughan said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    Some of my English major friends apparently stumbled upon these articles and proceeded to ask me if it was really true that they had developed an algorithm to determine what words would disappear and what English would be like in the future. The ensuing conversation made me want to get up, walk across the Pond with my 'Principles of Historical Linguistics' in hand and give these various news agencies a little taste of Triple H across the collective face.
    More seriously, what REALLY surprises me about these articles is the apparent lack of a moral judgment about how we will now be able to predict the degradation of the English language. And how is it that a mass of people who traditionally misunderstand how language change works, seemingly latching onto the idea that it is accomplished by malicious external forces ('teenagers') alone, could hit on the idea that language is now something beholden to algorithms and other pseudo-math. I guess it says something about common concepts of language.

  9. Richard said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Perhaps Prof. Pagel might be willing to defend himself in a guest post on LL. Although on here we've been chiefly following the meta-story, a discussion of the reporting in the media, it would be interesting to learn his reaction to that reporting & the comments made on this blog and also to give him a chance to set out what he really has discovered. Recent guest posts on Indo-European topics have been taken to heart by LL readers, and maybe this could continue that tradition.

    [(myl 19:05 2/28/2009) We'd be happy to publish a guest post. Meanwhile, the scientific lily that Prof. Pagel has been gilding with all this PR foolishness is crisply presented in Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, and Andrew Meade, "Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history", Nature 2007. ]

  10. marie-lucie said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    Pagel et al. used "lexical evolution" when they should have said "lexical replacement". This is a major error which does not bode well for the authors' credentials in historical linguistics.

  11. Kate said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 6:23 pm

    Though I'd like to second commenter Mark F.'s appreciation of NPR, I must report that my carpool driver was telling me yesterday about an NPR story that sounded suspiciously like this (phrases like "oldest words in English", "two and five", "dying out" were used). I haven't been able to find the story on NPR's website, but it does seem that this dubious news has permeated outlets beyond the classically British imperial media network . . .

    [(myl 18:27 2/28/2009) The BBC "News Hour" program is broadcast on many public radio outlets, and it featured this story on Thursday, as discussed here. And I believe that the decision to carry this BBC news program is made by local stations rather than by NPR. So NPR probably can't be faulted in this case. ]

  12. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    On the topic of non-British sources that have covered the story: – very disappointing.

    [(myl 19:04 2/28/2009) That appears to be a verbatim reprint of the U. of Reading press release, and I'll guess that reprints such things untouched by editorial scrutiny.]

  13. Harry Campbell said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    I'm sorry, but just because the man has done some valid work in the past doesn't mean he's not an irresponsible idiot. Yes, the media are at fault for retailing unchallenged and unchecked a press release they haven't begun to make sense of (not surprisingly in this case), but nonsense like this is meant to happen in spite of the poor misrepresented researcher, not with his enthusiastic connivance.

    The question is, what good does he think this farrago does anyone? Surely none to his own reputation, unless sheer number of media appearances is all that matters on the CV nowadays; and likewise none to the Univ of Reading, unless, again, all and any media exposure is good. So does he just love the sound of his own voice? Does he have hopes of a TV career?

    Connected with that is the question of how this 18-month-old paper came to be "news" in the first place — were Reading's PR people casting around desperately for something to get them on the news, or did he himself suggest the press release? An inside source is needed to fill the gaps.

    The sad truth is that in Britain news is mostly seen as a branch of the entertainment industry these days. Only a handful of subjects are supposed to be taken seriously (party politics, economics, health scares, scandals, celebrity gossip) and the rest is all light relief. I'm sure someone at the Daily Express was very proud of the Dr Who idea, though I'm also pretty sure not one person who read it could make sense of the last sentence.

    [(myl 20:46 2/28/2009) At first I thought that there must be a new paper forthcoming, but I've been persuaded that the occasion for the press release was the one-year anniversary of the university's acquisition of a new supercomputer. As the press release explains:

    The IBM supercomputer at the University of Reading, known as ThamesBlue, is now one year old. Before it arrived, it took an average of six weeks to perform a computational task such as comparing two sets of words in different languages, now these same tasks can be executed in a few hours.

    I speculate that the PR department and/or the supercomputer center looked around for someone to promote the anniversay, and Prof. Pagel took the bait.

    Meanwhile, Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian offers the theory that "ThamesBlue has actually become self-aware, and, possibly as a result of indignation at being given a stupid name with a capital letter in the middle of it, has allowed its thoughts to turn in a sinister and vengeful direction", and suggests in response that "the words that are on the way out are ones that refer to concepts which are becoming increasingly outmoded, including 'integrity'". ]

  14. John O'Meara said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    Globe and Mail, Friday February 27: Title: "No surprise: 'I' is our oldest word
    And 'dirty' is headed for the scrap heap." By Joe Friesen (online doesn't indicate if it's a wire story).
    Seems like the sort of story that makes for perfect newspaper filler: no analysis needed, just a press release with a little rewriting.

  15. Ivan said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 8:44 pm


    Nothing else I can find in Eastern Europe, but there's few other items in Spanish Spanish.

    It's already been reported in the Croatian press:

    Here's also the same story from a Russian online newspaper:
    (I've checked and the text is not copied from the Russian BBC site, which also reported the story)

    Outside the Slavic world, it seems like the Brazilian media aren't falling behind either:

  16. Harry Campbell said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    Interesting to see how much more calmly and rationally the story was reported the first time round, in the Daily Telegraph last November:
    (Not sure what Prof Pagel understands by Ebonics and how it "take[s] on English at the fringes" though.)

  17. Harry Campbell said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

    At first I thought that there must be a new paper forthcoming, but I've been persuaded that the occasion for the press release was the one-year anniversary of the university's acquisition of a new supercomputer.

