Uralic studies and General Linguistics

Johanna Laakso jolaakso at cc.helsinki.fi
Mon Feb 1 12:37:27 UTC 1999

Dear All,

Kari Pitkänen just sent me a lengthy e-mail, reacting quite heavily to my
latest posting, especially to what I said about the Department of General
Linguistics. I must admit that his reaction is justified. My apologies!

It seems that I have really misunderstood the situation of the Department
of General Linguistics, on the basis of some optimistic statements I heard
(and, obviously, misunderstood) and didn't check. I should have known
better and *checked the facts*; the disastrous measures that affect our
department (and our faculty, and our University) certainly don't leave
them untouched. Please consider this an act of stupidity, not

However, the point I wanted to make was not there. I still think that the
relationship of general linguistics and other linguistic disciplines is in
constant need of clarification. When linguistics emerged as a discipline
of its own right, many representants of "traditional" language studies
questioned its raison d'être; my academic generation grew up with horror
stories about the past, like a Post-Neogrammarian professor of Finnish (I
forgot who it was) proclaiming: "What do we need general linguistics for,
we have a Department of Finnish!" (In the early 1980's, the tide had
already turned and my generation of students was
taught that in fact the General Linguists were the Good Guys and the older
generation of Fennists came pretty close to Bad Guys. The debate between
"Linguists" and "Fennists" has been extensively treated in Urho Määttä's
PhD thesis, 1994.)

In the times of Generativism, general linguistics could very conveniently
be understood as studies concerning universal grammar and the like,
wandering in the logico-mathematical realms of pure reason above the messy
facts of language, any language. (I do hope I don't offend anyone - this
is just an idea of what it could seem to an outsider in those times, not
what general linguists themselves thought or maintained! And for what I am
going to say, it is outsiders' ideas that matter.)

But now - it seems that with more down-to-earth and pluralist approaches
to language, general linguistics and other linguistic disciplines overlap
to some degree. A lot of the research done in the Dept. of GL could also
be done in other departments, and at least some of the research done in
other departments is also highly relevant for GL. In recent years, the
Department of GL has also shown more and more interest towards "small" or
"exotic" languages. Since GL now has an indisputable status and admirable
achievements that make it unthinkable to question its right to existence,
the question is slowly moving towards the other linguistic disciplines.
What is their special function, beside producing English/German/Finnish
etc. teachers? And what is the idea of those language departments that
don't produce school teachers? Is it possible that some high bureaucrats
consider this and start cutting what they think is superfluous?

Please note: I'm not conjuring images about Big Bad General Linguistics
devouring helpless little language departments. We need cooperation, and
cooperation between linguistic departments has already been initiated by
Prof. Karlsson of the Dept. of GL! What I am trying to say is that beside
cooperation we need discussion, discussion and discussion about the
problematic relationship of these disciplines - disciplines that are
forced, by higher authorities, to fight for the same ever-decreasing
resources. A great part of the problems, I think, comes simply from not
knowing each other, not knowing the facts (myself a sad example!!!), and
NOT SPEAKING UP. (Thank you, Kari!)

---------- Johanna Laakso <Johanna.Laakso at Helsinki.FI> ----------------
--------- Helsingin yliopisto, Suomalais-ugrilainen laitos ------------
----------------- http://www.helsinki.fi/~jolaakso/ -------------------
-- "Feministi on nainen, jolla on mukavat kengät."  - Robin Williams --

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