What is Language Journalism?
Language journalism is writing and reporting, using the tools and conventions of journalism, about aspects of language, languages, and the people who use and study and work with them. When language journalism is done well, it stresses “language” as much as “journalism.” Ideally it uses linguistics to open up avenues in a topic, even when it's not ostensibly about language. Or maybe it is, but it has a depth that can yield the true treasure of human insight if you dig with linguistic tools.
I didn’t invent language journalism, but I like to think I showed how it could be done. Go find people to talk to and put them at the center of the story. Break news. Use the article as a stage for other people to perform their expertise. Show how ideas evolve, how consensus emerges. Show how the rest of the world looks to a person who has deep expertise. Craft the narrative. Write what no one else is writing. Write well.
The first piece of journalism I ever wrote on a language theme was about names for Americans for the Texas Observer, reprising H.L. Mencken’s arguments. At the time, I was a graduate student in English, specializing in linguistics and rhetoric and looking for the escape hatch from academic life. A few years later, as a freelance writer, I came back through the hatch, looking for untold stories and relevant research from the world of linguistics.
Since then, I’ve written about the northward spread of “y’all,” about linguistic discrimination, emerging sign languages, the linguistic evidence for a connection between Siberian and Amerindian peoples, the upper limit of the ability to learn languages, the future of English, foreign languages in dreams, and on and on. Now, after a lot of articles and two books, here’s Schwa Fire. In some ways, it's a culmination. It's also a huge, new step. I'm so glad you're coming along.
I'm also glad to be joined, in this first issue of this publication, by writers who ought to be considered pioneers of language journalism too. You probably know their names: Robert Lane Greene, who writes the language column for The Economist and is author of You Are What You Speak; Arika Okrent, who writes about language for Mental Floss and wrote an intriguing book about the quest to invent the perfect language, In the Land of Invented Languages; and Russell Cobb, a writer and scholar who edited the new book, The Question of Authenticity in a Global Culture.
Language journalism ought to do a lot of what science journalism does, too. Of course, linguistics, cognitive science, psychology, and other fields are sciences. But there's another sense in which science is both a content and a perspective that science journalists also engage. It's a slant on the world, a posture, a set of tools that creates possibilities by opening things up. Why isn't language writing considered science journalism? One easy answer is that linguistics, as a discipline, is sui generis: at once too human and too social to be a hard science, too empirical and logical to belong to the humanities. Another easy answer is that science journalism reflects the hierarchy of the natural and social sciences, with physics at the top of the pile, social science at the bottom. What are the other possibilities, I wonder? Should language journalism demand to be included in science journalism?
It's also worth saying that language journalism isn't outreach for any specific discipline, though promoters of linguistics and language journalists can have the same goals. The difference lies in the methods, but also the stakes. Outreach raises the profile of a discipline; language journalism wants to broaden journalism through the lens of language.
Infusing the linguistic into journalism is easy to do, yet it’s not often done. The other night (I’m writing this in late February) I listened to a public radio report about the dubious authenticity of Mandarin accents on the Netflix show “House of Cards.” I heard voice coaches opining about Mandarin-speaking voices. I heard the voices. But there was zilch about Mandarin tones. Nothing about non-native accents. One mention of the diversity of spoken Mandarin, offered by a show's writer as an excuse. Here came an opportunity to make a good language piece out of shallow entertainment news, and there it went, untouched.
I realize time constraints are real. But I also know that editors and producers make pronouncements about "our readers" or "our listeners" in order to justify paring out the bits that happen to be about language specifically. Wouldn't it be great if there was an outlet that would not only leave those language bits in but expand on them?
Now there is.
I believe that we’re living at a time when understanding language and how it works is more crucial than ever, and journalism has a big role to play in helping people do that. Journalism is normalizing, for one thing. It says what goes. It frames the world. There are many ideas about language which should be more normalized (and many that should be de-normalized). Journalism is also dynamic, a lot like language itself. Journalists can probe and prod an issue and revisit it, over and over. Language, I've often said, ought to be a beat. With every investigation, we should strive for precision and accuracy, but we don't have to exhaust the topic with one piece. (By contrast, the scholar's goal is to write a definitive piece that will stand many tests of time.) Journalism can also be wide-ranging and ecumenical. Schwa Fire is going to settle down with language and life, wherever that’s to be found. The boundaries of professions and academic disciplines aren’t our boundaries. That's why Schwa Fire is intended for copywriters and speech pathologists as much as translators and linguists.
For this and the next two issues of Schwa Fire — what will be called “Season One” — you’ll find a couple of takes on language journalism. There will be two long features, either in text or audio, and I’m excited about what’s in the hopper. There will also be a personal essay about some aspect of language, as well as a “practice puzzle,” where people can put their linguistic expertise to the test. Eventually the content will be released in some other languages, and will also be available via an iOS app. Good language journalism deserves all of this.
Another exciting part of Schwa Fire is the way supporters of the successful Kickstarter campaign are providing guidance via three editorial panels, guiding decisions about stories, about translation directions, and about usage for the magazine. In January, I asked the 150+ members of Schwa Fire’s story panel, “What makes for a good piece of language journalism?” I loaded the wikisurvey with some ideas I had and accepted other people’s ideas. As of January 22, 2014, this is how the voting was shaking out, after contributions from 79 people:
The wikisurvey tool isn’t meant to produce a single winner. Neither is there a single trait of good language journalism that I'd want to champion. But it is interesting to see what in people's minds rises to the top.
For instance, people on the story panel didn't think that language journalism ought to be about languages or cultures others than our own. (About 80% of initial subscribers are from the US, and all of them use English.) People don’t need pieces to be funny, nor laden with technical detail. I was surprised that lack of errors ranked so low — a lot of blogging by linguists seems to take on journalists for errors and soft thinking — but I doubt this means there’s more tolerance for error. A focus on non-lexical aspects of language slightly outranked a focus on words. (Which is good — there's already a lot of good writing about words on the web.)
At the upper end, they want good journalism to be entertaining and compelling. It ought to read (or sound) like a story. The story panel placed a lot of importance on how well non-specialists understand the stories and find them relevant. There was also the sense that good language journalism corrects misconceptions about language.
On that last point, I don't see Schwa Fire tackling misconceptions head on. I'd rather see the content provide positive models for other producers to emulate, for teachers to teach, and for people to talk about. I'd rather see us normalize those misconceptions out of existence, and do it one story at a time.
Which raises a question: For whom is language journalism produced? In my mind, the answer is easy. It's for everybody. It's not solely for linguists, or for academics who wish their discipline was better-represented in the public sphere, or for people who have fought in the trenches of the reading wars (phonics vs. whole language), the grammar wars (split infinitive or not?), or the Elements of Style wars (Strunk and White, hypocrites or not?). It's for everybody who knows what a schwa is. For everyone whose first encounter with language is burned in their memories.