LINGUIST List 5.675

Fri 10 Jun 1994

Disc: The popularization of linguistics

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  1. , Re: The popularization of linguistics
  2. "Dorine S. Houston", Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics
  3. , The popularization of linguistics

Message 1: Re: The popularization of linguistics

Date: 9 Jun 94 17:35:33 SAST-2
From: <>
Subject: Re: The popularization of linguistics

John Cowan writes as follows:

> 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
> founded?
> 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.
> 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.

I agree with this entirely. But my experience as a panellist on a
radio programme fielding listeners' queries about 'correct' English
may be relevant.

When someone writes in complaining that they heard someone say/write
e.g. "who did you see?" instead of "whom did you see?", and invites
the panel to issue a denunciation, I answer along the following
lines: (1) 'Whom' as an object form of that pronoun has been
recessive for at least five hundred years, and is practically extinct
(except as object of a preposition) in more or less any colloquial
speech and in all except fairly formal writing. (2) There is a good
linguistic explanation for this situation, which will
long-term-predictably lead to the complete demise of 'whom'. (3)
Meanwhile, there are many people who attach great importance to its
currently 'correct' use, and who will complain, think the worse of
you, etc. if you fail to use it properly. (4) If you want to please
such people you would be advised to learn how to use it correctly.
(5) As I linguist my interest in the matter is confined to stating
and trying the explain the facts given in (1) (2) and (3).
(6) Personally -- if anyone's interested -- I use it as outlined in
(1), but don't care very much whether anyone else does, and in any
case would be as reluctant to tell others what to do linguistically
(as opposed to tell them, if they ask me, what the prescriptive rules
happen to be) as I would be to tell them what to do sartorially. (7)
The reason I take this lofty, 'uncommitted' attitude is partly that,
as a linguist I'm interested in 'is' rather than 'ought', and partly
that, as a speaker/writer of a standard form of English, I happen to
be lucky enough not to feel linguistically insecure about issues of
this kind: my sort of English is pretty much what the normative
grammarian's rules are based on anyway.

The sad fact is that this won't wash. The response is to execrate me
for letting the side down, benignly 'allowing' (or even contributing
to) the barbarisation of the language, etc. etc. There are people
out there who simply won't let you be non-political about this sort
of thing. Hence -- or perhaps at least partly hence, anyway -- the
development of a countervailing political attitude on the part of
some linguists, whereby the 'wrongness' of prescriptivism is treated,
and aggressively propagated, as though it were somehow a finding of


Nigel Love
Cape Town

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Message 2: Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics

Date: Thu, 09 Jun 94 20:08:01 EDRe: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics
From: "Dorine S. Houston" <V2188GVM.TEMPLE.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.646 The popularization of linguistics

Dick Hudson talks about the importance of including linguistics in school Eng-

lish programs, and refers to the predominance of literature in these programs.
Teachers are simply not adequately prepared to teach anything about linguis-
tics. I think it gets even worse: at one highly reputabale university on the
East Coast of the USA, (not the one with which I am affiliated), PhD students
in English Education (read literature and prescriptivism) are required to take
a course called Linguistics for Secondary English Teachers. The amount of
whining those students (including one of my relatives) do about the require-
ment being so much silliness is unbelievable. "Why do we need to learn all
that abstract stuff? Nobody actually uses it." How can we get the general
public to respect our work if we can't get high school Englis teachers to do
As for Hawking popularizing physics--well, I'll give more credit to Stephen
Jay Gould (hm--something about these Stephens...) who, although he is a biol-
ogist, write very effective responses to hawking--and they are usually in bet-
ter prose!
Dorine Houston

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Message 3: The popularization of linguistics

Date: Thu, 09 Jun 1994 15:48 -05The popularization of linguistics
From: <>
Subject: The popularization of linguistics

 I'm going to get flamed for this, but...

 Anthea F Gupta <> writes in Vol-5-665:

 > 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.

 Maybe "they" don't take "us" seriously because we don't practice what
 we preach. If we believed that there wasn't a right or wrong to
 language, why would the LSA have study groups make recommendations on
 nonsexist language? For that matter, I've had reviewers of
 linguistics articles point out errors in my grammar (or spelling,
 which is really the same issue--there's nothing moral about Noah
 Webster's spelling, is there?). Why did they feel it necessary to
 point out such errors if they were immaterial?

 80 years of progress:

 Prof. H. Higgins, 1912: "This verbal class distinction by now should
 be antique."

 Prof. P. Correct, 1992: "This sexist distinction by now should be

 Bring on the fire extinguishers!

 Mike Maxwell

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