LINGUIST List 3.143

Thu 13 Feb 1992

Disc: Linguistics and the Popular Press

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Richard Ogden, (un)popular linguistics
  2. Brian D Joseph, Posting for LINGUIST
  3. , Re: 3.141 The Latest from the Popular Press
  4. Larry Horn, Re: 3.134 Linguistics and Popular Press
  5. , Grammar Genes and Language Glands

Message 1: (un)popular linguistics

Date: Tue, 11 Feb 92 17:07 GMT (un)popular linguistics
From: Richard Ogden <RAO1VAXB.YORK.AC.UK>
Subject: (un)popular linguistics

There has been a vigorous discussion about why linguistics does not get the
attention from the press, TV and other media which linguists think their work
deserves; and when linguistics is reported, it seems to be one-sided and
unbalanced. I feel that Martti Nyman put it very well; he commented that the
terminology in which linguistics is couched hardly makes for easy reading,
even to a specialist. I've tried to read many articles in journals and been
bogged down by the bad writing. I've even got fed up of the many invented
oft-repeated axamples which are so common in introductory text books and even
less introductory ones. Conference proceedings are disappointing more often
than not, to the point that it's hard to believe some of them have passed
through committees. And part of our 'modern' culture is that we have such a
profusion of written material, in all forms, that we probably repsect it less
than we might have done even a few years ago; it's disposable.

I have recently been re-reading some of the old papers and books, things
 like Saussure, Twaddell, Firth... and the impression is much more of a
culture which was less aggressive, less dogmatic than our present one. It's
only an impresion and others will surely disagree. But the pioneer attitude,
where more questions are asked than answers given is something which I just
don't find in modern linguistics; maybe not because it isn't there, but
because it's hidden underneath the rhetoric.

In phonetics (my own field) I think there are lots of things that 'ordinary
people' would find interesting, like spectrograms, how sounds are articulated,
why foreigners 'speak funny' and so on; other areas of linguistics surely also
have interesting things to say (like the sign language babbling that was
mentioned). But most of the discussion so far ("the things we are proud of and
would like to be known for", to put it a bit rudely) has centred on 'big
issues' ike universalism and methodology; these things are not really within
the scope of the everday which are basically fascinating to most people.

I would like to finish by reminding us that everyone speaks a language and
therefore considers themself to be an expert. Witness the columns on language
usage which appear in most newspapers and magazines from time to time; the way
in which linguistics is relegated to a relatively unimportant position in the
world-view of many working in speech technology who are themselves engineers
or computer scientists and so forth. We have to remind ourselves of the
reality, which is that however expert we deem ourselves to be, 'everyone else'
thinks they know just as much. So we've got an uphill struggle.

Richard Ogden
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Message 2: Posting for LINGUIST

Date: Tue, 11 Feb 92 12:18:43 ESPosting for LINGUIST
From: Brian D Joseph <>
Subject: Posting for LINGUIST

Regarding Bob Chevalier's comment in LINGUIST 3.134 regarding the
desirability of trying to introduce a consideration of linguistic
principles into elementary school curricula, I couldn't agree more.
>From my experience with introductory linguistics courses at the
undergraduate level, it seems that we are fighting a losing battle
trying to dispel myths and misperceptions about language that
students have accumulated over a dozen or more years of schooling
and living with just one 10- or 12-week term course. My impression
is that students will learn what to say about prescriptivisim, for
instance, for the purposes of satisfying their linguistics instructor
on an exam or the like, but will then promptly forget it or not heed
any such message that might be offered in the classroom. Rather than
requiring more linguistics of every undergraduate (and I realize that
requiring even one course is not a part of most universities'
curricula (at OSU, introductory linguistics is an option towards one
distributional requirement), it seems to me that the solution would be
to extend linguistics into earlier stages of schooling, as Bob

--Brian D. Joseph, The Ohio State University
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Message 3: Re: 3.141 The Latest from the Popular Press

Date: Tue, 11 Feb 1992 12:06 MSTRe: 3.141 The Latest from the Popular Press
Subject: Re: 3.141 The Latest from the Popular Press

That bit about genes controlling grammar was also on NPR this morning
(Tuesday, 11 Feb). It was a clearer story than the AP one, and I, for
one, thought it was quite respectably done.

Carol Georgopoulos
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Message 4: Re: 3.134 Linguistics and Popular Press

Date: Wed, 12 Feb 92 00:02:43 ESRe: 3.134 Linguistics and Popular Press
From: Larry Horn <LHORNYALEVM.YCC.Yale.Edu>
Subject: Re: 3.134 Linguistics and Popular Press

Re the representation of linguistic issues in the media:
 I don't have anything of substance to contribute to the question of
whether or not GB theory is sexy enough to cross the threshhold into

