LINGUIST List 3.505

Tue 16 Jun 1992

Disc: What has linguistics achieved?

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  1. Peter Salus, Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?
  2. "Larry G. Hutchinson", Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?
  3. John S. Coleman, 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?
  4. "Ellen F. Prince", Re: 3.501 Linguistics in trouble?

Message 1: Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 11:10:09 EDRe: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?
From: Peter Salus <>
Subject: Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?

Vicki, I happen to mourn the parlous state of linguistics departments,
as reflected in the Minnesota, Yale and SOAS administrative disasters.
However, I think it is important for us -- the linguists -- to realize
that while discussions of crustal phenomena, the rainforest, and even
the cosmology find their way into the NY Times, linguistics does not
-- or at least very rarely. Having been a dean, I know how hard it is
to keep track of *all* the various disciplines within a college or

The problem with the contribution of linguistics to all the areas
you enumerate is that it does not require a *Department* of Linguistics
-- Minnesota, as I understand it, will disperse its linguists among
various departments; Yale and Purdue, e.g., have interdepartmental
programs. I would rephrase the query to read Linguistics Departments
in trouble? Secondly, note that there are very few Departments of
Comparative Literature, comparatists find their homes in language
and literature departments. I know of no department of dance
theory. Most places join Art History and Studio at the hip (even
though the parts are frequently at odds with one another).

Most of us who are over 45-50, I would venture, started out in
departments that were not Linguistics: English, German(ic Languages),
Romance, Classics, Asian, Mathematics, Philosophy, etc. I have
taught within schools of education and medicine and do not feel
that I was demeaned by it.

I don't feel that linguistics qua discipline is being threatened;
I think the academic bureaucratic structure -- departmentalization --
is. Remember Pope: "What thin partitions sense from thought divide."

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Message 2: Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 11:14:24 -0Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?
From: "Larry G. Hutchinson" <>
Subject: Re: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?

The question of what linguistics has achieved was one of the topics in my
just completed course in the philosophy of linguistics. In trying to
separate real from merely apparent achievements, we faced several severe
problems, the two most obvious ones were:

1) factual discoveries vs artifacts of formalisms. Many, many candidates
put forward by students and friends evaporated under analysis - the
thought-to-be discovery turned out to be a discovery about the formalism
of the school of grammar at issue. This issue cuts very deep.

2) inappropriate time-frame. Many candidates put forward as discoveries
were in fact merely re-discoveries. (I had one student contend that it was
post-SPE phonologists who discovered the syllable!) I was reminded of the
time-frame issue by Dick Hudson's recent LINGUIST posting, namely,

"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

We were having a difficult time making a really convincing case that in the
core areas of grammatical theory there has been progress since PANINI.

None of this is to say that there hasn't been actual progress in linguistics.
The easiest cases to support involve new technologies (Panini had neither
computer nor spectrograph), more data of the old type (simplistically, more
languages), or new fields of inquiry. "More" is obviously progress. The
more difficult cases, surprisingly difficult often, involve trying to
demonstrate that we actually understand previously known phenomena BETTER,
which is taken by many to one of the earmarks of scientific progress.
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Message 3: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 10:59:20 ED3.500 What has linguistics achieved?
From: John S. Coleman <>
Subject: 3.500 What has linguistics achieved?

Some Useful Achievements of Linguistics

You could probably split the entries in this list into
subcases, and add your own favourite examples.

1. Descriptions of individual languages: Grammar books,
dictionaries etc. Ever tried to learn a foreign language
(without actually going and just living in a foreign
environment and "absorbing" it) without using such
resources? And who worked out what sort of things you
have to know about in order to know a language? LINGUISTS!

2. Phonemic representations. Without the theory of phonemic
representation, pronouncing dictionaries, speech synthesis
and recognition systems and maybe some other things too would
be pretty difficult. Phonemic representations are, of course,
theoretical constructs, the fruits of linguistic theory in
the 19th and 20th centuries.

3. Generative grammars. Actually, since the Chomsky work was
something of an outgrowth of rewriting systems in mathematics
(Post, Thue etc.) maybe linguists can only take half the credit.
Besides the usual crowing about the importance of generative
grammars in computer science [which makes linguistics respectable?],
I would point to computational biology (genetics, growth of organisms
etc.) which uses generative grammars. Although these are of a somewhat
different sort from the grammars which linguists employ, they rest
in part on theorems of Chomsky (all hail).

4. Loudly challenging prevailing racist views (at various periods)
that "primitive" languages have no grammar, or cannot convey the
same subtleties, complexities or high abstractions as "advanced"
grammars, like English. Recently attempting to do the same for
sign languages, and Eskimo words for snow, etc.

5. Machine translation. People were working on machine translation
for a long time before the efficient computation of syntactic
structure and semantic interpretation became possible, thanks in
large measure to the emergence of suface-based syntactic theories
which incorporated reasonable explicit and full theories of semantic

6. Speech therapy. Although drawing from several disciplines,
phonological theory has been regarded as a beneficial input
by speech therapists.

7. Arguing for the preservation of Endangered Languages ...?
Perhaps we are not doing so well at this the moment, but at
least we are starting to address the issue.

--- John Coleman
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Message 4: Re: 3.501 Linguistics in trouble?

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 10:48:57 -0Re: 3.501 Linguistics in trouble?
From: "Ellen F. Prince" <>
Subject: Re: 3.501 Linguistics in trouble?

a thought on recent attempted/actual closings of linguistics depts:

maybe we're taking this much too 'personally'. maybe the reason is simply
an instantiation of last in, first out. linguistics depts are newer than
most and some are really quite new. hence most university administrators
probably got THEIR degrees in a university that didn't have linguistics.
and, of course, they no doubt think they got a wonderful education. ergo,
they can believe it's possible to have a fine university without linguistics.
ergo, they can shut down their linguistics dept (assuming *something* has
to go) and be left with a fine university. possibly, an additional factor
is the fact that so many linguists have closer ties with other depts than
the average academician, making the shutting down of linguistics, from their
point of view, not only intellectually sound but also feasible (in that the
tenured linguists can be shtupped into other depts).

anecdote: a few years ago, a university (which will remain unnamed) had a
real crummy philosophy dept, with all sorts of problems. at a meeting of
high-level administrators, one of them suggested closing the dept. there
was an immediate horrified outcry: 'how can you have a university without
a philosophy department?!?!' i don't think linguistics can possibly evoke
such a response, at least not now. but, if we just hang in there, time should
change that. at least i hope so.
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