It’s time for language experts to take over the narrative on language journalism.
Much of what’s written online about language today under the guise of journalism is driven by harried editors assigning stories on language to journalists and freelance writers based on stubborn, intractable and misinformed preconceptions about how language actually works. Common among them:
- There exist “correct” and “incorrect” forms of language use, with “correct” defined by the rules of grammatical usage for the formal register learned at whatever arbitrary dates the peever happened to be in school, which are then expected not only to stay immutable and permanent for all time, but to be enforced with a militant rigor;
- Failure to comply with these “rules” is interpreted as a shocking lack of education and cultural sophistication, with a similar down-the-nose dismissal of unfamiliar or culturally suspect dialects, neologisms, creative speech and all the remaining registers of human language;
- All foreign languages have “untranslatable” words, from which readers are subtly encouraged to come to often uncharitable conclusions about the nature of the underlying peoples and cultures, even though such stories invariably list perfectly clear and lucid English translations right next to the purportedly “untranslatable” words;
- Translation and interpreting are trivial exercises performed by clever multilingual parrots who came to their skills solely through effortless passive osmosis resulting from geographical accidents of birth;
- Software will soon replace writers, translators, journalists and others with “soft” language skills because language is easy and automation is already being deployed to write stories today.
Misconceptions drive choices
The central dilemma is that such misconceptions define the ground rules for how language stories are often assigned by editors. As anyone who’s worked with print reporters and writers knows very well, it’s often very nearly impossible to turn writers away from the “angle” their editors have assigned them – meaning the conclusions the editor expects to see – irrespective of facts, evidence or expertise.
Perhaps more tragically, though, is the impact such misinformed views have on stories that are never assigned at all.
Those include compelling personal human-interest narratives about the impact of language in daily life that are considered to be outside the mainstream or thought to be too challenging or obscure or linguistically sophisticated to explain clearly to an audience of readers who have been carefully shielded from informed and thoughtful stories written by experts who know precisely how language actually works.
“This American Life for Language”
Schwa Fire aims to change all this.
Billed as “This American Life, but for language,” Schwa Fire is high-quality, long-form language journalism at its finest. “We live in a time when understanding language and how it works is more crucial than ever,” says Schwa Fire founder Michael Erard. “We intend to go find people to talk to and put them at the center of the story.”
The Challenge of Online Publications Today
It’s not been easy for sophisticated long-form journalism to find its footing online, whether defined in terms of readership or financial sustainability. Legacy media outlets that were towering empires in the last century continue to struggle to find success online, decades after the Internet went mainstream.
Even well-funded online platforms like Medium and Matter have endured their own challenges to maintain readership and relevance given the persistent hegemony of click volume as the sole metric of success.
When clicks are king, Buzzfeed listicles rule the day. Quantity ruthlessly crowds out quality.
Schwa Fire will dodge the clickbait trap by building the entire enterprise on a hybrid model of subscriptions (from you, the reader) and sponsorships (from me, and others) to maintain financial viability. This approach also makes it possible to pay language-savvy, insightful writers to create the content we all want to read.
I’m fortunate that Schwa Fire sits at the nexus of my own creative interests, as clearly reflected on this blog: translation, language and linguistics.
But what truly benefits us all is what this refreshing new voice brings to the conversation. As Julie Sedivy has so eloquently noted, Schwa Fire will reflect how a deep understanding of language makes much more compelling these human dramas of connection, misunderstanding, heroism, loss, power and identity.
Find Schwa Fire here: https://schwa-fire.com/
Follow me on Twitter: @Kevin_Hendzel