LINGUIST List 11.1586

Thu Jul 20 2000

Sum: Postmodernism and Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Frederick Newmeyer, Postmodernism and linguistics

Message 1: Postmodernism and linguistics

Date: Sun, 16 Jul 2000 07:49:36 -0700 (PDT)
From: Frederick Newmeyer <>
Subject: Postmodernism and linguistics

A week or so ago I posted a query on 'postmodern' writings in and about
linguistics. I was overwhelmed by the response and would like to thank the
following for their replies: Leor Alcalay, Raul Aranovich, Bob Borsley,
Giancarlo Buoiano, Peter Daniels, Timothy Dunnigan, Michael Erard, Kevin
Gregg, Randy Harris, Joseph Hilferty, Bob Hoberman, Michael Israel,
Charles Jannuzi, Wouter Kusters, Shalom Lappin, Robert Levine, Andrew
Linn, Miriam Meyerhoff , Mark Newbrook, Jerry Packard, David Parkinson,
Meredith Patterson, Stephanie Pourcel, Wolfgang Schulze, Larry Trask, and
Remy Viredaz.

NOTE: The book by Sokal and Bricmont that I referred to, FASHIONABLE
NONSENSE, is called INTELLECTUAL IMPOSTURES in Britain (and perhaps
everywhere outside of North America).

The following are (mostly) direct quotes from respondents. None are cited
by name, since, in my experience, people who want to be cited for a
particular point reply directly to the List.


Derrida's "Grammatologie" is one of the pillars of post-structuralism, and
it is basically a 'deconstruction' of Saussure's linguistic
theories. Also, I recently heard Paul Hopper deliver a paper at the MLA on
the linguistic ideas of Bakhtin, whom you can include in the
post-structural current as well (I do not have the exact reference,
though). The post-modern attitude towards linguistics is, as far as I
know, very critical, especially of the Chomskian enterprise. According to
some, this is because of the anti-American sentiment that brew at the
Sorbonne and then expanded with the post-modern ideas (funny that
sentiment against the US should translate into a reaction against
Chomsky's linguistic theories).

The obvious references that come to mind are Derrida's "On
Grammatology," and also the much shorter "Limited, Inc." which presents
his half of a debate with John Searle. The latter book, like much
postmodern discourse, may be more amusing than it is enlightening, and it
involves a debate between philosophers rather than linguists, but it does
give some picture of a postmodern view on issues like linguistic meaning,
communication, and the relation between meaning and intention.

Of popular introductions to Derrida's work, the following seems
exceptionally good: Christina Howells. 1999. Derrida. Polity. This book is
written with remarkable clarity, all the more remarkable given the
celebrated impenetrability of Derrida's own writings. This book, and two
others, both picture-book idiot's guides, make the following points about
JD's linguistic contributions. Derrida makes a great song and dance about
writing. He argues that the *entire* western intellectual tradition, from
Socrates to the present, including the entire linguistic tradition,
'privileges' speech at the expense of writing. That is, he maintains that
everybody before his good self has regarded speech as primary and writing
as merely secondary, and therefore of subordinate status. Of course, he
includes Saussure in this blanket condemnation, though he admits that
Saussure was right to take the line he did "for his own purposes". JD
doesn't like this, and he wants writing to be regarded as just as central
as speech -- apparently for all purposes. In fact, he goes so far as to
assert that writing and speech are too dissimilar for writing to
"derive" from speech. [followed by much more on Derrida.]

My favorite is Deleuze & Guattari's proposal for a rhizomatic linguistics,
in Mille Plateaux (available in English as A Thousand Plateaus). There's
a chapter in Deleuze and Guattari's Milles Plateaux that actually talks
about linguistics, endorsing a sociolinguistic approach (they cite
Labov) as being a more real, comprehensive and theoretically abstract
approach to the study of language (as compared to a generative or formal
approach, they cite Chomsky).

