What is linguistics? What is it good for?

john at research.haifa.ac.il john at research.haifa.ac.il
Sun Oct 23 19:27:44 UTC 2011

Dear Funknetters,
I just got back from South Sudan yesterday and I have to say that my week-long
trip there has given me a pretty good idea of what linguistics is good for.
This country is for the most part educating children from 1st grade in English
even though almost none of the children understand it and this model of
education has been a complete disaster for Africa for more than a century, and
the main reason is not that the government is resistant but that the indigenous
languages have not been developed, and professional linguists have done very
little to help the situation. The writing systems are completely inadequate,
having been designed by missionaries with little linguistic training and little
knowledge of the local languages, and the result is that the speakers read very
slowly no matter how much training they have in reading and are in general
discouraged about trying to read and write their language. Serious linguists
have written a number of potentially useful studies (for example Torben
Andersen's study of Dinka verb morphology) but have not made much effort to
convey this information in a comprehensible way to speakers of the languages.
Missionaries have done basic work to develop writing systems, but they have
been seriously hampered by general lack of training, an overemphasis on
phonetic writing which is both inappropriate for the languages and exaggerates
the number of languages, and a concern with reading as opposed to writing which
means that native speakers' ability to read is even more limited than their
ability to write.
There is a huge amount of important work for real linguists to do, and very few
real linguists doing it.

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