If You Are Not a Linguist… Learn Some Linguistics First!

Jul 21, 2015 by

CognitiveScienceSeptagramOn March 1, 2015, blogger Joe McVeigh, a self-described “linguistics major who mainly writes about language and linguistics on [his] blog”, wrote a post titled “If you’re not a linguist, don’t do linguistic research”, criticizing an article published in PNAS Online in February of the same year by Peter Sheridan Dodds and colleagues and titled “Human language reveals a universal positivity bias”. In that post, McVeigh made several valid points, but later that month, he wrote another post with the somewhat contrite title “If you’re not a linguist, big deal! (We have cooties and are into weird stuff anyways)”—due mostly to attacks in the blogosphere and social networks. Despite the title, here he offered several more criticisms of Dodds et al.’s paper. Without repeating McVeigh’s arguments, I will just say that they are largely valid and indeed ferret out some of the weak spots in PNAS article. My own critique of Dodds et al. and of an earlier version of the same research project can be found here and here. My overall conclusion about this line of research is that its “linguistic import … is virtually nil” because the researchers ignore, or are ignorant of, some of the most basic linguistic fundamentals. While I do not agree with McVeigh’s initial conclusion that non-linguists should not dare enter the hallowed linguistics temple, I do understand the sentiment behind the title of his earlier post . As a result, I have my own dedicated category for “bad linguistics” on Languages of the World.

More recently, a blog called “Humans Who Read Grammars” (henceforth, the HWRG), written by several young linguists, published a response to McVeigh’s posts, titled “If you are not a linguist…” (it is not clear who the main author of the post is, although Hedvig Skirgård is thanked for contributing to it). It is this response that I feel compelled to comment on. The HWRG post claims that the sentiment that non-linguists shouldn’t do linguistics, which “is quite alive among linguists”, and the accusations on the part of linguists that non-linguists “lack erudition” (and hence do bad work) are “harmful and damaging, to others and ourselves, as well as the field as a whole”. It is this shifting of the blame to linguists that I strongly object to. What I find truly “harmful and damaging” is placing the blame on linguists when non-linguists attempt to do linguistics and do it badly. The charge has the same validity as claiming that women wearing short skirts “are asking for it”—frankly, it is nothing but blaming the victim, as linguistics as a field suffers from unqualified researchers syphoning funding, publication space, time, public attention etc. from the real work in the field.

The HWRG raise two issues that, they claim, contribute to the deluge of “bad linguistics from non-linguists” and the linguists’ (understandable!) frustration with it. The first issue concerns “wars between different linguistic schools on the dissemination of linguistic knowledge” and consequent lack of “a common body of knowledge that the outside world can recognize as the shared space of problems and insights of the field of linguistics as a whole”. Simply put, linguists disagree too much and it confuses the outsiders—who consequently sidestep the entire issue by taking no notice of any work done in linguistics for over 200 years. While it is true that linguists disagree and argue a lot among themselves, the same situation is found in all other academic disciplines and thus hardly merits the moniker of “wars”. My older colleagues say that there is far less hostility among different linguistic “camps” today than there was in the 1960s and 1970s. Linguists on a whole have actually mellowed out. Nor is it clear to me why the authors who post at HWRG think that there should be a total consensus among linguists: after all, it is a science and not an ideology. More importantly, the really important debates (e.g. “Are languages without articles radically different syntactically and/or semantically from those with articles?” or “Are lexical roots marked for category such as “noun”, “verb”, etc.?”, to name just a couple) are simply too technical for non-linguists to see the significance of, and they rarely become a problem for outsiders. But when it comes to more overarching issues, there actually is a body of linguistic concepts, notions, and ideas that most practitioners of linguistics agree on. Two among those core fundamentals are:

1. Language is not merely words, but a system of rules on how building blocks (such as words, but also sounds, morphemes, etc.) are put together.

2. A distinction is to be made between language (knowledge, competence) and speech (use, performance).

These ideas are neither new nor limited to generative (aka Chomskian) linguistics. In fact, both of them were discussed nearly 100 years ago by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Cours de linguistique générale. Yet these two key ideas are disregarded by Dodds et al. In what way can this oversight be blamed on linguists? Rather, I contend, the fault is with non-linguists who think that they can make (and even claim to have made!) earthshattering contributions to a science whose fundamentals they do not understand or choose to ignore. Examples here include an economist who writes about the socio-economic effects of future tense marking without a shred of understanding of how languages handle temporality; evolutionary biologists who claim to have found “decisive support” for a particular theory of Indo-European origins; or computer scientists who declare that “human languages exhibit a clear positive bias”.