I'd like to draw your attention to the work of Julia Kristeva, a prominent
French semioticist who also happens to be one of S&B's targets. Kristeva,
who describes herself as a practicing psychoanalyst, holds a chair of
linguistics at the Sorbonne. She is the author or editor of many works in
semiotics, but she has also written a textbook of linguistics. It's
this: Le langage, cet inconnu. 1981. Editions du Seuil. English
translation, by Anne M. Menke: Language the Unknown: An Initiation into
Linguistics. 1989. Columbia UP (US), Harvester Wheatsheaf (UK). [my
respondent goes on to outline some of the unbelievable things that this
book says about linguistics]

A few more recommendations from the vast Kristeva *oeuvre*. Her most
famous book is J. Kristeva (1984), Revolution in Poetic Language,
tr. Margaret Waller, Columbia UP. This is her doctoral thesis, the book
that made her famous, and the book that earned her that engaging chair of
linguistics in Paris. She starts off on page one by declaring that
linguistics is necrophilia. Then she goes on to make a number of less
sober statements about our discipline.

Next: J. Kristeva (1980). Desire in Language. Blackwell. This is a
collection of her essays, and it includes some wonderful critical comments
on linguistics. It seems that we linguists have failed to shape up,
except for Jakobson, who was OK, and for Benveniste, who was basically OK
but was led astray.

Also: Toril Moi (ed.) (1986). The Kristeva Reader. Blackwell. See
especially chapter one, which ventures some more magisterial
pronouncements on linguistics. And see chapter 4 for some scandalous
remarks on science.

Next: Ross Mitchell Guberman (ed.) (1996). Julia Kristeva
Interviews. Columbia UP. This is a collection of interviews with JK. See
especially chapter 16. Finally: J. Kristeva (1975). 'La fonction
predicative et le sujet parlant'. In J. Kristeva et al. (eds), Langue,
discours, societe: pour Emile Benveniste. Editions du
Seuil. Pp. 229-259. This, though almost entirely a work of linguistics, is
boring by comparison, but at least we learn that generative grammar is not
much good at giving an account of William Faulkner's prose style. And that
JK apparently does not know that Greek is an Indo-European language.

It is almost 100% certain that Leech points to (complains about) Kristeva
in his _Principles of Pragmatics_ (title?) book. Going to index might be
enough to get the page number.


Peirce, Bonnie Norton (1995). "Social Identity, Investment, and Language
Learning." TESOL Quarterly, 29:1, Spring 1995 (9-31). (To the best of my
recollection--I don't have the article in front of me--she makes some
significant mention of postmodernism in this article, in an attempt to
view language learning from a new perspective.) Bonnie Peirce referred
more to "post-structuralism," but I think there's at least a mention of
postmodernism. There was a controversy over her article, with a thread of
commentary in the following issues, which I found abstracted in the
Education Abstracts Full Text data base :
McNamara, T.F., TESOL Quarterly v. 31 Autumn,1997 p.561-7
Peirce, Bonny Norton, TESOL Quarterly, v.30, Summer 1996, p. 337-40
Price, Stephen, TESOL Quarterly, v.30 Summer 1996, p. 331-7

Barbules, Nicholas C. (1995). "Postmodern Doubt and Philosophy of
Education" Philosophy of Education (University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign; 1996 PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION SOCIETY (He attempts to
elucidate "postmodernism" in a way that would make it appealing to
educators, but also criticizes some who invoke postmodernism

Sullivan, Francis J, "Critical Theory and Systemic
Linguistics: Textualizing the Contact Zone." Journal of Advanced
Composition. v15 n3 p411-34 1995. ABSTRACT: Examines the contradiction
between S. Crowley and L. Faigley, who suggest that postmodernism has
eliminated any role for linguistics in composition studies, and
M. Nystrand, S. Greene, and J. Wiemelt, who maintain that research
inspired by M.A.K. Halliday and M. Bakhtin promises to restore linguistics
to a central place.

