A journal of cognition, computation, cartoons and cooking; physics and phonotactics; academia, art, alcohol and angst.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Secret Language of World of Warcraft

A journalist has no clue. This has been covered in many many blogs already (kotaku, worldofwar, tetonhammer). But now the video has been taking down from youtube due to copyright claims, but more importantly it has been removed from the official website of the San Francisco Bay NBC 11 KNTV affiliate whence it aired! I recovered the video from the affiliate's google cache which may reset soon, and a second-person filmed copy of decent quality off youtube.

Meanwhile, I will try to give the ripped video some extra life from a direct link (flv) and from another source.

My comment on this: first, see the above blogs for why this is so funny (simple answer - she was "pwned" with a bit of an inaccurate portrayal of the use of language in WoW). Now, I was big into news/feature journalism in high school and undergrad, with several awards under my belt, even having attended summer camp in TV and print journalism at Northern Illinois University. One thing they told us at NIU though, as we were struggling in front of the cameras, is that us Chicagoans were putting ourselves under the pressure of the highly-polished standards of major metropolitan news outlets, whereas the professional nowheresville networks of this place just beyond the rural ring of Fermilab were decidedly amateurish - thus these journalism students in DeKalb had a bit more confidence in their performances than we who received metro Chicago broadcasts.

The point is that this report was horribly amateur by any metropolitan standards, even for a five-minute throwaway feature. She is blatant in personalizing the story (which is in itself a way of trivializing what is actually a very complex and important phenomenon) and even more blatant in not checking facts with even a quick Google search, which would reveal that she'd been a bit taken in by her "boyfriend". In raw substance, this could only be characterized as a personality piece about her live-in lover (since he was the only source, and not authoritative at that) which really merits her canning from a major metropolitan outlet.

The implications are twofold. First, I can decry the state of TV journalism, and I will. This was primetime, after the superbowl, on a major metro outlet, and let crap slip by, even possibly advertising for it beforehand as some comments have mentioned. Frankly, the best reliable TV journalism you'll get will be from the international outlets, like BBC, Fox (yes, they have journalistic merit of a different type), and cable (CNN, MSNBC, The Daily Show, etc). But for local coverage, I'd recommend two sources: local PBS and NPR carriers (Chicago Tonight is what I always used to watch growing up, which continues to maintain excellent standards of discourse) and specialty feature shows like 190 North, an ABC show covering plenty of cultural nuances from both the deep and shallow ends.

The second implication that troubles me is the state of linguistics in popular culture. Linguistics in itself is a very wide, multidisciplinary field. I studied and did some research in computational and generative linguistics as an undergrad, which encompass mathematical approaches to theoretical models and simulation of language, and which actually have very important predictive capability (as well as marketable results, as seen in every manner of computer speech recognition). However, many other slices of the pie exist in the forms of psycholinguistics, historical linguistics, and, as would be relevant to this broadcast, anthropological (or social) linguistics (and this even excludes relevant clinical and literary cross-disciplines). In most cases, these people are serious, methodical scientists who are fortunate enough to be higher than most social sciences in terms of empirical purity due to the inherent rule-based and objective grounding of their medium of study.

But when a layman thinks about a "linguist", he sees the Grammar-Nazi columnist in the New York Times "society" sections, or the gifted, well-mannered Victorian polyglot translating for the Congolese savages (or his sci-fi equivalent of C-3P0). This is soooo not the scope of academic linguists that it's almost funny.

Almost. Except the public never takes academic linguists seriously. [further rant on linguistics in the public sphere saved for later]. One of many cases in point is that the perceived "expert" on WoW language and its interpretation is some amateurish reporter and her WoW-addicted boyfriend who sabotages her story.

The real tragedy for the public is that there is so much depth to the amazingly intricate linguistic change happening all around us every day. When "pwned" enters everyday conversation like it did in grad school among us who were non-gamers, you see one of the first truly English words (derived almost exclusively within our own language and culture) to utterly defy conventional typology. Or, in a more classical example, when we can document and possibly predict a continued changing (general frontening, actually, by some conjectures) in the pronunciation of vowels in Standard American English, that may give the older generations a greater appreciation of some of the tangled accents of today's youth. Or maybe, at the end of the day, if we simply understand the argument to raise awareness of how native dialects can affect students' benefit from grammar classes in America, we might be able to respond intelligently when such arguments are made instead of grossly misinterpreting them.