LINGUIST List 3.230

Sat 07 Mar 1992

Disc: Linguistics in the Popular Press

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  1. Geoffrey Russom, Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press
  2. "Michael Kac", Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press

Message 1: Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press

Date: Thu, 05 Mar 92 13:00:36 ESRe: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press
From: Geoffrey Russom <EL403015brownvm.brown.edu>
Subject: Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press

Check out the profile in the February SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. A certain
physicist who knows a lot about linguistics (his opinion)
regards the more ambitious reconstructive attempts of our day as
kinderleicht and reprehends those who will not seem wise by
swift agreement. This may interest the person who wondered where
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN was getting advice about our field.

 -- Rick
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Message 2: Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press

Date: Thu, 5 Mar 92 18:45:43 -06Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press
From: "Michael Kac" <kaccs.umn.edu>
Subject: Re: 3.211 Linguistics in the Popular Press

Jo Rubba's recent posting is one of several that raises the question of
how to make linguistics more intelligible to the layperson. I will express
some skepticism that this can be done in more than a superficial way, with
the addendum that I think this is true of most scientific disciplines. A
comparison is drawn in the posting between communicating with journalists
and teaching introductory courses in linguistics, but I think there's a
major difference. A course lasts ten to fifteen weeks, calls on the student
to do problems and exercises to assist in developing mastery of the basic
ideas of the subject, and permits (ideally, anyway) the opportunity to
spend time mulling things over. A journalist assigned on a one-shot basis
to cover some story which may have been deemed newsworthy for any of
a number of reasons, including an editor's not understanding what the
story is really about, is not in the same position as a student in a
beginning linguistics course.

But we're not alone in this -- ask any mathematician! (I once read an
article in the New York Times education section on the rising importance
of what the author consistently referred to as 'discreet mathematics',
causing me to imagine a lecture hall filled with people speaking in
whispers.) Some fields admittedly fare better than ours, perhaps be-
cause the general public at least understands (or thinks it understands)
the problems to which the field is addressed. Molecular biology is con-
cerned with the mechanisms of heredity, for example, something any edu-
cated person both knows and cares about (though for anyone but a mole-
cular biologist to understand in any detail how it is that, say, the
structure of the DNA molecule ties into this mechanism is difficult at
best).

There is one journalist who does know a lot about linguistics. His name
is Jim Quinn and he contributes from time to time to The Nation on ques-
tions pertaining to langauge. He is also the author of a highly recom-
mended book called *American Tongue and Cheek* in which he nails William
Safire, Edwin Newman and John Simon to the wall. In one of his Nation col-
umns (from some years ago) he referred to linguistics as 'the secret sci-
ence', commenting that while every educated person has at least a sort
of an idea of what a quark is, almost nobody knows what a phoneme or a
morpheme is. Well he does, God bless him.

Michael Kac
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