LINGUIST List 5.665

Thu 09 Jun 1994

Disc: The popularization of linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. R.Y.L. TANG, Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications (re-sent)
  2. Anthea F Gupta, The popularization of linguistics
  3. Logical Language Group, Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics
  4. "George Fowler h(Group, Popularization of linguistics: one pet peeve
  5. , RE: 5.635 Linguistics and popular publications

Message 1: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications (re-sent)

Date: Tue, 7 Jun 1994 00:53:40 +Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications (re-sent)
From: R.Y.L. TANG <>
Subject: Re: 5.588 Linguistics and popular publications (re-sent)

> > Date: Wed, 25 May 94 16:14 PDT
> > From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
> > Subject: Re: 5.603 The treatment of language in popular publications
> >
> > If you want to solve the misperception/ignorance of linguistics (and
> > problem write COMPREHENSIBLE popular books. If you only have time for
> >
> [stuff deleted]
> disdains the desire to talk to the public (or is it an insecurity?), so
> > that one who writes for a "popular" audience could fear being looked down
> > upon and not taken seriously by colleagues. It's more complicated than
> > but I don't want to go on at length here. I'd like to know
> > whether and where this perception comes from, and/or if anyone agrees. My
> > feeling is that linguists who don't want to "waste their time" talking to
> > outsiders, shouldn't waste their time fretting over what outsiders think.
> > Benji
> >
> dear Benji,
> Yes, I have this fear of {eing 'not serious enough' from the viewpoint of
 academic linguistics when writing my articles on English for a daily newspaper
 column.I do want to make my column look different from other similar ones on
 English byHong Kong Chine> se writers, and so I import concepts from
 linguistics in order topopularize those useful to L2 learners of English and
 the general public. Actually, many columnists often use semi-jargon from
 linguistics without explaining them in their articles (e.g. 'pi> an4yu3', =
 phrase/collocation, 'xiu1ci2', = rhetoric/stylistics). This will probably pose
 difficulties to the general reader (although s/he is not interested in the
 semi-jargon *themselves; they are most interested in the use of English
 *words*). Part of > my task is just to explain th
> those semi-technical terms in my articles, apart from talking about popular
 topics on pronunciation, grammar and words, as most columnists do.
> And I won't forget those painful times when I had to look up bits and pieces
 of grammar in linguistics books in order to disseminate a 'professional' and
 'correct' understanding of those technical notions to the public... Well, I
 could haveslacked on all > these but... I believe that it will be a most
 meritorious thing for a linguist to open up his/her world to the reader in a
 contributory way without losing the academic rigour s/he is *expected* to have.
> Best regards,
> Raymond Y.L. Tang
> Dept. of English
> University of Hong Kong
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Message 2: The popularization of linguistics

Date: Tue, 7 Jun 1994 09:00:07 +The popularization of linguistics
From: Anthea F Gupta <>
Subject: The popularization of linguistics

Celso Alvarez Caccamo drew attention to our inability to correct simple
misconceptions about language, Dick Hudson called for linguistics to be
taught in schools, and Paul T Kershaw asked why the Appeal to Authority
doesn't work for linguists. It seems to me that the issue of authority
is central in the debate, as there are competing authorities. Linguists
were one of the groups recently castigated by the Prince of Wales for not
understanding that there was right and wrong in grammar -- the social
need to impose a spurious morality on language is a greater imperative
than the granting of authority to linguists. Few people are ready to
accept that correctness in language is comparable to correctness in dress
or table manners. At best descriptive linguists seem amoral and at worst
(sociolinguists) they seem to be promoting anarchy or revolution. So we
are faced with popularizing and gaining Authority for a discipline whose
central tenets are *anti-authoritarian*.

Anthea Fraser GUPTA
National University of Singapore
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Message 3: Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics

Date: Tue, 7 Jun 1994 13:33:48 -Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics
From: Logical Language Group <>
Subject: Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics

Paul Kershaw writes:

> An important distinction was made by another poster -- the linguist's
> views are, in general, minority views. We are fighting against an
> ethnocentric worldview which is reinforced (not always deliberately)
> by the public education system. Prescriptivism has its strong points;
> like it or not, in order to do business, there is an acceptable style
> of speech which should be mastered. This is societal nonsense, to be
> sure, just as much as hairlength and clothing is societal nonsense,
> but it will only change when enough laypeople go out on a limb and
> risk social acceptance in order to be themselves. So, for now, SAE
> is taught in the schools, but doing so is NOT the same as saying that
> SAE is superior to other dialects of English. But this is a difficult
> concept to get across to people, and is also perhaps one of the more
> deeply embedded beliefs held by the layperson. The more that they're
> exposed to composition course requiring formal SAE, the more the belief
> that SAE is "right" is reified, whether or not the teacher says it is.

