LINGUIST List 5.1022

Wed 21 Sep 1994

Disc: Informant: last posting

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound
  2. , Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound
  3. rex a sprouse, Informant vs. Consultant
  4. "Ellen L. Contini-Morava", informant
  5. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 5.1020 Sum: Informant

Message 1: Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound

Date: Mon, 19 Sep 1994 15:46:21 Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound
From: <>
Subject: Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound

>On Mon, 12 Sep 1994, Anthea F Gupta wrote:
>> I just learnt that the use of the word "informant" may be considered
>> offensive, at least in the US. I've been using it for years, but when
>> publishing in Europe have never had it changed. Would be interested to
>> hear how much agreement there is that the word "informant" is offensive.
>I don't think that the word "informant" is necessarily a STRONGLY
>offensive word for most people under most circumstances, but in some
>cases it can convey the sense that a member of group A is "squealing" to a
>researcher from group B about group A's (linguistic) secrets, perhaps in
>exchange for money. Even when that is obviously not the case, I prefer the
>term "consultant," as do, I think, a very number of linguists in the
>United States and Canada, at least. I would be interested to learn to
>what extent the term "consultant" or its translation has caught on in other
>parts of the globe.
>Rex A. Sprouse
>Indiana University

The term "informant" was, in my experience, in pretty much
unquestioned use until Watergate. In field work in West Africa in the
'60s, at UCLA and Illinois into the '70s, and at African linguistics
conferences through that period the term was used without raising questions of
appropriateness. I also heard it used regularly at SIL during the
Summer of 1968 at the U of Oklahoma (but I have to admit I was more
interested that summer in the young woman I would shortly marry than
in what anyone else was saying or doing).

I think it was at the 1973 or 74 African Linguistics Conference that
we first got into a discussion of whether that word should be used of
those who work with us as native speaker specialists and consultants.
We had an extended discussion of the matter, and there was near
unanimity that they were consultants and partners, not simply
information sources. Many of us agreed that Watergate had sullied the
formerly acceptable title "Informant." The sense was that the press,
for want of a better dead horse to whip, found "informer" unacceptable
and tried to make Deep Throat and his/her counterparts sound a little
better by calling them informants. The effect was to degrade the term
informant. Several Anglophone participants suggested the term
"collaborator," which the Francophone participants took exception to,
and several others indicated that they could get money from their
deans for informants more easily than for consultants.

The conference attendants left the matter hanging about where it is
now. We didn't like what the networks had done to "informant," and
many of us went on to pursue the strategy of avoiding reference to the
word by some initial circumlocation and then later reference to the
person(s) by name.

Herb Stahlke
Ball State University
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Message 2: Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound

Date: Mon, 19 Sep 1994 19:25:06 Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound
From: <>
Subject: Re: 5.1009 Varia: LINGUIST correction, Informant, New sound

 I came across an empirical study of informants' reaction to being
called "informant" and I wonder if that might be the source of American
linguists' objections against the term, rather than the recent era of political
correctness. The study elicited responses to different terms that might be
The study elicited responses to different potential terms that could be used
 from "persons qualified to serve as sources of
data for the Linguistic Atlas" and found that the subjects had unfavorable
responses to "informant" because of its association with "informer." The author
suggested to replace "informant" with "co-worker," "respondent," "co-operator,"
or some other term.

Here is the exact reference:
Gerald Udell in collaboration with John McKenna, Sara Chapman, Francis Xavier,
and Johnnie D. Ragsdale, Jr. 1972. "Responses of co-workers to the word
informant." In Studies in Linguistics in Honor of Raven McDavid, Jr. ed. by
L.M. Davis.

Vera Horvath
Dept. of English
Ball State University
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Message 3: Informant vs. Consultant

Date: Tue, 20 Sep 1994 08:55:50 Informant vs. Consultant
From: rex a sprouse <>
Subject: Informant vs. Consultant

On Thu, 15 Sep 1994, Lee Hartman wrote:

> At the risk of politicizing discussion, I must interject my intuition
> that the recent disrepute in America of the traditionally neutral
> linguistic term "informant" has come about as a reflection of the
> so-called "political correctness" movement in the U.S.
> This, in addition to a confusion with the word "informer", which -- unlike
> "informant" -- has a history of meaning one who informs against another.
> With the help of an ordinary dictionary, the general public should be able
> to distinguish between the two words (look them up for yourself!);
> it's only professional linguists who get squeamish about them.
> Meanwhile, for the general public, it is the "consultant" who is
> trading services for money, usually based on special training and
> expertise. If we insist on jogging these words around into one another's
> semantic slots, we shouldn't be surprised if our profession gets accused
> of unnecessary jargonizing.