    Given that ThamesBlue is only a year old, and the research reported in Nature predates that by many months, it presumably follows that the "news" basis for the story itself, that the research was done using a new(ish) supercomputer, is actually false? The whole story is founded on a little white lie, in a sense? Maybe this is within the ethical codes of (some) PR people and journalists, but I hope I don't seem too stuffy or censorious in saying I don't think academics should go along with it.

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

    The kind of work that Prof Pagel has been doing might depend only rather marginally on mainstream linguistics; possibly extending to little more than tapping the expertise of a historical linguist to identify which of the words in his corpora are in fact cognates, and getting frequency counts out of a database.

    His own comments do unfortunately lead to the conclusion that he doesn't find historical linguistics as such very interesting.

  19. bulbul said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 10:43 pm


    verily, your google-fu is strong :) I tried searching for Croatian infectees, but to no avail.
    I can offer a Czech version where, btw, "cavemen" is replaced by the more native-sounding "mammoth hunters". The venue ( is one of the biggest names on the Czech corner of teh intert00bz. And they even got a Czech linguist (one Miloslava Vajdlová of the Czech Language Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences) to sort of confirm the story:

    Ano, nejstaršími výrazy jsou ve všech jazycích slova, bez kterých se společnost neobejde, například otec, matka, označení osoby partnera, les

    Yes, the oldest terms in every language are those the society can't do without, such as 'father', 'mother', the word for one's partner, forrest

    Lord help us one and all.

  20. Mark F. said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    What's really a shame is that it's entirely possible to explain this research in a way that lay readers would actually understand, and nobody made the effort. I'm crossing threads again, but in the other discussion about this, Chud wondered why Claire Bolderson didn't ask the following question: "Well, if a caveman could understand "'I', 'we', 'two', 'three', and 'five', why can't a Spaniard?" It's a sensible question to ask, if you actually get the point that not only the English words for 'I', 'we', 'two', 'three', and 'five' are being said to be "the same words" as would be spoken by a caveman, but also the Spanish words for those things are the same words as would be spoken by that same caveman. It was clear that nothing she read or was told got that idea across.

  21. Seektruthfromfacts said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 4:10 pm

    As I understand it, British newspapers do not traditionally employ fact-checkers, as North American newspapers do. Fact checking is carried out informally by subeditors (whose primary tasks are checking for spelling and grammatical errors, and ensuring that copy fits into the space provided) and the section editor (who of course has a myriad of other tasks).

    I would guess that accuracy is normally ensured in two ways that are not possible in the US. Firstly, BBC News has a large number of journalists (over a thousand in London alone) and is now the real medium of record in the UK. Secondly, the intense competition between newspapers ensures that mistakes are quickly noticed. It is rare to see newspapers disagree about basic facts except in cases of political partisanship.

    The 'system' may have fallen down here because the BBC's scientific coverage is one of its weakest points, as numerous LL items have noted, and science coverage is not really a very competitive area.

    I wonder whether North American fact-checkers noticed and stopped coverage of this story – although such a widespread error might be considered a story in itself.

  22. Mark F. said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

    To be fair, after I said that two American outlets do better than two British ones, I should say that I have seen my share of filler-style science articles in the US media, and by contrast it seems like the Economist mostly does pretty well.

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 3:36 pm

    As a Spaniard, I object to Mark F.'s (and Chud's) equation of cavemen with Spaniards.

    (p.s. I am not really a Spaniard.)

    On the subject of ThamesBlue, this style of capitalization is called "camel case" by those who wish us to tolerate it, and "StudlyCaps" by all right-thinking individuals.

  24. brotzel said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    @ seektruthfromfacts

    Having freelanced for some of the British papers mentioned, I can confirm that subs are more rewriters and proofers than US-style fact-checkers. Science reporting is a particular weakness in the British press, with columns like the Guardian's Bad Science column (which is brave enough to criticise its own content on occasion) a notable exception.

    Journalists are called "lazy" for the sort of science-as-entertainment filler copy under fire here, but the reality is that they tend to be generalists with a facility for turning out quick, plausible copy that is largely intended for a very disposable consumption. Deadlines are tight, budgets are limited, news has become increasingly commodified and coming up behind them there's an unending supply of media-studies grads who will do the same shallow work for even less.

    The reporting of science in the generalist press is whimsical and ill-informed for many reasons, high among which must be the preponderance of arts qualifications in journalism and the general scientific illiteracy of the culture at large. But newspapers are flighty, gossipy things, wide-ranging but superficial, and most people read them in this same indulgent spirit. (This is why the Daily Mail can come up with a new cause for cancer seemingly every day of the week.)

    Rehashing a press release as a news story is a time-honoured practice which can be seen/excused as a form of extended quotation. If a university is unrigorous enough to put out a PR on a subject that is of nugatory academic value, and an academic is prepared to stand up and front this dubious material, many media outlets will happily give them the rope to hang themselves (however unwittingly). In effect all these stories are saying is: "Look, readers, we've found a guy who's got this wacky theory… No one's saying he's right or anything – no one really cares – but it's something to laugh about over coffee break." The idea that material this specialised would be run past a tame historical linguist for checking is fantasy in a world where newspapers are leaking jobs left right and centre, the environment editor doubles as foreign affairs supremo, and a sub on a national paper was once heard to ask: "What's our style – Iraq or Iran?"

    Except perhaps in certain areas central to the functioning of society, we do not look to newspapers for truth or insight or guidance. Indeed, everyone I know with any specilaist knowledge of any kind – from theology to electronics – will tell you that whenever the press try to touch on their subject, they invariably get it wrong. The posts on this thread alone, which explain in great detail how this story was so nonsensical as to be not even wrong, would be beyond the grasp of most lay readers.

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