LINGUIST List 11.1586

Thu Jul 20 2000

Sum: Postmodernism and Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  • Frederick Newmeyer, Postmodernism and linguistics

    Message 1: Postmodernism and linguistics

    Date: Sun, 16 Jul 2000 07:49:36 -0700 (PDT)
    From: Frederick Newmeyer <>
    Subject: Postmodernism and linguistics

    A week or so ago I posted a query on 'postmodern' writings in and about linguistics. I was overwhelmed by the response and would like to thank the following for their replies: Leor Alcalay, Raul Aranovich, Bob Borsley, Giancarlo Buoiano, Peter Daniels, Timothy Dunnigan, Michael Erard, Kevin Gregg, Randy Harris, Joseph Hilferty, Bob Hoberman, Michael Israel, Charles Jannuzi, Wouter Kusters, Shalom Lappin, Robert Levine, Andrew Linn, Miriam Meyerhoff , Mark Newbrook, Jerry Packard, David Parkinson, Meredith Patterson, Stephanie Pourcel, Wolfgang Schulze, Larry Trask, and Remy Viredaz.

    NOTE: The book by Sokal and Bricmont that I referred to, FASHIONABLE NONSENSE, is called INTELLECTUAL IMPOSTURES in Britain (and perhaps everywhere outside of North America).

    The following are (mostly) direct quotes from respondents. None are cited by name, since, in my experience, people who want to be cited for a particular point reply directly to the List.


    Derrida's "Grammatologie" is one of the pillars of post-structuralism, and it is basically a 'deconstruction' of Saussure's linguistic theories. Also, I recently heard Paul Hopper deliver a paper at the MLA on the linguistic ideas of Bakhtin, whom you can include in the post-structural current as well (I do not have the exact reference, though). The post-modern attitude towards linguistics is, as far as I know, very critical, especially of the Chomskian enterprise. According to some, this is because of the anti-American sentiment that brew at the Sorbonne and then expanded with the post-modern ideas (funny that sentiment against the US should translate into a reaction against Chomsky's linguistic theories).

    The obvious references that come to mind are Derrida's "On Grammatology," and also the much shorter "Limited, Inc." which presents his half of a debate with John Searle. The latter book, like much postmodern discourse, may be more amusing than it is enlightening, and it involves a debate between philosophers rather than linguists, but it does give some picture of a postmodern view on issues like linguistic meaning, communication, and the relation between meaning and intention.

    Of popular introductions to Derrida's work, the following seems exceptionally good: Christina Howells. 1999. Derrida. Polity. This book is written with remarkable clarity, all the more remarkable given the celebrated impenetrability of Derrida's own writings. This book, and two others, both picture-book idiot's guides, make the following points about JD's linguistic contributions. Derrida makes a great song and dance about writing. He argues that the *entire* western intellectual tradition, from Socrates to the present, including the entire linguistic tradition, 'privileges' speech at the expense of writing. That is, he maintains that everybody before his good self has regarded speech as primary and writing as merely secondary, and therefore of subordinate status. Of course, he includes Saussure in this blanket condemnation, though he admits that Saussure was right to take the line he did "for his own purposes". JD doesn't like this, and he wants writing to be regarded as just as central as speech -- apparently for all purposes. In fact, he goes so far as to assert that writing and speech are too dissimilar for writing to "derive" from speech. [followed by much more on Derrida.]

    My favorite is Deleuze & Guattari's proposal for a rhizomatic linguistics, in Mille Plateaux (available in English as A Thousand Plateaus). There's a chapter in Deleuze and Guattari's Milles Plateaux that actually talks about linguistics, endorsing a sociolinguistic approach (they cite Labov) as being a more real, comprehensive and theoretically abstract approach to the study of language (as compared to a generative or formal approach, they cite Chomsky).