 With the help of an ordinary dictionary (Webster's Ninth New
Collegiate Dictionary, 1990), one can indeed distinguish "informant" and
"informer": An "informer" is either simply anyone who "imparts knowledge
or news" or, more specifically, "one that informs against another ...
esp. for a financial reward..." An "informant" is "one who gives
information: (a): INFORMER; (b) one who supplies cultural or linguistic
data in response to interrogation by an investigator." Thus, the
relationship between the two words is the sense of "informer" is
contained within one of the senses of "informant."

 I fail to see how this dictionary exercise brings us any further
in the discussion. The reason for the recent stigmatization of the term
"informant" results precisely from the intuition that while this word has
had a specific sense in linguistic and social science circles, it also
has another sense associated with dubious ethics. To my ear,
"consultant" is a much more neutral term than "informant" with respect to
ethics. On another front, "consultant" conveys a sense of respect for
the individual supplying the data, while "informant" CAN convey a (mild)
sense of contempt.

 In terms of the politics of the discussion, I think that in the
United States we have seen a kind of Orwellian development with the use
of the term "politically correct" as a PEJORATIVE term. Someone
introduces an idea or proposal based on ethical considerations. An
opponent of that idea or proposal immediately labels it as "politically
correct," as if everyone would immediately recognize that ethical
considerations have no place in political, social, or professional
discourse, and in fact that it should count against the idea or proposal
that it has an ethical basis.

Rex A. Sprouse
Indiana University
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Message 4: informant

Date: Wed, 21 Sep 1994 09:54:30 informant
From: "Ellen L. Contini-Morava" <>
Subject: informant

 In a recent issue of LINGUIST those who are "squeamish"
about using the term 'informant' in the context of linguistic
field work were accused of excessive "political correctness" and
enjoined to look up the difference in meaning between the terms
'informant' and 'informer' in the dictionary. This is a strange
piece of advice to come from a linguist, who presumably knows
that dictionaries hardly control, and often don't even represent,
the everyday use of language by speakers. Weren't we all taught
the difference between "prescriptive" and "descriptive"
(problematic as it is), in Ling. 101? Rather than referring to a
dictionary, I would encourage people to collect some real data,
such as the following:

 "According to a report by Capt. James Vick of the 96th
[Civil Affairs Battalion, which has been assigned to monitor the
refugees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp], who also served
in Panama and in Desert Storm, the unit develops 'networks of
informants' among the Haitian detainees and works with Marine
Corps Counterintelligence in 'identifying ringleaders of unrest
and in weeding out troublemakers'." (The Nation, Oct. 3, 1994,
p. 347)

Presumably the 96th Battalion is not engaged in an investigation
of Haitian Creole.

Ellen Contini-Morava
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Message 5: Re: 5.1020 Sum: Informant

Date: Wed, 21 Sep 94 13:03 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.1020 Sum: Informant

In 1962 I had my first course in linguistics at UCLA taught by
the great Harry Hoijer. I remember vividly the lecture in which
he talked about field methods and mentioned that lingtuists worked with
native language speakers who were called 'informants'. He then went
to the black board and wrote ' i n f o r m A N T' saying "note I said
informANT not informER". He went on "I think we should find a different
term for native language consultants."

A number of years later the issue was raised in the Linguistics Department
at UCLA and we decided to substitute the term 'native language consultant'
and then it was raised at the LSA.

During the McCarthy era, with its loyalty oaths, jailing of innocent people
the blacklists, the murder of the Rosenbergs, the loss of jobs, the virtual
terror against the left (and not so left) the two terms became synonymous.
Both referred to individuals who gave information (primarily names of others)
to the FBI, CIA, and other police authorities.

I am sure our non-US colleagues would understand why we do not wish to imply
that the speakers of languages who are helping us in our studies should
be identified by such a term even unwittingly. Vicki Fromkin
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