LINGUIST List 8.750

Sun May 18 1997

All: Volunteers Needed for 'Ask a Linguist'

Editor for this issue: Helen Dry <>


  1. hdry, Ask a Linguist

Message 1: Ask a Linguist

Date: Sun, 18 May 97 17:31:24 -0400
From: hdry <>
Subject: Ask a Linguist

Dear Subscribers,

LINGUIST is about to institute a new feature called "Ask a Linguist,"
and we're now sending out a call for volunteers to answer general
questions about language and linguistics.

We should say at the outset that volunteering will undoubtedly bring
you fame, fortune, and the ire of newspaper columnists writing on
language (a favorite journalistic topic here in the U.S.) But we think
"Ask a Linguist" will be a very useful--and probably popular--part of
future LINGUIST services. So we are quite serious about it, and we
hope to find some volunteers among the academic linguistics community
who will take it seriously too.

With the growth of the Internet, LINGUIST is getting more and more
questions from the general public about language and linguistics. As
you know, it has been our policy to screen queries (albeit with a
light hand) and post only those that seem related to the research
needs of professional linguists. We felt, and still do feel, that
our primary responsibility is to run a list that is useful to the
linguistics community.

But, in the first place, it has always been difficult to determine
which queries are and are not related to professional research. (Some
of you may remember the heated discussions on LINGUIST about what is/is
not a 'naive' query.)

In the second place, we don't like discouraging people with a sincere
interest in language from asking questions. To do so projects an
unattractive image of the profession--presenting linguistics as a
narrow, snobbish, probably irrelevant, field--just at the time when
many of us feel the need to convince non-academic administrators or
voters of the value of linguistic research. 

And, in the third place, we miss a lot of interesting questions by
screening out the so-called 'naive' ones.

So we have come up with the idea of "Ask a Linguist," which will be
instantiated as a web page and an email account called Ask-Ling. The
account will forward questions to a small, carefully chosen group of
linguists who have volunteered to answer questions. If a LINGUIST
editor receives a query that does not seem suitable for LINGUIST
(e.g., "Why can you say 'cats are extinct' but not 'a cat is
extinct'?" or "What are the best books to use for learning Latin?" or
"Why is Swedish different from Norwegian?" or "How do we know what
Ancient Greek sounded like?"), the editor will suggest that the writer
send it to the Ask-Ling address. The Ask-Ling respondent(s) will then
send an answer to the questioner, with a copy to the Ask-Ling address.

Questions and replies will be automatically archived and displayed at
the LINGUIST web site; and the Web site will also include a page
through which people can submit questions directly to the Ask-Ling
group, whose names and affiliations will be listed on the page. An
inactivated draft of the page is viewable at:

If you volunteer to be a respondent, you can remain part of the
Ask-Ling group for as long or as short a time as you like. You will
not be expected to answer every question forwarded to the account or
to give extensive answers to those you do respond to. 

However, you will be representing the profession and The LINGUIST List,
which will present you to questioners as an authority. So we would
like you to commit to:

	- returning polite, reasonably serious answers to 
	questions, whatever the temptation otherwise.

	- keeping an eye out to see that all questions receive
	an answer. This would mean that if you see that a question
	has gone unanswered for a long time you (a) try to answer it
	or (b) call a LINGUIST editor's attention to it, so that we
	can try to find an answer.
	We want the public to feel that the "Ask a Linguist" page is a
	reliable resource. But we don't have enough editors to 
	spare one of them to monitor the Ask-Ling account; so we will
 	need to rely on members to alert us to problems. 

In return for your service, you will get a certain amount of publicity
as a language authority (see, we weren't kidding about fame!) and--we
think--the satisfaction of making linguistics relevant to the
concerns of the wider community.

If you would like to become an Ask-Ling respondent, please send a message
to Anthony at 

And, as always, if you have comments or suggestions (especially a
better name for 'Ask-Ling'), we would very much like to hear them.

Thank you for your help.

Helen, Anthony, and Daniel


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