    I'd like to draw your attention to the work of Julia Kristeva, a prominent French semioticist who also happens to be one of S&B's targets. Kristeva, who describes herself as a practicing psychoanalyst, holds a chair of linguistics at the Sorbonne. She is the author or editor of many works in semiotics, but she has also written a textbook of linguistics. It's this: Le langage, cet inconnu. 1981. Editions du Seuil. English translation, by Anne M. Menke: Language the Unknown: An Initiation into Linguistics. 1989. Columbia UP (US), Harvester Wheatsheaf (UK). [my respondent goes on to outline some of the unbelievable things that this book says about linguistics]

    A few more recommendations from the vast Kristeva *oeuvre*. Her most famous book is J. Kristeva (1984), Revolution in Poetic Language, tr. Margaret Waller, Columbia UP. This is her doctoral thesis, the book that made her famous, and the book that earned her that engaging chair of linguistics in Paris. She starts off on page one by declaring that linguistics is necrophilia. Then she goes on to make a number of less sober statements about our discipline.

    Next: J. Kristeva (1980). Desire in Language. Blackwell. This is a collection of her essays, and it includes some wonderful critical comments on linguistics. It seems that we linguists have failed to shape up, except for Jakobson, who was OK, and for Benveniste, who was basically OK but was led astray.

    Also: Toril Moi (ed.) (1986). The Kristeva Reader. Blackwell. See especially chapter one, which ventures some more magisterial pronouncements on linguistics. And see chapter 4 for some scandalous remarks on science.

    Next: Ross Mitchell Guberman (ed.) (1996). Julia Kristeva Interviews. Columbia UP. This is a collection of interviews with JK. See especially chapter 16. Finally: J. Kristeva (1975). 'La fonction predicative et le sujet parlant'. In J. Kristeva et al. (eds), Langue, discours, societe: pour Emile Benveniste. Editions du Seuil. Pp. 229-259. This, though almost entirely a work of linguistics, is boring by comparison, but at least we learn that generative grammar is not much good at giving an account of William Faulkner's prose style. And that JK apparently does not know that Greek is an Indo-European language.

    It is almost 100% certain that Leech points to (complains about) Kristeva in his _Principles of Pragmatics_ (title?) book. Going to index might be enough to get the page number.


    Peirce, Bonnie Norton (1995). "Social Identity, Investment, and Language Learning." TESOL Quarterly, 29:1, Spring 1995 (9-31). (To the best of my recollection--I don't have the article in front of me--she makes some significant mention of postmodernism in this article, in an attempt to view language learning from a new perspective.) Bonnie Peirce referred more to "post-structuralism," but I think there's at least a mention of postmodernism. There was a controversy over her article, with a thread of commentary in the following issues, which I found abstracted in the Education Abstracts Full Text data base : McNamara, T.F., TESOL Quarterly v. 31 Autumn,1997 p.561-7 Peirce, Bonny Norton, TESOL Quarterly, v.30, Summer 1996, p. 337-40 Price, Stephen, TESOL Quarterly, v.30 Summer 1996, p. 331-7

    Barbules, Nicholas C. (1995). "Postmodern Doubt and Philosophy of Education" Philosophy of Education (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; 1996 PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION SOCIETY (He attempts to elucidate "postmodernism" in a way that would make it appealing to educators, but also criticizes some who invoke postmodernism inaccurately).

    Sullivan, Francis J, "Critical Theory and Systemic Linguistics: Textualizing the Contact Zone." Journal of Advanced Composition. v15 n3 p411-34 1995. ABSTRACT: Examines the contradiction between S. Crowley and L. Faigley, who suggest that postmodernism has eliminated any role for linguistics in composition studies, and M. Nystrand, S. Greene, and J. Wiemelt, who maintain that research inspired by M.A.K. Halliday and M. Bakhtin promises to restore linguistics to a central place.

