LINGUIST List 3.500

Tue 16 Jun 1992

Disc: What has linguistics achieved?

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  1. "R.Hudson", What we've achieved
  2. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 3.495 Linguistics in trouble?

Message 1: What we've achieved

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 08:41:38 +0What we've achieved
From: "R.Hudson" <>
Subject: What we've achieved

Some of you feel linguistics hasn't achieved anything, so here's my list
of things that have changed for the better in the last two decades (since
the time when people are saying that other disciplines got interested in
us, before losing interest again):

1. Phenomena: we now have a vast range of phenomena we all know about, but
which were unknown or completely uncharted territory 20 years ago: e.g. in
syntax:- raising, extraction, islands, gapping, unaccusativity, clitics,
heads, depictives. I acknowledge that most of these phenomena were first
explored by Chomskyan linguists, though a few came from e.g. RG.

2. Facts: we know vastly more about languages of the world, thanks to the
activities of the typologists.

3. Context: we now have sociolinguistics (which hardly existed 20 years ago)
and pragmatics (ditto), and we can talk seriously about the ways in which
language structure interacts with context. It may be that in this respect
linguistics has only achieved the same as the person-in-the-street with their
common sense, who knew about the effects of context all along; but I think
we understand it all a bit more deeply than the person-in-the-street, and
certainly a lot more than the-linguist-of-the-60s did.

4. Scholarly consolidation: we've reached the point where it makes sense
to try and tie all the threads together, because the subject has grown to
the extent that no linguist can cope with the whole of it (whereas in the
60s it was still just about possible to teach across the whole range). Hence
the various scholarly compilations of the last few years - Newmeyer's
Cambridge Survey, Shopen's Typology trilogy, and Bright's International
Encyclopedia (which I think is a terrific work that should make us all feel
proud to be linguists).

5. Popularisation: Unlike the 60s we now have a wide range of books that are
both scholarly and accessible, which we can recommend to novices. The two names
that spring to mind first in UK are David Crystal (especially his splendid
Encyclopedia) and Jean Aitchison. We're all very much in the debt of these
people, but of course they couldn't have produced such good books unless
linguists had first produced the discoveries (I think that's the right word
to use) which they report.

6. Schools: here I'm only talking about UK, but there are enormous changes
here, largely due (ultimately) to linguistics, though the word `linguistics'
is unwelcome (it frightens school teachers). Under the new National
Curriculum every UK child will have to learn something about language (e.g.
about grammatical differences between standard and non-standard English),
which I think is largely the outgrowth of the grass-roots `language awareness'
movement among teachers, which in turn rests on various bits of linguistics.
And we now have an Advanced-level exam (i.e. for 18-year olds, taken after
two years study) in English Language which has proved extremely popular among
both teachers and pupils - to the extent that in some areas it seems set to
replace the traditional A-level English Literature! It contains a lot of
linguistics (though in a form which most academic linguists would find very
unfamiliar), and the satisfied customers are now turning up in quite large
numbers in university linguistics departments.

Putting it negatively, if you think we're a shambles now, we you should have
seen us in the 60s! That's progress. A thought to put it all in perspective:
if living beings are the most complex physical structures in the universe,
as (real) scientists tell us, and language is the most complex mental structure
of which we humans are capable, is it possible that language is the most
complex structure in the universe? If so, we could perhaps feel less badly
about not having wrapped it up in the first 30 years of serious theoretical

Dick Hudson
Dept of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
(071) 387 7050 ext 3152
home: (081) 340 1253
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Message 2: Re: 3.495 Linguistics in trouble?

Date: Mon, 15 Jun 92 20:17 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.495 Linguistics in trouble?

How sad I was to read Andy Roger's note. Is this what you learned at
UCLA, Andy? But the view that linguistics does not produce anything
but more linguists is (a) wrong (b) reflective of the general
pragmatic (and I must add, philistine) views so prevalent in the U.S.

As to our production or contribution -- as I said in an earlier note,
we contribute in a major way to speech synthesis, speech recognition
(or the attempt at such), natural language processing, AI, neuro
psychology, philosophy, aphasiology, neurology, speech
pathology, second language acquisition, developmental psychology,
cognitive psychology, sociology, language planning, study of
humor and on and on. As a linguistic consultant in two major neurology
departments in two major medical schools I know that some people think we
have something to contribute, both to the theoretical understanding of the
brain/mind/languagecognition interface, and the clinical diagnosis and
treatment of language disorders.

2) But suppose none of the above were so. What do literary critics
produce? What do art historians produce? What do dance theorists or
philosophers or comparative lit people or ???? Only an enhancement
of life, a raising of questions which are of interest in themselves
even if the answers are very very difficult, an understanding when we
are fortunate enough to come up with some plausible ideas of questionshe
that have been asked about the human animal since time began.

Sorry this went on so long. I had pledged to myself never to be so
wordy on LINGUIST. But obviously I have felt my life and love attacked
and had to respond from the depths. Vicki Fromkin
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