by Craig Evans
Not too long ago, I found myself caught up in a Twitter exchange after retweeting a link to what I thought to be an interesting article in National Geographic. The title of the article, repeated word for word in the tweet, posed the question: Does geography influence how a language sounds? In response, a fellow twitterer answered simply ‘no’, before then helpfully providing a link to an article that presented a comprehensive counter-argument to that represented in the first article.
Without wanting to go into the relative merits of specific arguments, the general point of contention centred around a study that concludes there is a relationship between certain articulatory sounds and high altitude. This study had been carried out by the anthropological linguist Caleb Everett, recounted favourably in National Geographic, but then heavily criticised in the second article, published in Geocurrents. In the latter, titled ‘Ejectives, High Altitudes, and Grandiose Linguistic Hypotheses’, the authors pick through Everett’s various claims in what seems to be part of a concerted effort to completely discredit his hypothesis.
Now, it is not my intention here to support or oppose the particular arguments of Everett or his detractors. As an undergraduate student, I am eager to wade into any debate on any subject, but I am also very mindful of my lack of knowledge and limited experience. What I find most interesting about the articles and the Twitter exchange is the extent to which there often seems to be no middle ground in academia: you must be either completely for or against whatever the given theory.
At least this was the strong impression made on me by my fellow twitterer’s next response to my original retweet, which was to suggest that if I was out to confirm public misconceptions then I would in the end be proven wrong.
Yikes! This seemed a bit strong. All I had done was link to what sounded like a very interesting proposition about the possible relationship between geography and the sound of language. Does saying here’s something interesting amount to a complete endorsement of everything contained therein? In my mind it doesn’t, but in the glare of this apparent accusation, I suddenly found myself feeling the need to defend my position in relation to a subject that I’d read about for the first time only moments earlier.
It can’t be a good thing, this atmosphere of absolutes where if something is not completely proven right then it must be wrong. Even the authors of the Geocurrents article betray this kind of attitude by referring dismissively to Everett’s hypothesis as ‘grandiose’. Is it really grandiose to propose that a relationship may exist between geography and the sound of language? Irrespective of whether this is borne out in the data selected, there is still plenty of mystery about the origin of a wide range of distinctly different sounding languages to merit the exploration of new theories. The problem is, to do so is to run the risk of disreputation and not being taken seriously.
Of course, there is a flip-side to all this, and I can partly empathise with my Twitter ‘accuser’ and Everett’s detractors. Academic rigour is vital for getting to the truth of why things are the way they are. Should legitimate doubts exist about a well-publicised study, then it is important that this study is challenged. In the case of the National Geographic article, Everett’s work is discussed without alternative viewpoints being represented, even though the Geocurrents article (published 3 days later) demonstrates that these obviously exist. This does not, however, provide grounds to completely dismiss Everett’s hypothesis. If anything, it is the National Geographic that should be censured for not seeking alternative expert opinions in order to provide a more balanced journalistic account of the study.
As for Everett’s hypothesis, it seems to me that he has come up with an original and thoroughly interesting line of enquiry for which he deserves credit. Such imaginative thinking shouldn’t be scoffed at, but encouraged; and if the data gathered to support such a hypothesis proves insufficient or inconclusive, then does it completely negate what still seems a very reasonable proposition?
Ultimately, the question all academics need to ask themselves is: is it better to always be cautious and right, or to sometimes strive for something original at the risk of being wrong?