Who is/isn't a linguist?

Frederick J Newmeyer fjn at u.washington.edu
Thu Sep 29 07:36:05 UTC 2011


All of the leading linguists of history have had ultimate goals that extended beyond analyses of linguistic phenomena per se. Grimm thought of his work on sound changes as leading to a better understanding of human cultural evolution. Saussure's ultimate goal was a theory of signs (not just linguistic ones) that would shed light on shared elements in social interaction. Jakobson would have been the first to reject the idea that a linguist's goals should be 'merely linguistic'.

In any event, one could hardly accuse Chomsky -- over his career! -- of neglecting the analysis of concrete linguistic phenomena. One thinks of his pioneering studies of English auxiliaries, island constraints, binding phenomena, nominalizations, and so on. Most of these studies were carried out after his explicit commitment to develop a theory of mind.


Frederick J. Newmeyer
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
[for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

On Wed, 28 Sep 2011, s.t. bischoff wrote:

> 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.
> Cheers,
> Shannon
> *

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