LINGUIST List 10.37

Sat Jan 9 1999

Disc: Discipline Recognition

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition
  2. Dan Faulkner, Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition
  3. Sean Witty, Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition

Message 1: Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition

Date: Fri, 8 Jan 1999 08:50:14 -0800 (PST)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition

On Fri, 8 Jan 1999, Joseph Davis (CCNY) wrote:

> Subject: Does linguistics exist in America?
> Carl Mills (LINGUIST 10.28) rightly laments the virtual absence of
> linguistics in academia. As one whose department (Columbia) closed
> just as work on the dissertation was beginning, I am moved to respond.
> My sense is that linguistics, in the '60s and '70s particularly, made
> itself irrelevant by indeed proclaiming its irrelevance to such
> important fields of inquiry as communication, literature, and society.

Having been trained into linguistics in the mid-60s Chomskyan heyday
at UCLA, I could not agree more. I could go off and teach in an
English department in Montana and truthfully/enthusiastically show
English teachers why they should bother learning about TGG -- it had
many insights, such as deep structure, transformations, and surface
structure coordinated to show such things as affix-hopping during
passive, that were elegant and intuitively obvious to ordinary
people. Then, soon, that was gone, along with just about all the rest
of the intuitive insights that provided relevance to linguistics for
non-linguists, replaced by arcana.

I'll swear/promise (depending on your dialect) one thing: my wonderful
Chomskyan initiation into linguistics did precious little to prepare
me for where I finally wound up -- on the Cheyenne Reservation,
working with real live speakers who lived in a culture and had context
for everything they said, instead of with a mythical LAD while sitting
in a corner making up sentences. I've often said that Chomsky has
walked away from more brilliant ideas than I ever had.

> This act of burning bridges perhaps can be traced back to the American
> descriptivists' misguided attempt to construct an "autonomous"
> linguistics. Simultaneously, many theoretical linguists have appeared
> to disdain the peripheral fields that do represent attempts to make
> linguistics relevant to something, foremost among them (i.e., at the
> bottom), so-called applied linguistics. What does linguistics need to
> do? Come to terms with the fact that language functions in a social
> and meaningful context, not in a vacuum.
> Joseph Davis
> City College of New York

A very heartfelt plea, Joseph. Since the late '50s, our profession
seems to have taken a hard-left(brain) turn, so rightfully called
'autonomous,' and lost our sense of balance. Deborah Tannen is one
bright (and rich!) exception to this paucity of relevance, yet you
point arightly to the seeming snobbery with which applied work is
often greeted.

As long as "language" is seen as automatic shorthand for "human
language," we will avoid and disdain communication; as long as
"language" is autonomous from culture, cognition, society, worldview,
consciousness, and so much more, linguistics as a profession will
continue to be seen as irrelevant and arrogant.

warm regards, moonhawk
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Message 2: Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition

Date: Fri, 8 Jan 1999 17:21:29 -0000
From: Dan Faulkner <>
Subject: Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition

Surely the term "Linguistics" is about as all encompassing as they
come? It is a multi-disciplinary field which can comfortably keep
mathematicians, computer-scientists, psychologists, philosophers,
philologists, foreign-language learners and people from who knows how
many other fields busy for years.

We frequently see in responses to this list disclaimers from people
("I'm no phonologist but...", "I don't know much about software
but..." etc.) before they give their opinions/answers to queries, so
why would we want something as vague as Linguistics to be recognised?

I find it far more trying when people assume that because you've
studied Linguistics you are au fait with all of its aspects. Why
should a phonetician have a clue about HPSG? Why should a
lexicographer know anything about Formal Semantics? All of these
fields are undoubtedly linked with, or a part of, Linguistics, but
would any of the people who study them most accurately be described as
linguists? Linguistics is to these disciplines what Medicine is to
oncology, dentistry, pharmacy, surgery......I would rather know
whether someone was a chiropodist or a gynaecologist than that they
were a doctor.

It strikes me also that there may be a lack of familiarity with
Linguistics in the outside world (for want of a better
term). Linguistics based subjects are not usually taught before
university (at least not in a linguistic way!), and therefore the only
people who really understand what they entail are the people who study
them. In addition, Linguistics is not something that frequently
appears in the media, or in popular science (like psychology and
clinical medicine) so it is unlikely that it will be as much in the
public consciousness as other fields.

