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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more

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Discussion Details

Title: An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms
Submitter: Alexander Gross
Description: How convenient to suppose that the study of linguistics ''works in the same
way that chemists find some utility in divorcing the components of a
compound of interest from one another.'' But chemistry can look back to
well over two centuries of continued progress with indisputable practical
spin-offs cropping up almost every year since Lavoisier. What precise
counterparts can mainstream linguistics point to during the past fifty
years (or arguably since Saussure one century ago)? Is it possible that
such a claim does not take us headlong into what Stephen Jay Gould in
1981called ''physics envy,'' even if the
object of envy here is not physics but chemistry?

I find it amazing how little the self-justifications for mainstream
linguistics have changed over recent decades. It is almost as though some
of these scholars are trapped in a time-warp of collective self-indulgence.
I also fail to detect here any evidence that an attempt has been made to
read the essay I referred to. Anyone who read it would have found
references to such further real world phenomena as translation, theatre,
Nazism and related totalitarianisms, concentration camps, guilt and
innocence, and possible corruption within the world of academic funding,
even though some mainstream apologists will assure us that none of these
matters can possibly have any relationship to language, much less the sheer
abstract glory of linguistics itself. As for my two Dartmouth
presentations on Evidence Based vs. Voodoo Linguistics, cited by Alex
Kravchenko, I see no sign that any attempt has been made to look at these
either. But of course mainstream linguists do not need to, for they know
in advance that all such material, including Kravchenko's message,
Dalrymple's article, and the Codrescu NPR statement, can rank as nothing
more than ''philology.'' There seems to be an incurable faith among
mainstream linguists that they actually qualify as scientists, that their
favorite doctrines must somehow also rank as scientific breakthroughs on a
Galilean or Einsteinian scale. But I believe nothing could be further from
the truth. This system of belief also seems to be quite lacking in one
other crucial element of science--the slightest trace of skepticism.

Little wonder then that the prime movers of this fantasy have sought to
shift the ground of their work from language to philosophy, psychology, or
''cognitive'' spin-offs, even going so far as to rebaptize their MIT nerve
center as the ''Department of Linguistics & Philosophy.'' But I see the
basis of language as neither philosophical nor psychological nor cognitive
in nature--rather it is far more likely to emerge as primarily
physiological, springing from the lungs and breath, the bronchi, the
larynx, lips, and tongue,
not to mention--at least in the case of trained speakers--almost every muscle
in the body. Which is not to neglect all the ways these organs can fail to
work harmoniously together nor the presence of other factors. This means
that our study can probably never be any more (or less) precise than other
physiological processes. More about this can be found in my material on
Evidence Based Linguistics.

Here's something more about ''physics envy'' by the astrophysical engineer
and satellite designer C.B. Pease. I wonder how many contributors to
Linguist List may find his description familiar:

''Physics is widely regarded as Top Science, because it is `exact'. Its
theories are simple and elegant. And they are always followed to the
letter--except when they are not (Big Bang). I started out as a physicist,
and I don't see what is so special about it at all.

''But many `inexact' scientists do. For generations they have been trying
to raise the status of their respective sciences by attempting to prove
that they are exact too. They devise simple elegant theories for the
natural world to obey. And the natural world fails to oblige. The result
is gargantuan battles between different camps, over which over-simplified
theory (sometimes grossly so) is correct. And they are still doing it.
One meets the phenomenon of the `acrimonious debate' quite often in the

One also frequently finds a dismissal of ''eloquence'' in mainstream
literature. But in a field so chaotically uprooted as linguistics today,
eloquence may in fact be the closest we may come towards ever achieving
clarity, perhaps even ''science.''

All the best to linguists everywhere!



Codrescu, Andre. The Human Art of Translation. NPR interview audible at:

Dalrymple, Theodore. The Gift of Language. City Journal, Autumn, 2006.
online at:

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. 1981. New York: Norton.

Gross, Alexander. Translator's preface to a his second version of Weiss'
''The Investigation,'' written as part of commission. Online at:

--Two essays on Evidence Based Linguistics vs. Voodoo Linguistics, online at:

Kravchenko, Alexander. An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms.
online at:

Pease, C.B. Physics Envy. Online at:
Date Posted: 29-Jan-2007
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Philosophy of Language
History of Linguistics
Cognitive Science
Discipline of Linguistics
LL Issue: 18.305
Posted: 29-Jan-2007

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