Ask Language Log: Linguistic fact checking at the New Yorker

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Stephen Smith writes:

There's a New Yorker article about a Moldovan woman working for an organization that tries to track down victims of sex trafficking and bring them home, but it includes this weird bit:

"She talks on the phone and knocks out memos and documents and e-mails in four languages and three alphabets—Russian, Romanian, Swedish, and English."

Russian is written in Cyrillic, Romanian is almost always written in Latin characters (though in Moldova, Cyrillic letters were officially used – but that was twenty years ago), and Swedish and English are always in Latin characters. Romanian and Swedish have some non-standard characters, but even if you count each language as having its own alphabet, that should make four alphabets, not three. And of course if you're going to count each language as having its own alphabet, what's the point in writing them both down? The New Yorker is usually such a fastidious publication – am I missing something here?

Stephen's question really ought to be addressed to the Columbia Journalism Review, I guess — the general problem of fact-checking at the New Yorker is not one that I'm professionally competent to investigate. But this is not the first case where we've noted carelessness and confusion about linguistic matters in New Yorker stories.

A quick sample: "No hurr in Nellyville?", 4/4/2004; "If it kwa's like a duck…", 8/26/2005; "And every lion tongue cast down", 8/1/2005; "Giuliani's lisp?", 8/24/2007; "You say potato, I say bologna", 10/18/2007.

This leaves aside the passionate commitment of some New Yorker writers to grammatical ideologies that their own writing systematically violates. (See "Louis Menand's pronouns", 10/8/2003; "The blowing of each other up", 1/18/2005; "The blowing of Strunk and White's rules off", 2/18/2005).

Perhaps the New Yorker's famous fact-checking has always been as much a religious ritual as a journalistic reality ("Facts, theories, fetishes", 9/22/2004). Or maybe fact-checking standards have fallen, as smart young women find a broader range of opportunities available to them. I'll leave these questions for the up-coming CJR feature.

But I suspect that the New Yorker's rate of little linguistic confusions — sloppy or mistaken descriptions of sounds, alphabets, and sentences — has been roughly constant over time, and has always been higher than the rate of mistakes about geography, architecture, clothing, and so on. And as usual, I blame the linguists.

[Note that there's much less excuse than there once was for being confused about the alphabets used to write Russian, Romanian, Swedish, and English, since a trip to the library or even to the reference shelf is no longer required.]

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