LINGUIST List 3.506

Thu 18 Jun 1992

Disc: Linguistics in trouble?

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. "Michael Kac", Re: 3.488 Queries: Research, Discourse, Linguistics, Syllables
  2. "Michael Kac", Re: 3.491 Linguistics in trouble?
  3. Mark Seidenberg, "All the news that's fit to print"
  4. "Sharon L. Shelly", Re: 3.505 What has linguistics achieved?
  5. benji wald, Re: 3.491 Linguistics in trouble?
  6. , What has linguistics achieved?

Message 1: Re: 3.488 Queries: Research, Discourse, Linguistics, Syllables

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 15:15:31 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Re: 3.488 Queries: Research, Discourse, Linguistics, Syllables

Re Alexis Manaster-Ramer's query regarding the use of terms like 'linguistics'
and 'sprachwixs~?~?ssenschaft' vs. 'grammar'. I have it in my head from some-
where that the term 'la linguistique' was coined by Baudoin de Courtenay, but
I couldn't swear to it. I think that on today's understanding of the term
'linguistics' grammar is only a part opf the field, so the two terms wouldn'
t be interchangeable.

For what it's wo4rth, I suspect that a more realistic (and perhaps even more
likely) scenario for keeping linguistics alive is a move in the direction of
the existing structure at Cornell. For iobne ~?~?~?~?~?~? one thing I think
that financial pressures are going to force colleges and universities that
deal with modern languages via separate departments to make mergers; since
language teaching appears to be increasingly under the supervision of
linguists in language departments, that would create a casdfre~?~?~?~?~?dre
of linguists; and if there is a separate linguistics department,. the chances
are that it will be under pressure to become a paret ~?~?~?t of the new unit.
There are some disadvantages to this kind of arrrrangement, but one clear
advantage: it is much harder to attack large departments with big service

Michael Kac
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Message 2: Re: 3.491 Linguistics in trouble?

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 15:38:07 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Re: 3.491 Linguistics in trouble?

Karen K<ay comments on the 'mystic power' associated with math and
suggests that this is the reason it's respected by administrators.
That may be partly right, but I think that there's something more funda-
mental involved, to wit: college level mathematics is essential to the
training of people in the physical sciences (also, increasingly in the
biological sciences) and in engineering. Math departments are bursting at
the seams with students taking service courses. There are ve5ry few fields
-- if any -- in which it is univ ersally assumed that knowledge of linguistics
is essential. Please note my use of the term *universally*: there are manmy
places, for example, where TESL programs require at least some linguistics,
but it isn't true of all. Therein, I think, lies the difference between
math and linguistics departments.

But that difference may mask a deeper similarity. I'm told by friends in
the School of Mathematics at Minneesota that the former Dean of the Institute
of Tecyuhnology (which is where the School is located) was extremely hostile
jto pure mathematicsx~? and felt that its focus should be in more applied
areas. (Sound fam,iliar?) Although he is no longer Dean of IT, he is still
in a position to wield a lot of power, having since become the Provost. jIf
this is anything other than a purely local phenomenon then I could see sub-
fields of mathematics potentially facing some of the apparent problems
facing linguistics even though whole departments would not be affected.

Comparative data from elsewhere b~?would be received with great interest.

Michael Kac
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Message 3: "All the news that's fit to print"

Date: Tue, 16 Jun 92 16:07:50 PDT
From: Mark Seidenberg <>
Subject: "All the news that's fit to print"

I see that the lack of coverage of linguistics in the mass media (specifically
the New York Times) is again being bemoaned on the list, and offered
as further evidence for the lack of interest in and respect for linguistics
outside the field. (I am referring here to Peter Salus' recent posting.)
I passed on all the earlier discussion about coverage of linguistics in
the media, but since the issue keeps getting raised I thought I would

The first point is that I challenge the claim that linguistics is
under-covered in the mass media. As it happens, there is quite a lot of
coverage and its scope and frequency seem to me entirely appropriate
given the size of the field, the way in which the field progresses, and
the nature of the mass media (in America, at least). Wasn't it the NY
Times that had a linguistics story on the front page just a few months ago
(Laura Petitto's work about sign language babbling in deaf children)? Other
articles from the Times over the past couple of years that come to mind include
ones on the animal language debate, creoloes, the protolanguage debate,
speech perception, etc.

It seems to me that the relevant generalization is about the shallow way the
mass media cover science, not about linguistics. Linguistics doesn't fare
any worse than other fields--including psychology, to take one with which
I am familiar. What is all the complaining about?

Second, why should anyone care? The mass media treat science like other
news: stories are pegged to events--breakthroughs and discoveries. Of course,
very little science is actually like this, as we all know: the incremental pace
of science, and the fact that it often isn't immediately obvious exactly
how important a given bit of research is make science singularly inappropriate
for this kind of "breaking news (film at 11) mentality.

What happens as a consequence is either (a) research in a field
such as linguistics is ignored because it doesn't fit this mentality,
or (b) it gets misrepresented AS IF it were a breakthrough that came out of
nowhere. Thus, we are said to suddenly discover whether animals can (or
cannot) talk, whether deaf babies do (or do not) babble, whether language
is (or is not) innate.

