Time to send in the word police

27th October 2006 at 01:00
Once there was the word. It was to be found on the shelves of libraries, firmly located between those custodians of knowledge otherwise known as hard covers.

With books, you knew where you were. Knew that the words before you had gone through a careful selection process involving publishers, editors and reviewers.

True, you also knew that at least one publisher had decided that Harold Robbins had literary merit, and that most libraries kept a copy of Mein Kampf tucked away. But these were quibbles, given the assured scholarship of most of the titles you might consult or recommend to your students.

Today there is still the word. It is, however, no longer the prisoner of mainstream publishers. Instead it dances freely in the boundlessness of cyberspace, or undulates enticingly across our screens at whatever time of day or night we choose to access it.

Ours is an age of instant knowledge gratification: I Google; you Google; he, she or it Googles. The vast range of information available to us at a click of a mouse is truly amazing, genuinely exciting.

It is also fraught with danger. To see this in action, we need only consider the other end of the above conjugation: they google. Recently, I idly suggested to a class - we were studying the origins of language - that if they wanted to know more, they should try running the term through a search engine. No, you dolt, I thought, almost as soon as the words were out. Who knows what they'll come up with? Send them to selected sites. But too late. The genie was already out of the bottle.

A page of search results is like the Wild West out there. That's what creates the excitement. Trouble is, there's no virtual sheriff to pick out the bad guys and lock them up. And even the good guys can be difficult to smoke out. Particularly when they insist on looking, for all the world, like the bad.

A case in point is the good Doctor George Boeree. His site actually came up as number one on the "language origins" hit list - for which privilege he no doubt had to bend over backwards for any number of Google executives.

What hits you first when you click on to the George Boeree homepage (that's Boeree, pronounced boo-RAY he helpfully tells us) is a photograph of him aged about seven with a demented look in his eyes. Underneath is a link which takes you to the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine". Elsewhere on the site there is a section entitled "World Flags" followed by the legend "Can't we all just get along".

But before you dismiss him as a well-intentioned eccentric, try reading what he has to say about what you were looking for in the first place: language origins. It's all good stuff, and presented in such a way as to appeal to, and be understood by, students on a Level 3 (A-level) course.

Students just like yours.

The real challenge with internet research, however, is not the good guys who appear bad, but the bad guys who want to appear good. Sometimes they give you clues. For instance, anything on the homepage which twinkles, pulsates or travels through a starry universe like a rogue comet, should be enough to persuade you to give them the instant elbow. Sadly, that means saying goodbye straightaway to two sites to be found near the top of Google's language origins list. But then, do you really want to spend even a small part of your life perusing something called the The Grazian Archives, anyway?

A visit to www.creationism.org, however, gives you no such clues. Its essay on "Language - origins and evolution" is soberly presented and reproduced direct from the impressive-sounding Creation Social Science and Humanities Society Quarterly Journal. The article begins by reviewing the philosophical and scientific background to current theories on the origins of language, drawing on the works of leading linguists such as Lenneberg and Chomsky. Studies at America's most prestigious universities are also detailed.

Then comes the sucker punch. Under the heading "The divine creation of language", we find ourselves suddenly in another country altogether. With not even the briefest farewell to the scientific method, we are authoritatively told: "In the beginning was the Word... It is therefore from God that came the two elements of language, the genetic inheritance...

and the oral implementation."

And while this may not exactly be Mein Kampf, it's about as much use to an academic discussion of language as a rag doll is to the study of human anatomy.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at South Thames College, London

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