Who is/isn't a linguist?
Angus B. Grieve-Smith
grvsmth at panix.com
Thu Sep 29 18:30:56 UTC 2011
Some very interesting discussion on this topic. In fact, it echoes
similar debates you can find all over about categories, which on a deeper
level turn out to be about boundary policing.
We're not just linguists here, we're functionalists, so I want to bring in
George Lakoff's presentation of Eleanor Rosch's theories. I blogged about
them in connection with fights in the transgender community over questions
like, "Who is/isn't a woman?" "Who is/isn't transgender?" and most
recently, "Who is/isn't transsexual?"
In these terms, what Dan refers to as platonism is the act of treating a
radial category as a simple category. In reality, the category of
"linguist" has a prototype (went to MIT, works in a formalist framework,
studies syntax, works on English, has an academic job, has time and
funding for research), and a bunch of satellite subcategories, and we can
apply Lakoff's "but test" to it:
1) She's a linguist, but she doesn't study syntax.
2) #She's a linguist, but she studies syntax.
and so on:
3) #She's a linguist, but she has research funding. (This may not be as
strange as it sounds, indicating shifting of the prototype.)
4) #She's a linguist, but she works in the Minimalist framework.
In the transgender categories, the platonism masks a very real
boundary-policing going on, which is ultimately a fight over resources.
Funding for transgender community outreach is scarce, and someone doesn't
want the transvestites getting any of it, so they're "not really
transgender." Since I'm on the job market, I will leave the implications
of "who is/isn't a linguist" as an exercise for the reader.
I will point out that once, when I mentioned a career path similar to
Whorf's, I was told that a particular institution "doesn't grant
recreational Ph.D.s." And Sherman may remember a meeting where he was
essentially forced to tell me that I couldn't do my dissertation on
sign-language synthesis because the topic wasn't theoretical enough. (I
have to mention that I learned a ton of useful stuff in the graduate
seminar I took with him.)
The natural reaction is to say, "Who says I'm not a linguist? Damn
straight I'm a linguist! You're the one who's not a linguist!" That's
essentially what Shannon did, and I sympathize with it. But under the
Roschian view, there are simply different senses of "linguist." In one
sense, Whorf was not a "real linguist," and in another sense, Chomsky is
not a "real linguist."
If we want to get past the boundary policing, we need to ask, "why does it
matter who's a linguist?" Is it about credibility, or funding, or jobs?
If so, we can restate these claims as "Whorf doesn't deserve to be taken
seriously because he didn't have a tenured academic position." Or "Person
X shouldn't get the job because she doesn't do formalist syntax." Or
"Person Y shouldn't get the grant because he didn't go to the right
school." But then we'd have to be honest with our prejudices and power
So, have I ruined my chances in this ultra-competitive market for a
tenure-track job in functional linguistics yet?
-Angus B. Grieve-Smith
Adjunct Assistant Professor
Saint John's University
grvsmth at panix.com
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