LINGUIST List 5.791

Mon 11 Jul 1994

Misc: Linguist-bashing, Popularisation of linguistics

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  1. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 5.783 Linguist-bashing
  2. Paul Deane, Linguist-Bashing
  3. Kittredge Cowlishaw, Popularisation of linguistics

Message 1: Re: 5.783 Linguist-bashing

Date: Thu, 07 Jul 94 08:42 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.783 Linguist-bashing

In response to Paul Deane --

Re the Psycholoquy book review -- do YOU believe language understanding is
primarily about underlying conceptual structures? If you do then you would
go along with this 'linguist bashing'. I would expect this view from those
who do not understand the nature of language but think they do. Obviously
understanding conceptual structures is necessary, but not sufficient, for
understanding language, and, as much research of brain damaged patients,
savants etc shows, there can be a disocciation between understanding
language structures and conceptual structures. There are those, for example,
who have not been exposed to language and therefore do not acquire it
(or like some deaf individuals acquire it past the critical age) who under-
stand conceptual structures but limited lg structures, and those like
Laura (see Yamada's book) or Christopher (see the papers of Smith and
Tsimpli) who understand and produce complex language structures but
limited conceptual structures.

Re the fable -- this is more Chomsky bashing than linguist bashing and
if you change the name of the 'Linguesses' to 'chomskyites' or 'Mitniks '
this could be a fable written by those 'anti-chomsky' linguists
who put up straw men and then knock them down. Unfortunately, so called
linguist bashing often occurs as much among linguists as non-linguists,
as we have seen on this net.

As the net has also shown, there is much misunderstanding about what
linguists do and linguists think, but there is also much misunderstanding
about what, for example, psychologists do and think (and also lots of
psychology bashing).

One should also recognize, however, that whatever one thinks of Chomsky's work,
linguists should be grateful that he has probably done more to gain the
respect of the non-linguist world -- both scientific, despite the AI view
above, and general public. I am sure that you like I am constantly asked
about him from scientists we meet from other fields as well as friends
who have read the various 'pop linguistic' articles that appear in various
newspapers and magazines.

Also whereas thirty years ago it was seldom the case that linguists were asked
to speak at meetings and workshops sponsored by for example neurologists
or other disciplines, now that is the norm, rather than the exception.
A case in point is occuring next week at a meeting on "Evolution and
Neurology of Language" sponsored by the Swiss Fondation Pour
L'Etude du Systeme Nerveux Central et Peripherique at the
Harvard Medical School at which Ursula Bellugi, Stephen Pinker and I are
invited participants, together with neurologists, neuropsychologists etc.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we have made lots of headway in
establishing our science as a legitimate field of inquiry but this has
has not been discussed to the same extent on the net as the fact that
understandably there arestill many misconceptions about human language
and linguistics. We should indeed do what we can to 'popularize' the
field as has been suggested. But do not despair. And books like Pinker's
and Ray Jackendoff's' Language and Human Nature' (which has not been
discussed on the net but which is an excellent book to give to non-
linguists and to publicize among non-linguists since they are the audience
Jackendoff addresses) do much not only for our field but for the education
of the public about the nature of language. Also, the BBC series on language
produced by Jonathan Miller, as well as other tv programs on language and mind
(not all being equally good of course) help. And the language series
now being developed for PBS by Equinox films will help a lot.

One thing everyone can do to help strengthen the position of linguistics
among other scientists is to join the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS) designating Section Z -- Linguistics and the Language
Sciences as their 'affiliation'. We finally have a section in the AAAS
but we are on 'probation' needing 500 members to become firmly established.
The next meeting is in Atlanta Feb 26-21. Plan on coming and you will haved
a chance to 'popularize' linguistics among the thousands of other scientists
who attend AAAS meetings. We will be having three linguistics symposia
and that will also help to put our views across. I think this is a key
way to demystify our field and those of you who have shown your concerns
via this discussion on the net -- please do join if you are not yet a
member and designative Section Z (if you are a member switch to our section)

I think we should also take heart in the fact that in our colleges thousands
of students are now taking introduction to language or linguistics courses
whereas this was not the case two decades ago. At UCLA alone close to 30000
students have taken the Intro to Lg course. I know there are universities
where the enrollment in these 'general education' courses each year exceed
the 1200 that take them at UCLA so we are doing a lot to 'popularize'
our field and to educate people about language.
Vicki Fromkin -- the eternal optimist
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Message 2: Linguist-Bashing

Date: Fri, 8 Jul 1994 00:20:27 -Linguist-Bashing
From: Paul Deane <an995FreeNet.Carleton.CA>
Subject: Linguist-Bashing

My "linguist-bashing" post set a personal record for the speed and number
of directly posted responses. I seem to have touched a nerve.

Most of these posts made what was, to me, an amazing assumption: that I
was calling the material I posted "linguist-bashing" because it attacked
Chomsky's theories or professional conduct. I should have remembered to
mention that I espouse positions diametrically opposed to Chomsky's. I
didn't object to the material I posted because it disagreed with and/or
attacked Chomsky, but because (while attacking Chomskyan views) they took
(or at least seemed to me to take) an essentially dismissive view of
LINGUISTICS as a discipline. The underlying equation seems to be that
LINGUIST = Chomskyan linguist = A supporter of views so esoteric and
removed from reality as not to require refutation. And that I object to.
Not all linguists are Chomskyans. Not all Chomskyans are linguists.

But this raises a disturbing point: to those outside the field, Chomsky IS
linguistics, and linguistics IS Chomsky. The result is that the discipline
(as viewed by outsiders) is valued or denigrated depending on how well or
poorly Chomsky's ideas are received. That's a scary thought, at least for
me, since those are the people who decide the fate of linguistics
departments. A recent funknet post by a Harvard linguist stated that
literature scholars there thought of modern linguistics as a
pseudoscience. That kind of disdain is a problem. So what do we do about
such a problem? ...

That's about all I can say at this point--what do others think?
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Message 3: Popularisation of linguistics

Date: Mon, 04 Jul 94 15:25:02 GMPopularisation of linguistics
From: Kittredge Cowlishaw <>
Subject: Popularisation of linguistics

A few years back, at a round table discussion on the undergraduate
computer science curriculum, the suggestion was put forward that a
compulsory introductory course in linguistics should be included
"to improve the communication skills of computer scientists".

Anyone forced into such a course is likely to be as disappointed as
someone who enrolls in Psychology to learn to get along with people, or
in Logic to learn to win arguments, or in Thermodynamics to learn to
repair the furnace (er, all right, maybe I got a bit carried away there).

The linguist's 'gift to the world' is simply the insight that language
is worthy of study in its own right.
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