18.305, Disc: An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms

Mon Jan 29 16:42:35 UTC 2007

LINGUIST List: Vol-18-305. Mon Jan 29 2007. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 18.305, Disc: An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms

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Date: 25-Jan-2007
From: Alexander Gross < language at sprynet.com >
Subject: An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms 

-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Mon, 29 Jan 2007 11:36:44
From: Alexander Gross < language at sprynet.com >
Subject: An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms 

How convenient to suppose that the study of linguistics ''works in the same way
that chemists find some utility in divorcing the components of a compound of
interest from one another.''  But chemistry can look back to well over two
centuries of continued progress with indisputable practical spin-offs cropping
up almost every year since Lavoisier.  What precise counterparts can mainstream
linguistics point to during the past fifty years (or arguably since Saussure one
century ago)? Is it possible that such a claim does not take us headlong into
what Stephen Jay Gould in 1981called ''physics envy,'' even if the object of
envy here is not physics but chemistry?

I find it amazing how little the self-justifications for mainstream linguistics
have changed over recent decades.  It is almost as though some of these scholars
are trapped in a time-warp of collective self-indulgence. I also fail to detect
here any evidence that an attempt has been made to read the essay I referred to.
 Anyone who read it would have found references to such further real world
phenomena as translation, theatre, Nazism and related totalitarianisms,
concentration camps, guilt and innocence, and possible corruption within the
world of academic funding, even though some mainstream apologists will assure us
that none of these matters can possibly have any relationship to language, much
less the sheer abstract glory of linguistics itself.  As for my two Dartmouth
presentations on Evidence Based vs. Voodoo Linguistics, cited by Alex
Kravchenko, I see no sign that any attempt has been made to look at these
either.  But of course mainstream linguists do not need to, for they  know in
advance that all such material, including Kravchenko's message, Dalrymple's
article, and the Codrescu NPR statement, can rank as nothing more than
''philology.''   There seems to be an incurable faith among mainstream linguists
that they actually qualify as scientists, that their favorite doctrines must
somehow also rank as scientific breakthroughs on a Galilean or Einsteinian
scale.  But I believe nothing could be further from the truth.  This system of
belief also seems to be quite lacking in one other crucial element of
science--the slightest trace of skepticism.

Little wonder then that the prime movers of this fantasy have sought to shift
the ground of their work from language to philosophy, psychology, or
''cognitive'' spin-offs, even going so far as to rebaptize their MIT nerve
center as the ''Department of Linguistics & Philosophy.''  But I see the primary
basis of language as neither philosophical nor psychological nor cognitive in
nature--rather it is far more likely to emerge as primarily physiological,
springing from the lungs and breath, the bronchi, the larynx, lips, and tongue,
not to mention--at least in the case of trained speakers--almost every muscle in
the body.  Which is not to neglect all the ways these organs can fail to work
harmoniously together nor the presence of other factors.  This means that our
study can probably never be any more (or less) precise than other physiological
processes. More about this can be found in my material on
Evidence Based Linguistics.

Here's something more about ''physics envy'' by the astrophysical engineer
and satellite designer C.B. Pease.  I wonder how many contributors to
Linguist List may find his description familiar:

''Physics is widely regarded as Top Science, because it is `exact'.  Its
theories are simple and elegant.  And they are always followed to the
letter--except when they are not (Big Bang).  I started out as a physicist,
and I don't see what is so special about it at all.

''But many `inexact' scientists do.  For generations they have been trying
to raise the status of their respective sciences by attempting to prove
that they are exact too.  They devise simple elegant theories for the
natural world to obey.  And the natural world fails to oblige.  The result
is gargantuan battles between different camps, over which over-simplified
theory (sometimes grossly so) is correct.  And they are still doing it.
One meets the phenomenon of the `acrimonious debate' quite often in the

One also frequently finds a dismissal of ''eloquence'' in mainstream
literature.  But in a field so chaotically uprooted as linguistics today,
eloquence may in fact be the closest we may come towards ever achieving
clarity, perhaps even ''science.''

All the best to linguists everywhere!



Codrescu, Andre. The Human Art of Translation. NPR interview audible at:

Dalrymple, Theodore.  The Gift of Language.  City Journal, Autumn, 2006.
online at:

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. 1981. New York: Norton.

Gross, Alexander.  Translator's preface to a his second version of Weiss'
''The Investigation,'' written as part of commission.  Online at:

--Two essays on Evidence Based Linguistics vs. Voodoo Linguistics, online at:

Kravchenko, Alexander. An Intelligent Man's Answer to Linguistic Truisms.
online at:

Pease, C.B. Physics Envy. Online at:

Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
                     Computational Linguistics
                     Discipline of Linguistics
                     General Linguistics
                     History of Linguistics
                     Linguistic Theories
                     Philosophy of Language

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