    Lantolf, James P. "SLA Theory Building: 'Letting All the Flowers Bloom!'" Language Learning v 46 Dec 1996.p. 713-49. ABSTRACT: The writer presents a postmodernist critical analysis of the theory building literature on second language acquisition (SLA). In particular, he examines the way this theory is represented in the works of Beretta, Crookes, Eubank, Gregg, Long, and to some extent Schumann. He asserts that a foundational reason to grant privileged status to the modernist perspective of SLA theory these scholars advocate does not exist. He believes that SLA theory presents an unbalanced and uncritical perspective of itself and of the scientific tradition from which it emanates, and it precipitously rejects its challengers. The writer believes that all theories and not just a selected few should be allowed to develop. A review by Kevin Gregg will appear in Second Language Research v.16,no. 4 (Sept? 2000)

    Jay Lemke is some kind of postmodernist who draws on Halliday. You can find out about him at the following address:

    D. Graddol (1993) 'Three Models of Language Description' (in Graddol & Boyd-Barrett, "Media Texts") and D. Graddol, J. Cheshire & J. Sawnn, "Describing Language". Bob Borsley has written a review entitled 'A Postmodern Critique of Linguistics'. Borsley also has a review of Gunther Kress' 1993 book, which is in the postmodernist intellectual style, if not explicitly postmodernist.

    Another British linguist who talks (in pretty vague) terms about modernity and post-modernity is Ben Rampton.

    Alan Davies (1999), An Introduction to Applied Linguistics: From Practice to Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. It's an odd book in some ways, but it contains some quite useful discussion of postmodernist ideas in applied linguistics in its final chapter (chapter 7).


    S.A. TYLER (1987) The Unspeakable: Discourse, Dialogue, and Rhetoric in the Postmodern World. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. This book is not only about writing - it does deal with the science of linguistics. If anything, it might prove useful in providing further works of reference.

    Jacqueline Henkel's book, The Language of Criticism, mentions several uses, abuses, and misunderstandings of linguistic theory by literary critics.

    Drake, James. 'The Naming Disease: How Jakobson's essay on aphasia initiated postmodernist deceits.' Commentary, _Times Literary Supplement_ Sept. 4, 1998, 14-15.

    Ranjana Khanna from Department of English, University of Washington. The paper was 1999 "The Experience of Evidence: Language, the Law and the Mockery of Justice"


    Derrida took Gelb's term "grammatology" (with acknowledgment) and used it for something entirely else; and Roy Harris (e.g. in Times Higher Education Supplement 14 April 2000 p. 31) castigates those of us who continue to study writing systems (building on Gelb's pioneering) for not doing Derrida-style whatever-it-is. (In his own book *Signs of Writing*, Harris declines to provide a definition of writing, though he constantly claims that this or that definition excludes this or that phenomenon that he wishes to include.) I believe W. C. Watt makes the same charge about "grammatology" in his "review" of *The World's Writing Systems* in Semiotica 122 (1998): 99-138.


    Chomsky apparently regards Randy Harris's book THE LINGUISTICS WARS as "postmodernist writing that ... has something to say about the field of linguistics"--something wrong, of course. In a couple of places, most recently and fully in Barsky's hagiography, he says that Harris's position is "Foucauldian", a swear word.

    Juan Uriagareka's book RHYME AND REASON (and other MP theorists who adopt his sort of rhetoric) are involved in the same kind of misapplication of terms and concepts from the physical sciences to linguistics that goes on in postmodernism.

    There's also a little bit of metaphorically employed historiolinguistics in the essay "Mystery Theatre in Chichen Itza" by Quetzil Castaneda, The first paragraph of the essay pronounces, "Origins cannot be narrated in their plenitude, only their traces are measured in fragments careening in multiple intersections," (using a mere couple of cites about Mayan myths and language as "support").

    It is an interesting question you raise! Let us assume that you refer to postmodernism in terms of Radical Constructivism (RC) [surely only one of the facets of the postmodern paradigm]. There has been a workshop on Constructivism and Linguistics in Salzburg in December 1998, see which still works. Browsing through the abstracts given on the home page you will probably find some references that might be of interest for you.

    Last year, Lance Eccles (Department of Asian Languages, Macquarie University, NSW 2109, Australia) quoted Anthea Gupta's view of language: "Just to say that we need to remember that languages are constructs. There are no languages."