What is linguistics? What is it good for?

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Thu Oct 27 12:04:07 UTC 2011

As a meddling mentalist and and a proud cognitive schmognitive type, I'd 
like to invite this insufferable ignoramus to take a hike, preferably a 
long hike, and spread his bile elsewhere--please pretty please--where 
the humanistic tolerance for bullshit is perhaps a bit more extensive. 
FUNKNET was founded explicitly--and I ought to know--to include and 
encourage the apparently offensive idea that language, mind and brain 
are one and the same, and that there is great benefit for linguistic as 
a would-be-someday-maybe science in recognizing the multiple 
connectivities of language. Say, man, who the heck are the "we" that 
have been led astray by those schmognitive meddlers? In whose name are 
you presuming to talk? Could you please attach your VITA to your next 
message, so that we can, for once, have an idea who you are and what you 
claim to actually have done in our field? I have, in my 47 years of 
reading linguistics, have not yet come across a single reference to your 
linguistic work. So, once again--sorry, Paul, you'll have to swallow 
this one too, this time straight, no joke--I am sick & tired of your 
spreading your cheap poison across this net. With profound disgust,  TG


On 10/27/2011 2:48 AM, alex gross wrote:
> 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!!!
> alex
> http://language.home.sprynet.com
> ----- 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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