LINGUIST List 5.31

Fri 07 Jan 1994

Disc: The Nature Of Linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Joseph P Stemberger-1, Linguistics as religion

Message 1: Linguistics as religion

Date: Wed, 5 Jan 1994 09:48:29 -Linguistics as religion
From: Joseph P Stemberger-1 <>
Subject: Linguistics as religion

There's been some discussion recently about whether linguistics might be
more like a religion than the standard notion of "science". A few years
ago, there was a book of essays, I think it was by Neil Smith, that
included a chapter called "Why Linguistics is not a Religion". The upshot,
as I recall, was that religions tend to be rather hide-bound and slow to
change. For example, if your religion holds that the sun revolves around
the earth, and you get some empirical evidence that suggests otherwise,
you either wait and have the stuff published after your death or else
publish and take the (severe) consequences; like Galileo & Copernicus.
Linguistics, however, delights in change. People love to find phenomena
that current theory can't handle, and to then propose changes. In fact,
papers that don't propose changes are harder to publish in the main
journals. So, Linguistics doesn't seem to be like a religion. That's what
Smith said, as I recall.

I'd say that that characterization of religion isn't quite true, though.
There are sometimes periods of rapid change in religious tenets, with new
"heresies" cropping up and splinter groups going off all the time.
Christianity in it's first 300 years was like that, as was Protestantism
in the first century or two after Luther. A person might radically alter
his\her religious beliefs many times over his\her lifetime.

I think that Linguistics comes across as a religion in a time of rapid
flux. Many people are insufferable about the tenets at any given time, but
change them frequently, at which time they become insufferable about a
different set of tenets (sometimes the opposite of what they believed

Too often in the history of linguistics, new ideas have been viciously
attacked, only to ultimately win out. Witness the controversies over rule
ordering and abstractness in the 1970's. The general perception is that
the winners were the people who liked complex rule ordering and highly
abstract underlying forms. And in 1980, they WERE the winners. But in the
intervening years, theory has gradually dropped rule ordering until little
is left, and UR's are getting more and more concrete. The losers in the
1970's were the ultimate winners, because their ideas and arguments were
good. And the only explanation for the ferocity of the wars at the time is
an almost religious fervor.

It would be nice if we could get past that.

In some disciplines, they aspire to a great skepticism. The assumption is
that everything that we think is true is really wrong. That attitude would
make debates a bit less ferocious. If you expect to be wrong all the time,
you shouldn't mind people saying that you're wrong.

 ---joe stemberger
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue