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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