post from Dianne Patterson, U.Arizona

Richard Hudson dick at
Sat Oct 23 10:46:46 UTC 2010

Dear Fritz and everyone else,

All this is rather negative and depressing for linguists, isn't it? 
Which is a shame, because we've actually come a long way in the last 50 
years, partly thanks to Chomsky's insights. (OK, you can all throw your 
bricks at me if you want, but I'm not a Chomskyan; I just think it would 
be extraordinary if his work had been ALL wrong.) But maybe the question 
to ask isn't how good other disciplines think linguistics is, but 
whether anyone else is doing 'our job' better than us. Maybe our job is 
a particularly hard one? And maybe the extreme divisions we find in 
linguistics make it hard for outsiders to define a helpful concept 
'linguist' on which they can pass judgements? E.g. we have plenty of 
colleagues who do corpus linguistics, text-based sociolinguistics or 
field linguistics, with a great deal of hard data and quantitative 
analysis, but psychologists and neuroscientists probably don't know 
about them.

If the rest of the world wants to know about verb paradigms and relative 
clauses, they need a linguist. (Non-linguists sometimes think they can 
do better, but the examples that I've seen don't convince me.) The rest 
of the world may get frustrated by our attempts to analyse such things, 
and may wonder why we're taking such a long time to reach agreement; but 
we've been at it for (probably) four thousand years, and we really are 
trying hard. Maybe all that work has actually given us a depth of 
insight into our subject matter that younger disciplines haven't yet 
achieved? And none of them, incidentally, has to cope with 7,000 
completely different complex systems, all of which somehow have to be 
reconciled with theories developed more or less independently in a bunch 
of neighbouring disciplines ranging from philosophy to neuroscience.

I still think that linguistics is a fantastic area to work in, and I 
love it. I know its weaknesses as well as anyone does, but it has 
enormous strengths as well.

Best wishes, Dick

Richard Hudson

On 22/10/2010 22:33, Tom Givon wrote:
> Dianne Patterson has asked me to post this for her:
> ====================
> Dear All,
> I'm afraid I can't quote anything of interest in the literature, but I 
> second Tom Givon's private experiences.  I have a BA in Philosophy, a 
> Masters in Linguistics, and a PhD in Psychology.
> I've worked on language acquisition, animal-language issues, done 
> fieldwork in a remote region of Mexico, and spent the last 10 years 
> doing neuroimaging work.
> I have found that academics in Psychology, Speech Sciences, Biology 
> and Anthropology think many linguists associated with the old School 
> Chomskian perspectives are out of touch with real data and out of 
> touch with how research is conducted.
> This cultural divide is too bad, since I honestly believe linguists 
> might be able to contribute to these fields if they were a little more 
> willing to appreciate the perspectives, methods and hard work of 
> people in these fields.  Instead, linguists often leave behind them a 
> trail of offended scientists by making a variety of poor choices in 
> their approach:
> -Asserting time and again the sort of quasi-religious dogma that 
> humans are "qualitatively different" than other creatures (this is NOT 
> a scientific hypothesis, it is not clear what it means, nor is it 
> obvious)
> -Assuming that only linguists have any insights into language...and 
> never bothering to learn what other disciplines might have to offer 
> (e.g., well vetted tests in Speech Sciences).
> -Suggesting time and again that real data from real people is of no 
> interest.
> And, if linguists are interested in data:
> -Assuming researchers who have worked long and hard and at great 
> expense to acquire data should just turn it over to the linguist who 
> has contributed nothing and/or offers VERY little (asking for a free 
> ride is not a good way to ingratiate yourself)
> -Thinking of language disordered populations as resources to confirm 
> Chomsky's latests theories with (sorry, these are real people, not lab 
> rats. If you aren't interested in helping, then rethink your goals.)
> I hope that training in linguistics and the attitudes that go with 
> that training can change, because otherwise other academics will just 
> avoid linguists, and that's too bad, because linguists have some 
> unique problem solving skills...and I the "True Believer" linguists 
> give the more reasonable linguists a bad reputation.
> -Dianne

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