LINGUIST List 5.822

Tue 19 Jul 1994

Misc: Linguist-bashing, Lx in the media & endangered languages

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  1. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 5.809 Linguist-bashing
  2. James M Scobbie, linguistics in the media and endangered languages

Message 1: Re: 5.809 Linguist-bashing

Date: Thu, 14 Jul 94 19:03 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.809 Linguist-bashing

I am pleased to see the 'correction' regarding Williams syndrome individuals.
Actually, I think that this supports my view -- that language acquisition
can and does in a number of individuals with different disorders proceed
despite serious non-linguistic cognitive abilities thus strongly suggesting
(if not showing) that tha human language ability is not derivative but is
separate and autonomous., Furthermore, the dissociation of different
spatial abilities suggests further that there are many encapsulated modular
cognitive systems in the highly structured brain.

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Message 2: linguistics in the media and endangered languages

Date: Mon, 18 Jul 94 12:45 GMT
From: James M Scobbie <>
Subject: linguistics in the media and endangered languages

You might be interested to know that about 10 minutes, a third,
of BBC Radio 4's Science Now was devoted to endangered languages,
featuring interviews with (sorry, I have no names) a prof from
an Australian uni, and an editor of the world linguistic atlas.
(Tuesday July 12th 1994)

I thought it was significant that the topic of language loss
and endangerment was addressed in the science slot. The discussion
centred on the metaphor of mass extinction, and the loss to
science of the raw materials of study. Some thought was given to
the practical: a museum approach to moribund languages and
I guess 'social' help for endangered languages by governments
and intergovernmental agencies to encourage child learners. There
were some numbers mentioned about loss and some speculation about
the maximum number of languages spoken ever (15,000). The loss
of 1000 languages in the next century out of 6,500 was mentioned,
I think, and I think this was said to be similar to the last
century. Shrinking jungle pockets were conjoured up, but
explicitly mentioned were the fate of minority
european languages and the perceived economic pressures of being
monolingual English speaking in Australia, say.

There was one main thing I wanted to bring up, apart from
just reporting this pleasing 'popularisation of linguistics'
('linguistics' despite the fact that
there was no discussion about what linguistic diversity *is*,
or what any of these languages was *like*). The metaphor of mass
extinction really works. Scientists, and the lay public,
understand what is meant by a loss of 10% or 20% of all species in
a 100 year time frame, and they are horrified by the prospect.
This is something we can really use to get people interested
in the actual structures of the languages that in the abstract
they are getting concerned about.

It was expressed that the loss of linguistic diversity is like a
reduction in the gene pool, and consequently weakens all our
(linguistic) lives and (linguistic) potentials
as human beings. First, note how different this is from the idea
often expressed in the media of 'if only we all
spoke the same language...'. Second, it
struck me as an metaphor some linguists would be very uncomfortable
with. At first hearing, I thought the comparison basically said
'language-determines-thought' in that a lesser diversity of language
determines less diverse thought 'available' to us (ie a species).
Of course, I gave an involuntary alveolar click or two at the way
the programme was heading. (ie I disapproved)

Then I caught myself and took the metaphor in a more professional way:
without diversity we (ie linguists) cannot get to the cognitive core of
language, because we'd mistake typological accident with cognitive
cause. But no, I don't think the comment was offered in this spirit.
My initial appreciation was closer to the mark, though I think I was
pigeon-holing the argument in a familiar way.

This led me to think more about my knee-jerk reaction, a common one instilled
into linguistics students against Sapir-Whorf straw men, a disdain
for all comments that might be taken to imply that language
determines thought.

People (students) always like the notion, and are quite happy with a
weakish version of it. Linguists* often seem to be fighting against it.
I think instead us linguists should be using the accessible
gene-pool diversity metaphor to our advantage. At the very least
typlogically diverse languages broaden our
understanding of what a human language can be, and indicate
what aspects of 'thought' can be grammaticalised. This the lay public
can understand, and are predisposed to respond to it favourably...
I feel that the public can be convinced that a mass extinction
of languages is a bad thing and requires action (money), even if
they don't know FA about linguistics. And perhaps they'll
even get a little interested. And perhaps, even if language doesn't
strictly determine thought, knowledge of language
can! The fewer languages there are to know, the worse off we are.

* in my experience of 'formal' linguistics in early undergrad classes
where the student learns the position against a misrepresented Sapir-Whorf.
These are the classes that tens of thousands of university students go
to, remember.
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