Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Wed Oct 20 19:25:28 UTC 2010

There is a current lead article in the ON THE HUMAN forum (you may 
google it), also co-published by the NY Times. The topic is the 
evolution of morality and religion, and the author is the celebrated 
primatologist and evolutionary thinker Frans de Waal. Somewhere in 
there, he expresses his profound disappointment at the Cartesian 
Exceptionalism pursued by 'some linguists'. De Waal is too gentle to 
name names, but for those of us who know the evolutionary discussion 
(Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002), the reference is rather transparent. And 
it expresses the recurrent mystification of scientists I know 
(biologists, evolutionary psychologists, cognitive neuro-scientists) 
about linguistics.

A fairly recent conference convened four discussion groups (evolutionary 
biologists, neuro-scientists, computer modelers, linguists) to talk 
about the biology and evolution of grammar. Members of the non-linguist 
groups dropped in periodically to sit on the linguists' discussion. 
Their uniform private reaction to me was bafflement--at the supreme 
irrelevance of the linguists' discussion to the topic at hand. I told 
them 'welcome to the club'.




Frederick J Newmeyer wrote:
> Hello,
> For a survey article that I'm writing, I plan to assemble quotes from people outside the field of linguistics on what they see as the value, or lack of value, of work done in linguistics. So I would like to cite published quotes from psychologists, anthropologists, literary specialists, etc. on their views about the value/relevance of linguistics for their particular concerns and its value/relevance in general. Can anybody help me out by pointing me to relevant quotes?
> Let me give one example of the sort of thing that I am looking for. The late computational linguist Fred Jelinek reportedly wrote: 'Whenever I fire a linguist our system performance improves'. 
> Thanks. I'll summarize.
> Best wishes,
> --fritz
> fjn at u.washington.edu
> Frederick J. Newmeyer
> Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
> Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
> [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

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