Kershaw here expresses views which I take to be typical of the posters
on this thread: a) there exists a false morality (using the word broadly)
among the populace which holds that there are better and worse varieties
of English; b) linguists have an obligation to employ their special
knowledge to overthrow this morality. On what grounds is this view

It seems to me that we have here a classic IS-OUGHT confusion. Linguistics
claims to be an IS subject, one which describes the social/biological
construct called "language" as she is spoke (and, secondarily, as she is
written). As such, linguists have learned many facts about language and
about particular languages. But in addition, since the days of Bloomfield,
linguists-in-general (with exceptions) have carried an ideology as well:
the claim that, because every dialect has equal claim to attention by the
student of language, that society OUGHT to accept every dialect as socially
equal. The characters of Miss Fidditch the schoolmarm, and her younger
brother William Fidditch, the language columnist, are used as bogeymen in this
propagandizing endeavor.

Isn't it possible that there are reasons why SAE, as Kershaw calls the
written standard English of the U.S., is superior for purposes of verbal
exposition to other dialects of English? These are not linguistic reasons,
to be sure, but rather belong to the subject of rhetoric (which I do not
use as a term of abuse). As I understand the term, rhetoric addresses
itself to the appropriate use of words for achieving specific purposes:
to convince, to sway, to entertain, to manipulate, to argue, to threaten,
to praise. As such, it has a great deal to say which linguistics-as-such
does not address.

Rhetoricians are in short supply these days, so perhaps there is an intellectual
power vacuum of the kind discussed by Northrop Frye in his "Polemical Intro-
duction" to >Anatomy of Criticism<: linguists are moving in, as are other
groups. From this point of view, those much-abused courses in "English
composition" are actually courses in applied rhetoric -- I myself have had
some success presenting their material as such, and I would also point you to
(parts of) >Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance<, which concerns itself
among other things with rhetoric and (an equally abused and abusive term)

Furthermore, the existence of standards, and the process whereby something
becomes a standard, is itself a fit subject for investigation by students of
language, whether they call themselves "linguists" or not. Yet many who
do so call themselves act as if the subject matter of part of their
discipline has no right to exist, as if physicists were to rule out the
study of atomic fission because they did not like its applications.

John Cowan sharing account <> for now
 e'osai ko sarji la lojban.
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Message 4: Popularization of linguistics: one pet peeve

Date: Mon, 6 Jun 94 08:52:20 ESTPopularization of linguistics: one pet peeve
From: "George Fowler h(Group <>
Subject: Popularization of linguistics: one pet peeve

This thread about the popularization of linguistics recalls to mind one of my
pet peeves, which boils down to a popular misunderstanding of a linguistic
concept. We've all heard people, in attempting to belittle someone else's
arguments about a matter of dispute, say something like, "That's just
semantics." Well, hell, semantics is important, while this expression attempts
to claim that the statement being disputed isn't meaningful! I suppose what is
meant is "that's just nit-picking" or "that's just a question of wording".
 No doubt this expression can never be uprooted from the language. But it
strikes me as symptomatic of why linguistics isn't popular, and unlikely to be
widely popularized.

 George Fowler GFowlerIndiana.Edu [Email]
 Dept. of Slavic Languages (812) 855-2829 [office]
 Ballantine 502 (317) 726-1482 [home]
 Indiana University (812) 855-2624/-2608/-9906 [dept.]
 Bloomington, IN 47405 USA (812) 855-2107 [dept. fax]
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Message 5: RE: 5.635 Linguistics and popular publications

Date: Mon, 6 Jun 1994 17:27:39 -RE: 5.635 Linguistics and popular publications
Subject: RE: 5.635 Linguistics and popular publications

There is at least one country where the local linguists are known and
appreciated by the general population, where they write columns for the
mass press and are highly respected, and that country is Lithuania. As
an American Baltic linguist who was a Fulbright lecturer at Vilnius
State University (in Baltic linguistics), I can attest to the much higher
prestige and general awareness linguistics and linguists have there.
One reason may be that the local linguists do not tell the populace some-
thing that is counter-intuitive--that linguistic variations don't matter,
that the notion of a "standard language" as opposed to a class or regional
marker is merely a reflection of the public's ignorance, and so on. Once
I remarked how different it was in Lithuania, where the leading Lithuanian
linguists write articles for the press on "standard" usage, helping, as it
were, to create a standard language from what was less than 100 years ago
a collection of dialects. My colleague explained that of course they were
familiar with the notion of "description" as opposed to "prescription" that
Western linguists articulated, but that they--Lithuanian linguists--did not
have that luxury--their standard language was being formed, and if they did
not participate in developing it (and actually they have played the leading
role), others, non-linguists, would.
We linguists look at language from God's perspective, so to speak, and no
doubt God does not take note of our regional, social, class, or ethnic
dialect when we pray, but that human interlocutors DO, is a part of ling-
uistics that cannot be sneered at, mocked, or ignored. It is a real part
of language, and no larger public language columnist will be read who
ignores it. Safire [whose last name must be a variant of Sapir!!!] will
remain popular because he is filling a real (socio-, or psycho-)linguistic
--Jules Levin
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