Who is/isn't a linguist?

Daniel Everett dan at daneverett.org
Thu Sep 29 09:38:12 UTC 2011

Shannon, Fritz, and all,

The question of "who is a linguist" might be little more than the vestige of what Popper and others called "essentialism," harking back to Plato. Probably not a lot of use in trying to sharpen the denotation of the term by getting at the essence of what it refers to.

What group one belongs to is a matter of taste and preference. Linguists form a group of people with shared values. People who share more values will identify more with one another. Some linguists share more values with each other than they do with others who call themselves linguists and so the natural tendency is for the one group to think that their values are better markers than those of the other group. More generally, are their values that can be called "linguistic?" Then those who share them are linguists, if one finds that sort of thing useful.

On the other hand, if by "linguist" we refer to a profession, then I think that the number of linguists will shrink over the next few years due to the pressures on higher education and the values of incoming students, which include employment. If we cannot provide employment, yet label people based on what they are paid to do, the reference set of "linguist" will shrink.

So I think it is vital that we think about what it means to be a linguist in light of the employment problem. For many years, I have become more convinced that linguistics PhD programs, like many PhD programs in the humanities, are borderline Ponzi schemes. I have written on this in Inside Higher Ed (http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/08/30/essay_on_how_humanities_can_be_strengthened_by_embracing_ties_to_professional_education). 

When Peter Ladefoged was the chair of linguistics at UCLA he sent out a letter to prospective applicants to tell them about the US job market and to suggest that they had little chance at getting a job at a research university (this was over 30 years ago!) and that perhaps the best linguistics of the future would be done by plumbers and carpenters.

The profession needs to ask itself whether Whorf himself embodied the future. Very good linguistics by moonlighting, being a talented hobbyist.

-- Dan  

On Sep 29, 2011, at 3:36 AM, Frederick J Newmeyer wrote:

> Shannon,
> 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.
> --fritz
> 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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