LINGUIST List 5.15

Mon 03 Jan 1994

Disc: The nature of linguistics

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  1. Paul T Kershaw, Linguistics
  2. Paul Black, RE- The Nature of Linguisti

Message 1: Linguistics

Date: Sat, 1 Jan 1994 15:28:45 -Linguistics
From: Paul T Kershaw <>
Subject: Linguistics

Andy Rogers has suggested (with tongue slightly in cheek) that linguistics is a
religion. I would go one step further and suggest that, on one level, ALL
sciences (and fields of study) are religions from the standpoint that there are
basic tenets which one is expected to believe (with more or less challenge,
depending on the field). In modern linguistics, some such tenets might be, All
languages are equally complex, Speech is necessarily the primary mode of
language, etc. Linguistics is hardly the most religious: physics (but don't
tell the physicists) is much more so, so that one of its central goals is to
find (if possible) the nature of the Universal Force. The physics explanation
of the creation of the universe (and all good religions simply MUST have a good
explanation about this -- linguistics is notoriously agnostic about the origin
of language) runs roughly: In the beginning, there was neither time nor space,
and there was the one true Universal Force. In a single moment, in subseconds
of time, this Universal Force did create all other forces, first time, then
space, then gravity, and so on. Since then, all things have been ruled by
these forces, spawned by the Universal Force.
If that doesn't sound like a religion (faith, at least -- take out the
"blind"), I don't know what does.
(There are certainly those who would disagree with the comments above -- I'm
going against the advice of my society by talking about religion in public.
Please don't take these comments personally or hostilely.)
-- Paul Kershaw, Michigan State University,
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Message 2: RE- The Nature of Linguisti

Date: Mon, Jan 3, 1994 7:08:56 PRE- The Nature of Linguisti
From: Paul Black <>
Subject: RE- The Nature of Linguisti

 RE: The Nature of Linguistics
I *almost* agree with Andy Rogers where he said (,
Thu, 30 Dec 93 14:27:29 EST):

> With tongue only slightly in cheek, I'd like to suggest that contemporary
> linguistics is better understood not as it relates to either psychology *or*
> to physics (or some other paradigm science), but as a religion, complete with
> priesthood, holy texts, holy wars, and, most of all, blind faith.
> [etc.]

What some approaches to linguistics have in common with some religions (and
some businesses) is evangelicism - they are out to sell their positions as
representing the ONLY worthwhile approach to language, so that they can corner
the supply of jobs and grants. I recall George Lakoff saying as much about
Chomsky in a talk at Indiana 'way back in the mid 1960's, after Chomsky's move
to provide a historical tradition to his approach by relating it to Descartes.
Chomsky, of course, has done very well to make much of the world believe
that nothing worthwhile happens in linguistics outside of (now) G&B. In
Australia it's the systemic linguists that have similarly been expanding
their hegemony over the field of language in education.

I myself think both approaches - and others - have a great deal to offer, but
obviously I reject their claims to exclusiveness. But then, maybe I'm only
repeating sentiments expressed in the discussion of G&B of last year...

Paul Black <> Northern Territory University <> Darwin, Australia
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