Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics
language at sprynet.com
Sat Oct 23 04:55:42 UTC 2010
Well, here's my contribution or two to this discussion. As you'll see from
what follows, I don't believe I qualify as an outsider to this field at all,
though others may disagree. Anyway, I might just squeeze in as a "literary
specialist" under your categories, Dr. Newmeyer. First, a confession: I've
never been at a loss when asked how many languages I speak, the answer is
five fluently (six, including British English) plus large or small pieces of
a dozen others.
Brief version of what follows: You're not really a linguist unless you can
speak, translate from, more or less translate into, make at least half-way
clever puns, read, understand local street signs and ads, grasp the
political and social undertones, comprehend cultural & religious factors,
experience the climatic & topographical realities, write at least
first-drafts of articles, and know some of the popular songs in all of your
languages. Not to mention publish non-academic articles, poetry, or fiction
in your primary language.
So-called "mainstream linguistics" ends up being on about the same level of
credibility as all those TV ads for "Rosetta Stone." Just as they claim you
can "learn a language," without bothering to mention whether by "learn" they
mean read, speak, understand what is spoken back to you, translate in either
direction, or simply pick up the general sense, so "mainstream linguistics"
stakes out vast fields of competence but never comes remotely near actually
Just theorizing about languages simply doesn't cut it, however elaborate
your theory may be. Not all the data in the world will save you. All you've
been doing is stamp collecting. Really knowing a language or languages
entails knowing how to design, mint, print, and even circulate the stamps
yourself and watch the locals accept them as genuine.
Here's a more extended view--it comes straight from my recently published
book "THE UNTOLD SIXTIES: When Hope Was Born," subtitled "An Insider's
Sixties on an International Scale." You'll find this passage in the final
chapter, where I discuss how the Sixties succeeded, and where they failed.
Linguistics definitely ends up in the latter category.
One field that truly did not surge ahead during the Sixties was the study of
language, rather it would mutate in just a few decades from a remarkably
liberal outlook to an almost completely reactionary stance. The Forties and
Fifties saw the growth and development of two forces that could have led to
enhanced communication between all peoples everywhere. First, the
descriptivist school, championed by Whorf and Sapir, which sought to bring
about more accurate cross-cultural understanding between remarkably diverse
And second, the once quite powerful semanticist movement, which established
broad principles for helping people to understand each other within our own
society. Unfortunately both were sidetracked before they could fully realize
their goals, leaving behind today little more than the words semantics and
This turnaround was engineered by a small clique of doctrinaire linguists,
who launched a pseudoscientific campaign against these earlier movements. It
was organized around the dubious notion that peoples of all nations are
basically saying the same thing, if only we can figure out the principles
that unite the world's languages. Culture was demoted as a linguistic force
in favor of converting language into mathematical terms as computer code.
This ancient and provably false idea--in itself no more profound than the
still widely believed notion that anyone can master a language in a month, a
week, a weekend, perhaps no more than a few hours--has largely taken over
almost all current linguistic research. Those who do not follow it are
often caught up in a wasteful struggle to resist it.
Advocates of these ideas were able to accomplish this feat thanks to vast
funding from the US government and its Department of Defense, itself
desperate to believe that an easy way of translating all languages into all
other languages could be found, if only to expedite waging war and occupying
foreign lands. Key to this objective was something called computer or
"machine" translation, which as anyone who has ever seen it in action can
testify, does not work, can not work, and will not ever work for any but the
most rudimentary translation tasks.
The same point can be phrased somewhat differently. While most people in our
culture believe they live and deal with something they call reality, to a
fair extent this "reality" has always been at least partially a linguistic
construct, determined by the culture itself. Other people in other cultures
live and deal with what are often significantly different "realities,"
grounded in their own languages. In other words, the true mission facing
linguists during the Sixties was not an abstract or theoretical one, it was
rather practical and utilitarian in nature. Ironically, had it been
accomplished, it might have solved some theoretical problems and suggested
answers for others.
Over the last fifty years our professional linguists ought to have been busy
describing and demarcating precisely how and where these "realities" differ
from one another. It would have been of enormous benefit to both
individuals and entire societies if our linguists had in fact been working
on this task.
But instead almost an entire generation of linguists has in fact missed this
point altogether. Instead of helping to identify and bridge the many gaps
between various culturally determined "realities," they have themselves
fallen into the very trap they ought to have been saving the rest of us
They too have set up their own private version of "linguistic reality,"
which they cling to just as tenaciously as non-linguists do. This leaves
them in no position to seek out solutions to linguistic and cultural
problems, for they have themselves become such a problem. Worst of all,
their totally mistaken view of language attempts to completely ignore the
basic problem by claiming that on some exotic level all languages are truly
alike. They invoke all manner of linguistic and computational logic to
prove how totally right they are, while languages remain impervious to their
arguments and simply go on their own quite divergent ways.
Some of the leaders of this movement affect an independent leftwing outlook,
but they rarely took part in the Sixties causes described in these
pages--rather, they have most often been content to embrace dated,
warmed-over cold-war rhetoric. Overlooked through all these decades has been
the unavoidable truth that the primary purpose of language has never been
Rather, that purpose has been and remains even today to persuade ourselves
against all odds that we understand the world and what is happening around
us. To reassure ourselves that we know what we are talking about, when quite
often we do not. Languages can improvise structures and grammars to serve
this purpose, a crucial concept totally overlooked by mainstream linguistic
theory, transforming the search for a universal structure or grammar into a
purely quixotic one.
The study of linguistics, above all others, ought to have been deeply
rooted in this principle, and if practicing linguists could have based their
study on this truth, they could have provided us with useful insights into
all aspects of our lives. Instead, they themselves have merely fallen into
the same trap, that they believe they know what they are talking about when
often they do not. Fifty years of study have been largely wasted by those
promoting and/or debating theories of little worth. My many published
papers, articles, and conference presentations on these themes can be found
on my website.
A footnote from an earlier version of this section reads:
More information under the linguistics menu at:
but also under the translation and language menus at:
You can find out more about the book at:
With very best wishes to everyone!
----- Original Message -----
From: "Frederick J Newmeyer" <fjn at u.washington.edu>
To: "Funknet" <funknet at mailman.rice.edu>
Sent: Wednesday, October 20, 2010 1:12 PM
Subject: [FUNKNET] Outsiders' views of the value of linguistics
> 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,
> fjn at u.washington.edu
> Frederick J. Newmeyer
> Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
> Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser
> [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]
More information about the Funknet