Mark P. Line mline at ix.netcom.com
Mon Feb 10 11:29:41 UTC 1997

Victor Golla wrote:
> Well, most linguists central to the "field" tradition in the first half
> of this century agreed with all three postulates, and by means of such
> work generated the data on which most of our contemporary understanding
> of language rests.

"Our" contemporary understanding of language? Aren't you the one who was
complaining recently about people attributing this or that to some
"culture" or "community"? Now you're attributing some homogeneous
"understanding of language" to the community of linguists, and you're even
claiming that that homogeneous "understanding" has derived in large part
from the data collected by the members of your favorite pantheon.

Your assumption here is that "our" contemporary understanding of language
is necessarily correct, since it came from such (ostensibly) high-quality
armchair data. Isn't that a little circular? Alternatively, you can grant
that our current understanding may be lacking, whereupon you may be forced
to consider the possibility that the failing is due in part to a lack of
methodologically solid data.

Can a geologist study the structure and history of the Yucatan Karst by
asking tourists to bring some video tapes and a few rocks back? Hardly.

> If Sapir, Whorf, Swadesh, Newman, Haas, and the
> rest of their generation did not do "fruitful" research, I'd be inter-
> ested to know who you think did or does and to what extent this can be
> attributed to living in "field" conditions a la Malinowski.

The people at SIL do.

Whorf, with his armchair interviews of a Hopi speaker, was no doubt having
lots of fun, but he wasn't doing methodologically sound linguistic
research. His descriptions of time semantics in Hopi (which played a
pivotal role in his arguments for the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)
were utterly off-the-wall, and he probably wouldn't have been able to
correct his vast mistake without learning the language fluently. And it's
improbable that he would have been able to do that without immersing
himself in a Hopi-speaking community.

Of course, actually going to the Hopi villages wasn't convenient for an
insurance salesman living in New York City, so a generation or two of
linguists and anthropologists have grown up with the kind of poppycock
this well-meaning amateur managed to concoct.

I can just see Whorf's informant telling him that "Hopi doesn't have a
concept of time", and Whorf writing down in his notebook "Hopi doesn't
have a concept of time". This reminds me of native speakers of Mandarin or
Cantonese telling me "Chinese doesn't have any grammar".

No, watching some home movies and analyzing chunks of Yucatan limestone
just won't cut it, methodologically. And being somehow unable or unwilling
to do real fieldwork is no excuse. Not every linguist has to do fieldwork
(but no linguist should do the kind of armchair, methodologically slipshod
"research" you're talking about, except in the most extreme of salvage
situations), and not everybody has to do linguistics.

> Much as
> I respect--even honor--the SIL enterprise (religion aside), I see no
> great insights that have come from their work.

I guess it depends on what you're counting as "great insight". Not
everybody does fieldwork to track down a clever argument for the latest
ideas on the movements of alpha -- some people do it in order to capture
languages descriptively, period, and some of those even know to what end
they're writing the description (salvage, education, linguistic database,

As to SIL's output: a library full of grammars, phonologies and
dictionaries certainly seems to be "great insight" enough to me, in terms
of actually describing languages. There are many other "great insights" to
be gained concerning human language, but they are not the primary task of

Cannot the distinction between ethnography and ethnology apply analogously
to linguistics? What "great insights" do you expect from any given
ethnographic monograph? I don't expect that kind of thing at all (although
it's nice when it occasionally happens) -- I expect good, solid
description that can serve as the empirical foundation for ethnological
theorizing. So why can't linguistics work the same way? (Big hint: It can.
It does. But not everybody participates, and the mainstream has painted
itself into a corner in any event.)

-- Mark

(Mark P. Line   ----   Bellevue, Washington   ----   mline at ix.netcom.com)

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