A question for Fritz

Daniel Everett dan at daneverett.org
Sun Oct 24 14:52:40 UTC 2010


This seems right on from my perspective. I think that there is still a myth, taking a long time to die, that generative grammar somehow advanced our knowledge of the mind. That is an exciting idea, so its popularity, from my experience, is strongest among those who believe that myth, propagated in numerous popular books, leading to  the 'plethora of instincts' phenomenon (music instinct, language instinct, art instinct, faith instinct, and so on).

But among people from anthropology, sociology, and other fields, the kinds of contributions you mention are most respected, again in my experience. There are no more enduring works than grammars, dictionaries, and enduring archives of sounds, visual culture, and so on. These plus the best of historical research are always going to be at the top of linguistics' contributions to world knowledge.  It is possible that interactions between linguists and computer scientists are of similar importance. But here the contributions are perhaps more variable. 

Structural linguistics, especially as seen in the work of Levi-Strauss (though see my obituary of L-S here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1881) was less impressive to me than the descriptive linguistics of Sapir (descriptive linguistics being the in-depth accounting, using structural linguistics perhaps, of the 'genius' of each language).  

I did receive, a very pleasant surprise, a longish letter from Ward Goodenough, to whose work you alluded, a few months ago that indirectly reminded me of his valuable contributions.

-- Dan

On 24 Oct 2010, at 00:33, Andrew Pawley wrote:

> Dear Fritz
>> ps: The authors of the target article tacitly equate linguistics 
>> with generative grammar, though I am not aware of other 
>> approaches to linguistics enjoying tremendous prestige among 
>> those in the humanities, social sciences, and cognitive sciences.
> -- Here I think you're being too gloomy.  In the parts of the world whose languages I work on, mainly the Pacific Islands and Island SE Asia, several kinds of linguistic work are held in high regard by and have been influential in the thinking of archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, population geneticists, and writers of popular science like Jared Diamond, among others.  I’m thinking in particular of (i) historical linguistics, (ii) grammars and dictionaries, (iii) work on lexical semantics.
> (i) Historical linguistics.  In the 18th century, and especially after the three great voyages of Cook 1768 and 1779, comparative linguistic evidence dominated theories of the human settlement of the Pacific.  Word lists showing close resemblances between Polynesian, Malay, Tagalog and Malagasy provided the most powerful evidence then available.  In modern times the syntheses of SE Asian and Pacific prehistory by archeologists like Bellwood, Green, Kirch and Spriggs, and by popularisers like Diamond, all give great weight to the testimony of historical linguistics. Unsurprisingly, members of other historical disciplines have little interest in the fine points of theories of language change.  What they care about in historical linguistics is mainly family trees, patterns of diffusion, and lexical reconstructions that throw light on the culture and environment of prehistoric communities.
> I dare say quite similar stories could be told about a number of other regions (though in few places do the stories told by archaeologists and historical linguists jibe so well as those concerning the dispersal of Austronesian-speaking sailor-farmers across Island SE Asia and the Pacific).  Work on the history of Indo-European languages surely holds a place of some eminence in Western intellectual history.  Darwin was among the first to comment on close parallels between the family models of historical linguistics and evolutionary biology. Population geneticists today typically do their sampling in terms of language families and subgroups and try (often without much success) to correlate particular genetic clades with particular language groups. We have seen Cavalli-Sforza and his associates trying to do this on a grand scale.
> (ii) Descriptive works. Grammars and dictionaries are probably the most enduring legacies of linguistic research.  Of course, scholars in other disciplines, and the general public, value these as works of reference and are little concerned with advances in theory that underpin (and sometimes stem from) improvements in grammar writing. But some are interested in cross-linguistic generalisations, which brings me to
> (iii) Lexical semantics. Certain theorists in the social sciences,  especially in social and cognitive anthropology, have a keen interest in lexical semantics and there has been quite a bit of cross-disciplinary interaction between linguists and anthropologists in this domain. The vast literature stemming from Kay and Berlin’s ideas about colour term universals is an example, as is the work on universals of folk taxonomies of flora and fauna by Berlin and his associates.  In social anthropology key concepts such as mana and taboo have come from the study of Pacific Island languages and societies. 
> And, at a more general level, think of the influence of structural linguistics on the work of Levi-Strauss, Lounsbury, Goodenough and Roger Keesing, among other anthropologists.  
> Regards
> Andy Pawley 

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