What is linguistics? What is it good for?

alex gross language at sprynet.com
Thu Oct 27 08:48:22 UTC 2011

John, thanks many times over for your contribution to the What's Linguistics 
good for? thread!  And especially for your conclusion:

"There is a huge amount of important work for real linguists to do, and very 
few real linguists doing it."

I too have just gone through a fairly life-altering experience persuading me 
that you must be entirely correct. Three weeks ago I entered NYC's Beth 
Israel hospital for total knee replacement surgery & just last Thursday got 
booted out immersed in the absolute certainty--despite a painful limb, 
diminished vision, & drug-soaked nerves--that I am fabulously lucky to have 
been granted the truly magnificent opportunity at 80 to learn how to walk 
all over again along with the realization that I am just about humble enough 
to accept this opportunity.

And that despite the multitudinous differences, learning a language--or 
learning how to teach a language--or even learning how languages in general 
are likely to work--all ultimately count as pretty much analogous tasks.

In other words much of what we do--including just about all of 
linguistics--is at least 95% physical, physiological, habitual, observable, 
repeatable, subject to diagnosis & treatment.  And what's more it's always 
been that way.  We've all been led astray from this simple truth by a flock 
of meddling mentalists.  Cognitive, Schmognitive!!!

For the last three generations there's been far too little real work in our 
field subdivided among far too many self-proclaimed specialists constantly 
disputing each other's ill-informed opinions. And aloft in the clouds 
underwriting this process at every stage have been DOD's DARPA & other 
funding entities desperate to proclaim vast breakthroughs whether or not 
they have actually occurred. We've had all the pride & pretentiousness of 
science & far too little of the rigor.

I've never been much of a sports fan, so it's a bit humiliating for me to 
admit that learning a language is a lot closer to learning how to throw & 
catch a ball than it is to any theory ever concocted to explain the process. 
And whenever we drop the ball, we have to figure out why we dropped it & 
come up with a way of not dropping it the same way again.  Which is where 
translation comes in, our method for not dropping the ball in the same way 
again, what I just finished calling the "Prototype of all Communication." 
John & everyone, please forgive me, I beg you, not only for quoting myself, 
but for quoting something i posted here just a few weeks ago:

It may well be in all the stages of our learning that every single new word 
or concept we encounter, even in our primary language, actually requires an 
act of explanation, enlightenment, clarification--in short translation--for 
us to understand it. Such an act may be provided by a teacher, a helpful 
friend, a dictionary or other reference book, or the closer reading of a 
text. But whatever form it takes, such an act of translation is most often 
absolutely crucial for us to grasp the meaning. And we ourselves--what we 
call our "knowledge" and our "understanding"--may be to a fair extent the 
sum total of these countless acts of translation.

I realize of course that seemingly simplistic claims such as this one can 
when posted here come in for more than their share of criticism, ridicule, 
dismissal. I ask only that anyone who may feel moved in this direction at 
least glance at my website, where some of my background in language, 
medicine, and related topics is mentioned.

Very best and warmest to everyone here!!!



----- Original Message ----- 
From: <john at research.haifa.ac.il>
To: "Rong Chen" <rchen at csusb.edu>
Cc: <FUNKNET at listserv.rice.edu>
Sent: Sunday, October 23, 2011 3:27 PM
Subject: [FUNKNET] What is linguistics? What is it good for?

> 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.
> John
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
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