A second charge raised against linguists by the HWRG post is what I call the “poor PR problem”: “misrepresentation of linguistic findings in general media”, as well as poor (or even virtually absent) teaching of linguistics in elementary and secondary schools. Therefore, the general public knows less about linguistics than they should; many people have only a vaguest notion (if that!) of what linguistics is about at all. The HWRG cite a case of an educated astronomer from India who “had absolutely no idea what linguistics is about”, but it could as easily have been a psychologist from California or an English teacher from Maine. The problem is real, and linguistics as a field suffers greatly from it. Moreover, it is a problem both broadly recognized in the field (see, for example, David Pesetsky’s 2013 Plenary Address at the Annual Meeting of the LSA) and dealt with, for instance, through the LSA-appointed Committee on Language in the School Curriculum (LiSC). The December 2014 issue of Language, a flagship journal of LSA, was dedicated to the topic of teaching linguistics beyond university-level linguistics programs. I am not saying that we linguists need not do more, but it is important to stress that there is nothing inherent in linguistics as a field that prevents it from being more widely (and better!) taught in schools. Thus, it is hardly the fault of linguists that it is not happening. Unfortunately, less linguistics is taught in K-12 schools in the United States than there used to be, and less than there is in other countries. As a 10- or 11-year-old in a Russian school, I learned the basics of phonological, morphological, and syntactic analysis practically at the same level as I now teach these subjects at Stanford’s undergraduate linguistics program. A railway company magazine in Italy features an article with linguistic terms such as “nouns” and “possessive adjectives”, which the broadest public in Italy is thought to understand. Why the American (or is it more generally, Anglophone) educational establishment thinks that linguistics is either too difficult or not sufficiently important to be taught in K-12 schools is, frankly, beyond my understanding.

Just as the HWRG give the wrong “diagnosis” for the perennial issue of “Who is to Blame?”, their prescription for “What Is to Be Done?” is equally problematic (like David Pesetsky in the abovementioned plenary address, I am referring here to the titles of two great works of Russian literature, by Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky). The HWRG suggest the following three courses of action for linguists to take:

– why not write to Science, Nature, PNAS, as well as the linguistics journals, and volunteer as a reviewer for linguistic papers submitted to them?

– why not contact a journalist and ask them to write an article about your work, or engage with other outreach activities?

– if you encounter a paper by ‘non-linguists’ that you take issue with, why not write to the authors with some constructive criticism? Or publish a response?

Done, done, and done—with no positive effect! A group of experienced, senior linguists representing the LSA have sent a carefully-crafted letter to editors of Science and Nature, pointing out problems with their language-themed publications and offering services in the peer-review process. The response from the editors was dismissive. My co-author Rory van Tuyl has written to Nicholas Wade, a senior science editor of the New York Times, shortly after he published an article trumpeting the work of Quentin Atkinson, Russell Gray and colleagues on the Indo-European issue. Wade responded with a spiteful message, which unfortunately I cannot reproduce here in its entirety due to privacy considerations. Essentially, he saw no solution but to wait till “the current generation of linguists has died off” (his exact words!). He certainly saw no reason to modify his own reporting or to counterbalance his other articles by reporting responses and refutations, including the response to Quentin Atkinson’s earlier article that I co‑authored and published in Science. It should be noted that the editors of Science did not allow any of our linguistic criticisms to be included in the response, only the technical objections.

Yet although I am frustrated with the appalling quasi-linguistic papers written by non-linguists and the publicity they get in major scientific journals and the popular press, I would certainly not argue that non-linguists should be prevented from sailing within 12 nautical miles of our beautiful linguistics island. Thus, my continuation for McVeigh’s conditional “If you are not a linguist…” would be:

1. read a “trade” book, a textbook, an academic monograph or an article on linguistics in general and/or the topic that interests you (note: if a piece of linguistic writing seems to you to be “not accessible enough”, perhaps it is a sign that you are not ready to contribute to the field yet);

2. take a course in linguistics: many schools allow non-students to take or audit undergraduate courses and some schools offer linguistics courses in their continuing education programs; LSA Summer Institute and other summer schools worldwide are also a great place to look for concise linguistics courses; online courses (such as the ones I offer at Stanford Continuing Studies) and MOOCs in linguistics are now also available;

3. attend a linguistics conference, both to get a “feel” for the discipline and to run your ideas by experienced linguists;

4. work with a linguist who can teach you the important fundamentals and keep you from committing the worst blunders characteristic of amateurs entering the field.

But does this not mean that one must effectively become a linguist, even if one is one by training? Yes indeed, but linguistics is neither a race that one has to be born into nor a strictly guarded secret society. We want more people to know what we work on and what we have discovered, and so we teach, we publish, and we do outreach to the general public—as I have done and so have many of my colleagues.

By the way, I am not advocating an unattainable dream that is beyond the reach of any intelligent, educated person. I have personally worked and published joint work with two people who are not linguists by training but have learned enough of the field to make valuable contributions: a historical geographer Martin Lewis, with whom we have recently published a monograph The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, and an engineer Rory van Tuyl, my co-author for the article in Science. I am open to collaborations with other “non-linguists” who are willing to learn rather than blame linguists for their own shortcomings.


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