LINGUIST List 3.499

Mon 15 Jun 1992

Disc: Linguistics in trouble?

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  1. "Ellen F. Prince", Re: grammar and what we do
  2. John S. Coleman, 3.490 Linguistics in trouble?
  3. Joe Stemberger, Re: 3.475 Why is linguistics in trouble?

Message 1: Re: grammar and what we do

Date: Mon, 15 Jun 92 10:51:26 -0Re: grammar and what we do
From: "Ellen F. Prince" <>
Subject: Re: grammar and what we do

i'm writing this in response to the issue of calling what we do 'grammar' and
also to andy rogers' depressing assessment of how the public views or should
view our expertise.

a number of years ago, i was called for jury duty. during the jury selection,
the judge, having seen the form i'd filled out, asked me what i, as a professor
of linguistics, do. rather than go into a story about studying the inferences
that marked syntactic forms trigger in various discourse contexts, above and
beyond their truth-conditional meanings, i simply said, 'uh, grammar.' i was
put on a jury. after the 3-week trial (for breach of promise, between two large
companies), the lawyer for the defense called me to get my opinion, as i was
the only juror who'd stayed awake in the courtroom. i gave him my thoughts,
mostly about all the misleading implicatures that the plaintiff's lawyer had
generated and that weren't corrected. he seemed very impressed and then, all of
a sudden, blurted out, 'is THIS what you meant by 'grammar'???' i said yes. he
laughed hysterically and assured me that i would not have been put on a jury if
anyone had realized that that's what i meant. he said 'we thought you
conjugated verbs or something.'

so, i don't think 'grammar' is a great p.r. name for our field, but i also
don't think the picture is so bleak. by the way, at penn at least, the
term 'linguistics' is not at all despised, quite the contrary, and i don't
think the situation here is unique.

by the way, since then, i've been called for jury duty about 5 times and,
when asked, *do* tell them what i do. and the only time i was put on a jury
was the one time i wasn't asked what i did. since i stopped believing in
the jury system during that first trial, this is just fine with me and i'm
happy to have learned how to get out of it so easily.
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Message 2: 3.490 Linguistics in trouble?

Date: Mon, 15 Jun 92 11:30:23 ED3.490 Linguistics in trouble?
From: John S. Coleman <>
Subject: 3.490 Linguistics in trouble?

Larry G. Hutchinson writes:

> There have been advances in natural language understa-
> standing systems, machine translation, speech recognition and production
> by machine, etc., but it is not obvious that linguists can claim much credit
> for any of this.

One of the principal differences between more sophisticated and technologically
superior text-to-speech systems, and less sophisticated 20-digitized-words
chips is the incorporation of purely linguistic knowledge, such as morphological
and syntactic analysis, and use of pronouncing dictionaries (the result of
phonological analysis). Likewise, machine translation has only recently become
feasible partly as a result of computationally tractable theories of grammar,
such as LFG, GPSG and others. I think linguists can claim their share of the
credit for their input to such fruits of multi-disciplinary research.

--- John Coleman
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Message 3: Re: 3.475 Why is linguistics in trouble?

Date: Mon, 15 Jun 92 11:49 CDT
From: Joe Stemberger <>
Subject: Re: 3.475 Why is linguistics in trouble?

A lot of people have been asking why Linguistics Departments seem to be
targets for closure when money gets tight at a university.

Several people have suggested that it might be because people in general
don't understand what we do. I think that that's part of it. Here at
Minnesota, we have tried for years to educate our deans as to what we do,
but we never succeeded. They never did understand why we have a lot of
interactions with people in departments like Psychology, Child Development,
and Communication Disorders, but relatively few interactions with people in
English, Spanish, German, etc. --- and that lack of understanding clearly
contributed to their closing us down. (But no amount of explanation or
trying seemed to get through to them. Last June, they were caught
completely by surprise to find that we consider ourselves to be more of a
social science than a humanity.)

But I'd like to suggest that there is a second problem: lots of people in
other fields DO know what we linguists do. Most psychologists feel
basically that they can ignore developments in linguistic theory without
any danger of problems arising. In 1987, I went to a morphology conference
which had about 10 linguists and 10 psychologists; at one point, they were
at each other's throats, and questions that amounted to "why should I pay
any attention to what you're doing" were common, on both sides. Several
years ago, in the "Topic ... Comment" column in NLLT, Ray Jackendoff asked
why people in other fields say such bad things about us and feel they can
ignore us. Two years ago, there was an exchange between Stephen Anderson
and George Miller in LANGUAGE, partially addressing this issue as well.

My impression is that a lot of people in psychology and related disciplines
took a close look at Linguistics about 20 years ago. They were not
impressed. Our methodology was one problem. But it was also a problem that
the answers that linguistic theory gave for English seemed to be crazy.
Articles on English syntax used grammaticality judgements that people
outside the field found mysterious. The SPE analysis of English phonology
looked pretty crazy. They didn't feel that they could believe the results.
Those people in other fields have not come back for a second look, and more
recent generations in those fields have been taught that it's not worth it,
or have had similar experiences themselves. Further, we badmouth other
disciplines a lot too; I can't count the number of times that I've heard
linguists say that the theories that psychologists come up with are totally
uninteresting. That doesn't help get them to listen to us.

We have a SERIOUS problem with getting people in related fields to accept
and like what we do, and to feel that it's important for their own work.
I have come to believe that this is part of the problem for why linguistics
can become a financial target. We get less support from other related
disciplines than we should, because they do not feel that our work is

Some people feel that the attitudes of people in related disciplines is
THEIR problem, and we should ignore it. But when the wolves attacked my
department, we got only mild help from related disciplines; there
were particular people they felt that they needed to have around, but they
did not feel that they could make a case that the field of linguistics as
a whole was all that necessary.

We have fences to mend and bridges to build. And if we don't do anything
about it, we'll continue to be a target.

---joe stemberger
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