Amateurish linguistics — why?

Jan 21, 2011 by

Andrei Zalizniak’s lecture, to which I’ve posted a link, discusses the so-called “amateurish linguistics”, the pursuit focused mostly on “discovering” (in fact, making up) whimsical and unsubstantiated etymologies of words, with the expressed or implicit goal of showing… whatever the “amateurish linguist” in question wants to show (in the case of a Russian amateurish linguist, it is typically to show that Russia has governed the whole world at some point in the past or that all people descend from Russians; in the case of Ukrainians, the claim of being the ancestors of everybody else is made about Ukrainians; etc.). But the trend for amateurish linguists is much wider and deeper than that, and it’s not only Russians who make it a fashionable pursuit.

It is important to stress that I am not against amateurs in general or against amateur pursuits in language. I make a distinction, though, between “amateur” and “amateurish”, and it’s the latter that I am strongly opposed to. The main differences is whether one adopts a rigorous study of language as one’s goal or rejects it. The hallmark of an amateurish linguist is that he (or she) thinks that language can be approached intuitively, that it’s open and accessible to all, and that any opinion about it is as good as any other. Such people reject the notion of truth, facts, etc. and that’s what leads them to the most absurd claims that they make.

While populism and amateurish pursuits are common in other fields as well, I think they are particularly common in linguistics. Not only do people make most ridiculous claims about word etymology (and publish books on this, making a fast buck!), but serious publications, like The Economist, think it appropriate to take a vote on an issue that should be instead subjected to scientifically rigorous testing. Not to mention all the claims made about the Eskimo snow vocabulary.

I think there are three reasons why a layman may be drawn to make uninformed and opinionated claims in linguistics, of all fields. First, linguistics is a relatively young science, with little agreed body of knowledge. While some areas of linguistics developed already in the 18th and 19th century, most of the discipline is much younger than that. Debates between various frameworks and theories are still fierce (e.g., the Generative Semantics wars of the 1970s, or the pro- and anti-Chomskian debates today). While physics, chemistry or biology have a substantial body of shared ideas about the goals and methods of their fields, such basics remain controversial in linguistics. Thus, it is much easier to express an “opinion as good as any other opinion” in linguistics than it would be in a more established scientific discipline.

Second, linguistics has not made its way (yet) into the education system. A reasonably edicated layman would most likely know about Newton’s law of universal gravitation or have some understanding of the Linnean taxonomy of species. And yet, the same layman will probably have no idea what a phoneme is or what is the difference between a preposition and a proposition. In fact, my undergraduate students at Cornell once told me that they were taught in school (note: a good enough school to allow them to get into Cornell!) that a preposition describes “where a squirrel could go” (“under a tree”, “into a box”, “on the table”). What’s worse, linguists do precious little to present their discipline to a wider audience: for example, there are few good, accessible books on linguistics that are also informative and accurate. One of the goals of my blog is to fill this knowledge gap. But, when one knows nothing of a discipline, it is not hard to believe that there is nothing to know. It takes Socratic wisdom to know that you know nothing.

And the third reason — in my mind, the most important one and yet the most preposterous one — is the wide-spread belief that language “belongs” to us, that we “own” it, perhaps even that we “are” it. Many laymen commentators in The Economist debate said something like “I am bilingual and when I think in my two different languages I perceive the world differently”. Personal experience seems sufficient to make claims about language. And yet, personal experience and intuition have as little room in a careful study of language that I advocate as they do in the study of physics, chemistry, biology etc. As I tell my undergraduate students, your pet parrot is not the best ornithologist in the world. When you get sick, you go to the doctor, even though the ailing body is yours and not the doctor’s. Just by virtue of speaking a language, you don’t automatically become an expert in language. Rather, language — like so many other things — can and should be subjected to rigorous methods of description and analysis, taking into account what has already been established and progressing to address well-defined problems through hypothesizing and testing. And this is exactly NOT what amateurish linguistics is all about.


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  • Venelina

    So, so true and sad. HOw could anyone say that speaking two different languages makes you see wolrd in different ways?? To me, speaking two lanuages only makes me realize how connected language and thought are, it facsinates me to see the same consepts and ideas in two different languages it makes me think about the universal nature of human mind and tought. That's what fascinates me in linguistics and I wish people could see below the surface. I tried to explain to somebody about interrelation of language and tought and how many expressions we thought were uniqe to our language are also present in other languages, but he didn't get it! Sometimes I think the problem is that we don't think about anything else any more but the material and perceivable.. And that's sad, to me it is evolution going backwards at least I'll try to make sure I won't wake up one day and turn out to be a monkey:)

  • almony

    I loved that one about the squirrel. :))

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @almony: Yeah, the squirrel was something special… It took me awhile to understand what they were talking about…

    @Venelina: thank you for sharing!

  • John Cowan

    Though I fully agree with your general point, I don't think the intuition of many bilinguals should be so lightly discarded. In some cases it is beyond doubt that the two languages cannot be used in the same internal mental states. My mother, for example, was strongly bilingual in German and English, having immigrated to the United States at age 12. Except for her German accent, which she always retained, she became completely competent in English. But she never learned to do arithmetic in English, and always had to do it entirely in German in her head, reading 123 + 456 = 579 as "ein hundert zwanzig und drei …" This of course would be easy to test by giving her math problems and asking her to verbalize in English while working them out.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    @John: thank you for your comment and for sharing your mother's story. But all it shows is that I am right in saying that "personal experience and intuition have little room in a careful study of language": while your mother might consider herself a "strong bilingual" (as I bet many of the respondents in the Economist debate did), a careful and systematic study of language (acquisition) reveals that a person who leans their second language from the age of 12 or later are not likely to become fully (or balanced) bilingual. There will always be niches where the first language will remain stronger. Arithmetic is one such area.

  • John Cowan

    I meant of course "drei und zwanzig" — I'm not fluent in German.