On top of all this is some pretty self-defeating work by linguists
themselves. As I understand it, when sociologists and psychologists
took a first serious look at linguistic theory a few years back, they
found that a lot of the work was not particularly robust: swingeing
generalisations from too few examples, weak statistics, plain wrong
statistics etc. This has clearly been rectified in recent years, and
nothing counts for anything now unless there are lots of ANOVA's and
correlations to back you up, but perhaps the mud stuck. I have
personal experience of members of other disciplines (engineering,
mathematics...) being pretty derisory about Linguistics, but I think
with the growing reliance upon linguistic knowledge to create
concrete, everyday applications (NLP and speech technology
applications, for example) the image is changing.

Perhaps we should not look for Linguistics to gain more recognition,
but for its sub-disciplines to emerge and become accepted in
themselves. Having said all this, I hope that my not living in
America, which was part of the original discussion after all, doesn't
render this completely redundant.

Dan Faulkner	

Tel +44 1908 273 933 
Fax +44 1908 273 801
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Message 3: Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition

Date: Sun, 10 Jan 1999 03:08:02 KST
From: Sean Witty <>
Subject: Re: 10.32, Disc: Discipline Recognition


I too lament the fact that linguistics does not receive the academic 
recognition and esteem afforded to other sciences (i.e., Physics), and 
recognize the legitimacy of Mr. Mills' question. Nor can one refute the 
simple logic contained in Mr. Davis' rebuttal. Perhaps this paradoxic 
situation, linguistics as an isolated science versus language as a 
function of society, is a symptom of the problem itself.

The number one problem of linguistics as a field of study has been, and 
probably will remain for some time, the distinction between "art" and 
"science". Other fields typically fall into one category or the other, 
while linguistics tend to straddle them both (language specific 
linguistics versus general linguistics). Thus, the field is extremely 
large and diverse, with room for everyone no matter how unusual their 
ideas may be. Unfortunately, and I am guilty of this myself, there is a 
lot of quibbling over what is linguistics and who qualifies as one. So, 
the first answer to the "what do we have to do?" is put an end to this 
and try to find value in each other's ideas.

This does not mean that every notion associated with language should be 
welcomed into the fold, or that any principle should be welcome without 
proper foundation. There should be a continuity throughout the various 
fields and disagreements should be based on scientific evidence and not 
personal preference. For example, many of the contextual linguistic 
fields, i.e., Psycholinguistics, that Mr. Davis refers to are not, in my 
opinion, part of the greater field. This is not to diminish the 
importance of that field, but rather to recognize that Psycholinguistics 
has more to do with psychological processes than language. If 
linguistics is to be the science of language, then language should be 
our main area of concentration.

Just because a group of linguists in the 60s and 70s attempted to 
separate linguistics from its context and, in so doing, demonstrated the 
"irrelevance" of the field, from Mr. Davis' perspective, doesn't mean 
that it is a fruitless course of inquiry. Most of what is learned about 
anything is learned through comparative methodology, which, in turn, 
requires a set of standards by which to to make comparisons. These 
standards, because languages exist in a variety of contexts, must apply 
to all of them while adhering to none of them. 

In this decade alone, Astrophysicists have discovered another planet 
around Peg 51. Have they seen this planet? No. Do they know very much 
about this planet? No. This discovery was derived from comparing the 
bhavior of a distant star with that of our own and other stars, to 
conclude that there was, as far as we can tell, a planet in orbit. Now, 
we could be wrong, but until a better argument comes along, there might 
as well be a planet there. The same holds true in language. If we do 
not assume that all languages function basically in the same manner, 
then Mr. Davis is correct and linguistics out of context is irrelevant. 
However, can we really deny the overwhelming evidence in support of such 
a relationship, let alone the pleasure derived from the inquiry? I say 
no. Generally speaking, all human beings have the same mental capacity 
and the same sensory array available to them. This alone provides 
enough context for the development of a comparative methodology for 
linguistic study. In reality, this is what phonology does anyway.

What must we do? Quit arguing. Adopt scientific practices that are 
understood by everone and legitimize our field (this includes writing 
for the masses instead of each other). Re-define the field in such a 
way that the principles we hold true can not be used to debunk the 
principles upon which they are founded, thereby making them irrelevant.

Sean M. Witty
Seoul, South Korea
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