There's plenty of coverage of linguistic issues in the mass media: it just
happens to be shallow, sensationalized, inaccurate, insensitive to how the
work is actually done and where it fits in, and ultimately trite. (Seen
in this light, the recent articles in the New Yorker weren't even the
worst of the bunch.) Like a lot of things in our mass media, unfortunately.
It seems rather egocentric to me to assume that linguistics is somehow being
singled out for this kind of treatment.

You know, their coverage of politics isn't too good, either.

I'm not exactly clear why there is so much soul-searching about the value
of linguistics on the list these days. The progress in the field seems
obvious enough to me (try asking a physicist what language is, how it is
acquired, or how it is used). 	In any case, I certainly don't think there
is any reason to take coverage in the newspapers--or lack thereof--as
a serious indication of the state of the field.

Mark Seidenberg

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Message 4: Re: 3.505 What has linguistics achieved?

Date: Wed, 17 Jun 92 09:44:04 EST
From: "Sharon L. Shelly" <>
Subject: Re: 3.505 What has linguistics achieved?

On the closing of linguistics departments, Peter Salus writes:

"I don't feel that linguistics qua discipline is being threatened;
I think the academic bureaucratic structure -- departmentalization
-- is."

He may well be right that linguistics has not (yet, at least)
succeeded in making the case for its own separate department.
And maybe, in an ideal world, most of us could carry out our
work within other departments (foreign languages, psychology, etc.).
Unfortunately, in the real world of the American academy these days,
lack of department status means a total lack of consideration,
power, influence, or self-determination. Money is tight, faculty
positions are frozen, and tenured people in various departments
fight jealously over every scrap. When linguistics is spread
out in an interdepartmental format, it is frequently treated as
an unwelcome stepchild in each of those departments.

In other words, I'm afraid that when linguistics departments are
threatened, there IS a potential threat to the discipline itself.
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Message 5: Re: 3.491 Linguistics in trouble?

Date: Thu, 18 Jun 92 18:56 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.491 Linguistics in trouble?

I think the prestige of "Math" has to do with its association with
engineering and technological accomplishment. In view of that, I think
that computerisation and the like could probably be used as an argument
to impress the same people. The argument would be something like linguistics
is necessary in order to develop techniques for efficient information
processing and so on. Insights into these techniques come from all
languages, not just one -- it may turn out (examples?) that a language
other than English can solve an information processing problem in
English since different languages have different efficiencies in
different areas of language, one of which may be easier for computerised
processing than another. [Here I have in mind how our ideas of a satisfactory
grammatical description of language in general may change when we encounter
another type of language, cf. OS vs SO]
 Exploring these problems of languages is a full
time undertaking. It requires a training and expertise apart from the uses
to which such knowledge can be put by engineers and such technologists.
>From experience I know that some of what I'm suggesting here is true.
Developers of speech recognition recognised that dialects have an effect
on machine recognition. It is not possible for their engineers to
learn all about dialect problems on their own and also all about
developing efficient programs, it takes cooperation of different
people with different expertises. ... The rest I suspect is also true.
In any case, I'm giving the direction of argument, not the polished product.
I'm not suggesting lying or misleading in order to impress the
"appropriate" people about how (potentially) important linguistics
may be/is, but to establish points of contacts with what they think
is important. Myself, I'd rather argue and deal with the social aspects
of language and our role in exposing myths about language and its
users. However, as noticed by the discussants, this is not where
the best points are made. The responses are "let 'em learn English!"
"let 'em learn it RIGHT!" "Oh are you one of those linguists who
is responsible for the decline in our standards of education by
telling teachers to let students talk/write ungrammatical [sic]"
No, I think the convincer nowadays (and usually in our society)
establishes a relationship with technological advance, and lets all
other concerns ride on its coattails -- at least until the next major
destructive social uprising captures some prolonged attention.
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Message 6: What has linguistics achieved?

Date: Thu, 18 Jun 92 09:52:15 EDT
From: <>
Subject: What has linguistics achieved?

Much against my better judgment, I'm going to jump into
Larry G. Hutchinson writes:

>None of this is to say that there hasn't been actual
progress in linguistics.
>The easiest cases to support involve...
>more data of the old type (simplistically, more
>languages), or.... "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.

The more languages you know, the less you know. How many
"universals of word order" have fallen over the last twenty
years because somebody analyzed the previously unstudied
language X? The same thing goes for many of the
discoveries about properties of clitics, COMP-trace
phenomena, etc. We're long on facts, but short on
explanations. It reminds me of Thomas Edison's comment
when, after something like 1000 attempts to build a
practical storage battery, someone asked him if he was
discouraged at the lack of results. His reply: "What lack
of results? I know 1000 things that don't work!"

Unfortunately, the man on the street probably doesn't
understand that kind of results as progress. (I don't know
what our colleagues in other academic disciplines think
about it.)

Mike Maxwell Phone: (704) 843-6369
Box 248
Waxhaw, NC 28173
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