LINGUIST List 4.836

Thu 14 Oct 1993

Disc: Science

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 4.824 Linguistic History, Science
  2. Douglas Purl, Re: 4.824 Linguistic Science
  3. , what kind of science?

Message 1: Re: 4.824 Linguistic History, Science

Date: Tue, 12 Oct 93 17:17 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 4.824 Linguistic History, Science

Those interested in the question of linguistics as a science may wish to
look at "The Behavioral and Social Sciences" the report of the Committee on
Basic Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences of the National Research
Council of the National Academy of Sciences. 1988. National Academy Press
Washington, D.C.

This is a report on scientific frontiers in the behavioral and social
sciences, including linguistics as well as psychology, anthropology,
sociology, geography, political science, economics. Interesting that the
National Academy has no problem with including linguistics as a science
nor does the AAAS.

It is an interesting report (I admit bias since I was one of the
committee members who worked on it for two years). Part I on
Behavior, Mind, and Brain, includes a chapter on Language and linguistic
concepts and research issues runs through the volume.

Vicki Fromkin
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Message 2: Re: 4.824 Linguistic Science

Date: Wed, 13 Oct 1993 03:51:32 Re: 4.824 Linguistic Science
From: Douglas Purl <>
Subject: Re: 4.824 Linguistic Science

Since the altercation between Professors Swann and Schaufele is heating to
a stage sufficient to attract onlookers, it seems a shame to throw the
proverbial bucket of cold water on the fray. Let me add a thimble of

Of course there are applied science and theoretical science. Is there a
septum between the two? If not, then we must seek elsewhere for the
elusive distinction between science and--shall we say--knowledge. Does
the difference lie in the nature of the matter, in the uses to which it is
put, in the manner in which it is acquired, in the abstractions ordering
it, in the principles by which these abstractions are arranged and tested,
or in some combination of these (or even of other characteristics as

When is an auto mechanic--who has knowledge aplenty--a mechanic and when a
scientist? When, say, is an automotive engineer a scientist? When is a
linguist a practitioner of knowledge and when a scientist? When does a
profession attain to the realms of science? Or are these ignes fatui of a
meaningful discussion of the "science" of linguistics?

One feels a bit like Monty Python with the killer rabbit. I warned you.

Douglas Purl
University of Montana
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Message 3: what kind of science?

Date: Thu, 14 Oct 1993 22:15:30 what kind of science?
From: <>
Subject: what kind of science?

I completely agree with Steven Schaufele that linguistics should
be considered a science -- but what follows from this? To a large
extent, it may boil down to a question of prestige. The word
"scientist" sounds much more prestigious than "scholar", so it would
be good for us in that respect if we could convince the world around
us that we are scientists (though it would be of little help in many
non-English-speaking parts of the world, where the scientist/scholar
distinction is not made, e.g. Russian uchenyj, German Wissenschaftler).
 A much more interesting question, it seems to me, is what kind of
science linguistics is. Is it more like biology, for instance, or more
like physics? If it is like physics, then we should look for mathematical
models (perhaps involving fairly simple mathematics), and it is quite
pointless to ask "Why is language the way it is?" (just like it is pointless
to ask "Why are the laws of nature the way they are?")
 On the other hand, if linguistics is like biology, then we should
study language in connection with its environment and look at the linguistic
strategies by which the organism attempts to cope with the imperatives of
survival. Perhaps we wouldn t expect to be able to come up with simple
mathematical models, and central questions would be, "Why are linguistic
structures the way they are? What is their adaptive value? What is the
relative strength of conflicting environmental pressures?"
 Clearly, physics and biology are not mutually exclusive alternatives as
analogies for linguistics: different aspects of linguistics may well require
different approaches, and perhaps yet other sciences also present useful
 For instance, a persuasive argument has recently been made by
Rudi Keller that language change can only be understood by invoking the
concept of an "invisible hand process", originally developed in
economics (in his 1990 book "Sprachwandel: von der unsichtbaren Hand in
der Sprache." Tuebingen: Francke). And in the 19th century, linguists
derived a lot of inspiration from geology (see Bernd Naumann et al. (eds.)
1992. "Language and earth." Amsterdam: Benjamins).

Martin Haspelmath, Free University of Berlin
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