Who is/isn't a linguist?

s.t. bischoff bischoff.st at gmail.com
Wed Sep 28 21:56:32 UTC 2011

Hello all,

I've been covering "linguistic relativity" with students in a current course
I am teaching. When ever I cover this topic I must pause and wonder at  the
claim often found that "Whorf was an amateur", something students often
notice as well. I pause because I wonder what or who determines when someone
is or is not a linguist. As we all know Whorf published a good number of
papers in respected journals, taught courses at Yale, and so on. Yet, it is
not uncommon to find reference to him as an amateur, that is, not a "real"
linguist. Yet, Boas, who had no formal training in linguistics is one of, if
not the, most important "linguistics" of the 20th century and is regarded as
such. In addition, Chomksy (and Dr. Newmeyer I hope you will correct me here
if I am wrong), has really seemed to have no interest what so ever in
language other than as a "phenomena" of study, the result of the mind/brain
(the real object of study) that allows him to pursue a theory of mind. In
his own words *The phenomena that scientists work with cannot be identified
with the nature of the object they are investigating (personal
communication): in this case the object of study is NOT language but the
mind/brain (if I am understanding correctly). In short, Chomsky seems to
have used language to pursue a theory of mind, not "linguistics"...yet he is
often cited as a "linguist" on par with, if not exceeding, Boas...certainly
his influence has had similar effect.  I am inclined to believe this is in
great part politics, fashion, and image (of the field)...but I wonder if
anyone else might have insights into this issue...as it is one that students
find quite intriguing...which lends itself to bringing them into the field.


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