Lantolf, James P. "SLA Theory Building: 'Letting All the Flowers
Bloom!'" Language Learning v 46 Dec 1996.p. 713-49. ABSTRACT: The writer
presents a postmodernist critical analysis of the theory building
literature on second language acquisition (SLA). In particular, he
examines the way this theory is represented in the works of Beretta,
Crookes, Eubank, Gregg, Long, and to some extent Schumann. He asserts that
a foundational reason to grant privileged status to the modernist
perspective of SLA theory these scholars advocate does not exist. He
believes that SLA theory presents an unbalanced and uncritical perspective
of itself and of the scientific tradition from which it emanates, and it
precipitously rejects its challengers. The writer believes that all
theories and not just a selected few should be allowed to develop. A
review by Kevin Gregg will appear in Second Language Research v.16,no. 4
(Sept? 2000)

Jay Lemke is some kind of postmodernist who draws on Halliday. You can
find out about him at the following

D. Graddol (1993) 'Three Models of Language Description' (in Graddol &
Boyd-Barrett, "Media Texts") and D. Graddol, J. Cheshire & J. Sawnn,
"Describing Language". Bob Borsley has written a review entitled 'A
Postmodern Critique of Linguistics'. Borsley also has a review of Gunther
Kress' 1993 book, which is in the postmodernist intellectual style, if not
explicitly postmodernist.

Another British linguist who talks (in pretty vague) terms about modernity
and post-modernity is Ben Rampton. 

Alan Davies (1999), An Introduction to Applied Linguistics: From Practice
to Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. It's an odd book in some
ways, but it contains some quite useful discussion of postmodernist ideas
in applied linguistics in its final chapter (chapter 7).


S.A. TYLER (1987) The Unspeakable: Discourse, Dialogue, and Rhetoric in
the Postmodern World. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin
Press. This book is not only about writing - it does deal with the science
of linguistics. If anything, it might prove useful in providing further
works of reference.

Jacqueline Henkel's book, The Language of Criticism, mentions several
uses, abuses, and misunderstandings of linguistic theory by literary

Drake, James. 'The Naming Disease: How Jakobson's essay on aphasia
initiated postmodernist deceits.' Commentary, _Times Literary Supplement_
Sept. 4, 1998, 14-15.

Ranjana Khanna from Department of English, University of Washington. The
paper was 1999 "The Experience of Evidence: Language, the Law and the
Mockery of Justice"


Derrida took Gelb's term "grammatology" (with acknowledgment) and used it
for something entirely else; and Roy Harris (e.g. in Times Higher
Education Supplement 14 April 2000 p. 31) castigates those of us who
continue to study writing systems (building on Gelb's pioneering) for not
doing Derrida-style whatever-it-is. (In his own book *Signs of Writing*,
Harris declines to provide a definition of writing, though he constantly
claims that this or that definition excludes this or that phenomenon that
he wishes to include.) I believe W. C. Watt makes the same charge about
"grammatology" in his "review" of *The World's Writing Systems* in
Semiotica 122 (1998): 99-138.


Chomsky apparently regards Randy Harris's book THE LINGUISTICS WARS as
"postmodernist writing that ... has something to say about the field of
linguistics"--something wrong, of course. In a couple of places, most
recently and fully in Barsky's hagiography, he says that Harris's position
is "Foucauldian", a swear word.

Juan Uriagareka's book RHYME AND REASON (and other MP theorists who adopt
his sort of rhetoric) are involved in the same kind of misapplication of
terms and concepts from the physical sciences to linguistics that goes on
in postmodernism.

There's also a little bit of metaphorically employed historiolinguistics
in the essay "Mystery Theatre in Chichen Itza" by Quetzil Castaneda, The first paragraph of the essay
pronounces, "Origins cannot be narrated in their plenitude, only their
traces are measured in fragments careening in multiple intersections,"
(using a mere couple of cites about Mayan myths and language as

It is an interesting question you raise! Let us assume that you refer to
postmodernism in terms of Radical Constructivism (RC) [surely only one of
the facets of the postmodern paradigm]. There has been a workshop on
Constructivism and Linguistics in Salzburg in December 1998, see which still
works. Browsing through the abstracts given on the home page you will
probably find some references that might be of interest for you.

Last year, Lance Eccles (Department of Asian Languages, Macquarie
University, NSW 2109, Australia) quoted Anthea Gupta's view of
language: "Just to say that we need to remember that languages are
constructs. There are no languages."
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