Scientific American. But despite the current wave of interest in the popular
press in the Nostratic debate, I haven't heard of any cinematic projects in
that area. On the other hand, I will be filmed shortly as part of a
documentary entitled "Off the Floor, Off the Wall: A Doorstop Documentary",
which is--as the title implies--a documentary on doorstops. My contribution
will be to serve as a linguistic expert on the word itself, and/or its
subcomponents. Unfortunately, I haven't come up with a whole lot of particular
interest so far, and I'd love to hear from anybody out there with strong
feelings about doorstops, "doorstop", "door", "stop", or anything related to
these important issues. (I promise to give full credit to contributors, if
any--but you'll have to be quick. Please send suggestions to me directly, and
I'll summarize on the net.) After all, it's not every day when linguists are
consulted by filmmakers, even if a documentary on doorstops is unlikely to
draw as wide an audience as "My Fair Lady" with its Ladefoged-produced
sheets of Visible Speech. There are the foreign residuals though, not to
mention the video rentals... Larry Horn
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Message 5: Grammar Genes and Language Glands

Date: Thu, 13 Feb 1992 11:28:26 Grammar Genes and Language Glands
From: <>
Subject: Grammar Genes and Language Glands

 Reality is catching up with parody. Richard Sproat's posting of the
newspaper article on the Grammar Gene bears a striking resemblance to a
rather successful hoax perpetrated by the Norwegian poet Andre Bjerke back
in 1954. Under the assumed name of cand. philol. Martin Storhaug (a very
convincing-sounding name in this country) he wrote an article entitled (in
translation) "The physiological basis of speech" and had it accepted in a
major newspaper, where it remained uncontradicted for the two weeks he
waited before letting the cat out of the bag - in spite of phony references
to real local linguists etc. Here are a few central passages (in my

"[...] The renowned etymologist Professor Howard E. Prince at Yale
University in U.S.A. has for many years been carrying out investigations
concerning the most widespread speech defects. He claims to have found
correlations between a group of motoric speech defect types and certain
peculiarities in the formation of dialects. Thus in 1950 he received a
large Rockefeller prize for his treatise "The Defects of Speech and their
Conformity to certain Peculiarities of American Dialects". While he was
carrying out these investigations he stumbled upon another problem which
turned out to be of a medical nature. This is where we arrive at the
intersection of two research disciplines: the philologist and the scientist
meet quite unexpectedly at a crossroads.
 In the spring of 1951 Professor Prince was staying in the region around
Ogden City in the state of Utah. There he had discovered a phenomenon which
appeared to be a collective speech defect, in that a very high percentage
of the older section of the population were suffering from stammering.
Professor Prince examined the type of stammering involved, and found a
large number of common phonetic features. He arrived at the conclusion that
this could not possibly be a coincidence, but so far he had no scientific
theory to explain the phenomenon.
 At the same time as Professor Prince was carrying out these
investigations a German-American physiologist was trying to find the
solution to a totally different problem: the riddle of the thymus gland.
Glandula Thymus is a closed gland located in the front part of the thorax
cavity, and its function within the organism has hitherto been unknown; it
has simply been assumed that its excretions enter the bloodstream. The
physiologist Wilfred Appergau assumed that thymus has a hormonal function,
and in the spring of 1951 he actually succeeded in isolating the thymus
gland hormon chemically. He called it "thymusine".
 And this is where the researchers meet at the crossroads - since it
turned out that thymusine influences the language centre in the cortex.
Indeed, it appeared that this newly-discovered hormone has a similar
influence on word-formation as that of the thyroid gland's thyroxine on
metabolism and that of the pituitary gland hormone on growth! Even before
Professor Prince met Dr. Appergau he had entertained the idea that the
collective speech defect in the Ogden region might be caused by local
nutritional conditions. Now the two scientists coordinated their results,
which turned out to match like a lock to a key. Dr. Appergau was able to
give a knock-down proof of his theory by giving the speech-impeded
inhabitants of the Ogden region thymusine injections. The result, amazingly
enough, was that all stammering disappeared after about 10 injections. Dr.
Appergau also succeeded in showing that this collective speech defect was
caused by the chemical composition of the drinking water. Just as
iodine-poor drinking water in certain districts lead to collective
disturbances of the thyroid gland (Basedows Disease), the absence of
certain other important substances may have a corresponding effect on the
thymus gland and - for example - manifest itself as collective stammering.
These discoveries led Professor Prince to new and revolutionary views
concerning the origin of dialects - views which he so far has summarized in
his most recent work: "The Organic Origin of Dialects" (The World
Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1953). [...]"

 Nobody protested against this rubbish, in spite the absurd consequences
of the reported theories: Bjerke points out that if dialects are speech
defects, and if speech defects can be cured by hormonal injections, then we
should be able to cure dialects at the nearest hospital. And language
teaching might take the form of some sort of compulsory inoculation. He
explains the seeming acceptance of the article by its boring and
pseudo-scientific style. If you state outright that dialects are caused by
speech defects, anybody will se that it is nonsense. If, on the other hand,
you state that Professor Howard E. Prince at Yale "claims to have found
correlations between a group of motoric speech defect types and certain
peculiarities of dialect formation", the case is different. Bjerke suggests
that especially the word "motoric" may have done the trick.

 Well, none of us would have been taken in today, of course. But perhaps
genes are more convincing than glands these days?

Helge Dyvik
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