LINGUIST List 6.1507

Fri Oct 27 1995

Disc: Self-censorship; Query Justification

Editor for this issue: Annemarie Valdez <>


  1. Mary Ellen Ryder, Judging requests on the list

Message 1: Judging requests on the list

Date: Mon, 16 Oct 1995 16:37:21 Judging requests on the list
From: Mary Ellen Ryder <>
Subject: Judging requests on the list

I have been glad to see that the majority of views
on the question of proper and improper uses of the
list for information-gathering have been similar to
my own, which is that it is a valuable and time-
saving resource when used responsibly, which it
mostly is, I feel. To me the main criteria for
deciding to put a question to the list is _not_
whether somewhere out there you could find the
information yourself if you had unlimited time (who
among us is in that group?). Rather, it is a
question of estimating how much time (and what rate
of success) you would have in looking yourself
compared to how much time it would take someone
else who has already done research in the area to
send you some of it. If no one is supposed to
benefit from other people's work, then why do books
come with bibiliographies in the first place? And
why do people share their papers with each other?
I agree with Sam Salt that the notion of work for
its own sake seems to be one reason people have for
not wanting to help "lazy" neophytes on the list. I
suspect that another reason is what I think of as
the "rite of passage" ethic, which I define as "By
God, if I had to go through it, so should the next
generation." Are either of these reasons really
relevant to the problem being discussed?

A case in point is the recent objection of Alan
Dench to Jack Wiedrick's request for any already
available cognate word lists. Realistically, how
long would it take even a professional historical
linguist to compile a list of several hundred
cognates from different languages? My guess is
months, at the least. How long would it take
someone who knew of such a list to send information
on how to get it to someone else? Fifteen minutes?
This seems to me to be a reasonable exchange.

Perhaps Jack should have mentioned why he wanted
the list in the first place. Since he didn't, I'd
like to give some background on this one case just
to show that one cannot always tell whether a
request is due to laziness or some more worthy
motive. Jack is one of my students, and the most
gifted and enthusiastic one I've had in fifteen
years of teaching. He wanted to learn more about
historical linguistics and comparative
reconstruction, but we don't have any experts in
this area, so even though I know almost nothing
about it, I offered to do a directed reading course
with him on the subject (this is basically an
independent study with both professor and student
reading and discussing various materials). Jack
wanted to do more than just read about the subject;
he wanted to "get his hands dirty" as he put it,
with some real data. I don't have access here to
anything but some "baby" data sets with all the
messy stuff removed. It was I in fact who
suggested we ask around on the list, and Jack, with
his usual energy and initiative, made the request
because he knew I was probably too busy to get to
it very soon. Is this the kind of request we wish
to discourage?

On a related note, I am teaching a course on the
history of English and was recently looking for
examples of words affected by Werner's law beyond
the two or three given in my history of English
text. After consulting four or five books on the
history of English, an equal number of historical
linguistics texts and several Old English grammars,
I found that apparently everyone had borrowed
everyone else's examples, because the same two or
three appeared in every book! Should I take this
to mean that all these scholars were too lazy to do
their own work?

Mary Ellen Ryder
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