Saturday, July 26, 2008

Obama Linguistics

In his (disappointingly tepid) Berlin speech Thursday, Barack Obama made the ridiculous claim that "every language is spoken in our country". Nein! Das ist Falsch!

There are a variety of ways of proving this false.

1) There is no such thing as a language. We use the word "language" as a convenient label to refer to the behavior of communities of people who seem to be able to understand each other when they move their mouths. We say "they speak X". But there is no definition of "language" such that X can be described in any scientifically valid/reliable way. There is, therefore, no way of counting how many language are spoken anywhere, let alone comparing the numbers between locations.

2) Assume there is such a thing as language; I have no clue how many languages are spoken in the US, but I'm sure whatever that number is, it's less than the total number of languages in the world (5,000-7,000, depending on whether you think Flemish is really just Dutch with a lisp). There are many languages with less than 100 speakers, all of whom are over 60 and live in remote villages. Did one of the remaining senior citizens wander into the US, ya know, on a whim? I kinda doubt it.

No comments:

TV Linguistics - and the fictional Princeton Linguistics department

 [reposted from 11/20/10] I spent Thursday night on a plane so I missed 30 Rock and the most linguistics oriented sit-com episode since ...