LINGUIST List 5.635

Fri 03 Jun 1994

Disc: Linguistics and popular publications

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  1. Penny Lee, Re: 5.603 The treatment of language in popular publications
  2. , Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications
  3. Dan Maxwell, Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications
  4. , Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications

Message 1: Re: 5.603 The treatment of language in popular publications

Date: Wed, 25 May 1994 19:00:11 Re: 5.603 The treatment of language in popular publications
From: Penny Lee <edplcc.flinders.edu.au>
Subject: Re: 5.603 The treatment of language in popular publications


>My question is this: how can we as linguists act to change the
>situation? Why do publishers of atlases etc. - or the collective
>authorship of these books - seem unaware that there is a discipline
>called linguistics? Is there anything we can do to make them take note?

I think the points raised by M. Sebba are very important ones. I am
constantly amazed at how much awareness there is in the general community
of the work psychologists do compared with that of linguists. The
disciplines evolved at around the same time but psychologists were able to
engage the popular imagination in a way we have rarely been able to do.

Dr P. Lee, School of Education (Soc Sci S), Flinders University, GPO Box
2100, Adelaide SA 5001. Australia.
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Message 2: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications

Date: Sun, 29 May 1994 20:59:16 Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications
From: <00hfstahlkeleo.bsuvc.bsu.edu>
Subject: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications

I can only second Benji Wald's remarks on writing about linguistics
for non-linguistic audiences. Those of us who have worked in English
departments are aware that if we, who usually represent a minority in
the department, don't show our colleagues the respect of trying to
make our discipline understandable to them and also of trying to
understand theirs, we will be the losers. By not establishing a sense
that all of us care deeply about language, even if we don't work on the
same problems, we in the minority camp are likely to be the ones who
suffer: in departmental votes involving in admission of graduate
students, promotion and tenure, curriculum, service courses (often the
bread and butter of a linguistics-in-English department, selection of
outside speakers, and all of the other decisions that effect the daily
lives and careers of academics.

After seeing a linguistics dissertation forced to share the
dissertation-of-the-year honors with a clearly lesser but clearly
more accessible education study, I started paying more attention to my
students' writing, to make sure that they wrote not just for the
linguist but also for an intelligent science or humanities reader.
This is not always easy, and there are concepts that the non-linguist
won't grasp the significance of, but the result has usually been a
better dissertation.

We owe it to our students and colleagues, not to mention the popular
reader, to write for them as well as for us.

Herb Stahlke
Ball State University
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Message 3: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications

Date: 30 May 94 16:25:48 EDT
From: Dan Maxwell <100101.2276CompuServe.COM>
Subject: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications

Benji Wald suggests that many linguists who don't want to "waste their
time" talking to outsiders shouldn't worry about what outsiders think.
I agree with this and want to suggest that teaching introductory courses
to undergraduates is a particular form of talking to outsiders. Some
linguists prefer not to do it. But there also must be many who enjoy this
or at least don't mind it, since they are in departments which barely
have a graduate program.

Dan Maxwell
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Message 4: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications

Date: Mon, 30 May 1994 17:52:03 Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications
From: <CONNOLLYMSUVX1.MEMPHIS.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications


benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU> wrote:
>Subject: Re: 5.603 The treatment of language in popular publications
>
>If you want to solve the misperception/ignorance of linguistics (and language)
> problem write COMPREHENSIBLE popular books. If you only have time for
>"serious" specialised work all you can do is write angry letters, and hope
>that if they are published they will be understood. Personally, I think
>the angry letter strategy is of limited impact. Better to start a linguistic
>fan club for ordinary readers. Who wants to be the Asimov of linguistics?
>Or SJ Gould? I think there is a certain snobbism in linguistics that
>disdains the desire to talk to the public (or is it an insecurity?), so
>that one who writes for a "popular" audience could fear being looked down
>upon and not taken seriously by colleagues. It's more complicated than that,
>but I don't want to go on at length here. I'd like to know
>whether and where this perception comes from, and/or if anyone agrees. My
>feeling is that linguists who don't want to "waste their time" talking to
>outsiders, shouldn't waste their time fretting over what outsiders think.

An awful lot of linguists don't seem to be writing even so that other lin-
guists can understand. Am I the only one who finds early Chomsky difficult
(but worth the effort) and late Chomsky impenetrable? I doubt it.

It was not always so. I always found the Neogrammarians quite intelligible
(though stylistically their German left much to be desired), and Jespersen
and Bloomfield read very well indeed. In fact, Jespersen wasn't even
writing for linguists or linguistics students. And there's Mario Pei...

So what happened? Several things, I think.

 1. Chomsky's theory-based approach demanded theoretical discussion.

 2. Disciples in any field imitate their gurus' style.

 3. Popularizers get reviewed in _Newsweek_ but may not get tenure.
 And if they already have it, their work is scorned (after all,
 Deborah Tannen *did* say some interesting things in that book
 you all hate).

 4. Expository work of any kind is viewed as secondary, which
 translates into "second-rate". This is why most universities
 do not accept textbooks or translations as scholarly activities
 counting toward tenure. Better to be "original", even if
 obscure and wrong.

 5. Chomsky changed the nature of the theoretical linguistic
 enterprise. American structuralists didn't have to simplify
 too much to make phonemic theory fairly accessible. The old
 paper trick to demonstrate the existence but irrelevance of
 English aspiration is easy to see and (literally) visualize.
 Deep structure was never easy to visualize, nor were phrase
 structure rules. As for the current theory, the mind boggles.

Yes, we need a new Jespersen/Pei/Asimov/Bloomfield -- who can understand
barriers and the like and explain why we can and should too. I'm not up
to it, I'm afraid. I could; I'm a tenured full professor -- but the
(theoretical) book I'm working on isn't going well, and I don't believe
that many of the latest theories are *worth* popularizing.

Now that I've cleverly identified the problem and chickened out of trying
to solve it, are there any takers?

Leo A. Connolly Foreign Languages & Literatures Memphis State University
Internet: connollymsuvx1.memphis.edu Bitnet: connollymemstvx1
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