LINGUIST List 5.689

Tue 14 Jun 1994

Disc: The popularization of linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. "Dorine S. Houston", Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics
  2. "Gary B. Palmer", Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics
  3. "George Fowler h(<", Popularizing linguistics
  4. Michael Newman, prescriptivists
  5. Michael Newman, why linguistics matters
  6. Karl Teeter, Linguistics in the secondary school

Message 1: Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics

Date: Sat, 11 Jun 94 10:45:02 EDRe: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics
From: "Dorine S. Houston" <V2188GVM.TEMPLE.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics

If Chris Li's argument for the validity of not teaching linguistics--or at
least some introductory notions--to high school students is valid, then I'd
like to suggest we drop a few more sources of pain, suffering, and poor grades
from the curriculum. Let's start with math: in all my adult life I've found
no use whatsoever for the blood, sweat, and tears I poured over high school
math. Nothing beyond the 7th grade level is actually practical for balancing
checkbooks, splitting checks, or even finding percentages of pehnomena in data.
Then chemistry. What do we ever do with chemistry? Except understand our
world a little better. Can't we argue that an introductory understanding of
language science has at least that much value?
A few years ago when I was teaching ESL in Spain, I noticed that 6th graders
were getting S- and D-str. and other basic notions in their Spanish lessons.
Spanish college freshman have a much better grasp of general knowledge than do
their American counterparts, and know what linguistics is.
I stand by my argument for linguistics in publid schools.
Dorine Houston

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Message 2: Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics

Date: Sat, 11 Jun 1994 14:21:06 Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics
From: "Gary B. Palmer" <>
Subject: Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics

In reply to Chris Li's comment that
"linguistics, sorry to say, isn't one
of these useful things, at least not at the moment."
It is true that a heavy dose of generative theory
would probably have little immediate application,
but many aspects of linguistic theory have immediate
application in everyday situations. Basic phonological theory can help
one understand why the people one encounters have
foreign accents. It can help one who is learning a language
to avoid a bad accent in one's own speech. An "ethnography of
speaking" approach can attune one to different ethnic
styles of speaking and help one to avoid needless
misunderstandings and to communicate more effectively
with speakers from other ethnic groups. The theory of
cognitive grammar can impart, I think, a keener appreciation
of how words express intended or unintended meanings.
This is useful to everyone in many situations.
I see no reason why these theories or principles can
not be taught at the high school level. It does seem
to me that linguistics is, at this very moment, one of
those useful things.

Gary Palmer,
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Message 3: Popularizing linguistics

Date: Sun, 12 Jun 94 08:54:20 ESPopularizing linguistics
From: "George Fowler h(<" <>
Subject: Popularizing linguistics

 Interesting in the light of the recent thread on the popularization of
linguistics is James K. Kilpatrick's column on language from today. (For those
who don't see it in their local paper, Kilpatrick is kind of a poor man's
William Safire. He's a conservative political commentator who publishes a
weekly column entitled "The Writer's Art". His usual theme is common sense and
direct use of English.) Today's column was headed (in the Indianapolis Star):
"Wading through examples of the art of obfuscation: In the land of
Bureaucratia, people speak funny".
 He concludes a column criticizing opaque bureaucratic use of language by
quoting a "Horrid Example" from a couple of unidentified professional
linguists. I'll quote the relevant section directly:

 The Washington Post asked two "celebrated linguists"
 to explain why teen-agers sprinkle "like" throughout
 their conversations. Said the experts:
 "The grammaticalization of 'like' as a quotative
 complementizer is a natural historical development
 for the spoken channel, which allows the speaker
 to retain the vividness of direct speech and thought
 while retaining the pragmatic force, but not the
 syntactic complexity, of the indirect mode."
 Isn't that, like, you know, the imbricated
 conceptualization of a rhetorical ideology? I think so.

 Now, I understand exactly what the linguists are saying, and the quotation
doesn't seem particularly dreadful to me, especially in contrast to the other
examples of opaque bureaucratese that Kilpatrick quotes in the column, e.g.,
"Based on my nationally recognized expertise in contemporary leadership roles,
I have conveyed to you such concepts like the 'service management' and the
inverted pyramid, and ways to view and operationalize the concepts that have
been articulated, so that we can indeed 'walk our talk'", which is TRULY
abominable. However, in this case two linguists, presumably talking with a
Washington Post reporter, made a reasonable statement about a linguistic issue
raised by popular speech, but did so in language that a lay commentator like
Kilpatrick found laughably grating.
 This illustrates a vital point, that in order to communicate with the
linguistic laity, even interested parties like Kilpatrick, it is necessary to
avoid jargon entirely and express thoughts in very direct and accessible
language. So anybody who sets about trying to write about genuine linguistic
concepts in the popular press is bound to fail unless s/he succeeds at
encapsulating the linguistic content in totally accessible language. This is
easier said than done. Stephen Hawkings isn't exactly the right model, because
he's aiming at the Scientific American-type of readership, which is accustomed
to dealing with more sophisticated presentation of scientific concepts in
unfamiliar fields. Despite his popular success (measured in terms of sales), I
wonder how many non-scientists actually read his books, once bought and carried
home. I think a better model would be someone like Isaac Asimov, for example,
in his short essays from Fantasy & Science Fiction (republished in numerous
book-length collections). He had a real knack for making science accessible
without watering it down beyond recognition. True, he suffered from the
monotonous formulaic structure of his essays, but the point is that he could
really distinguish between the essential and inessential in jargon and
terminology, and could create vivid examples to make scientific points clear to
the readers on the intuitive level.

 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 4: prescriptivists

Date: Sat, 11 Jun 1994 18:49:55 prescriptivists
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: prescriptivists

Jules Levin and John Cowan are right to point out that a prescriptive
approach to language (i) is an essentially different sort of endevour as
linguistics, (ii) serves a social function, and (iii) that linguists have
tended to misunderstand its place in the world and social coherence.
However, it is also necessary to point out that prescriptive grammar,
whether it belongs properly in rhetoric or not,operates on the basis of
what is essentially a linguistic theory. It assumes certain facts about
the nature of language. For example, prescription does not claim that SAE
(or Standard Peninsular Spanish or the now emergent school-based Haitian
Creole) are better for given set of functions, but that language can be
described as better or worse in an absolute sense. Obviously, such a claim
is both an open invitation to chauvinism as well as linguistic nonsense.
Similarly, prescriptive grammar for all its filling social needs, makes
specific claims about pieces of the system that are simply wrong, such as
that two negatives equal a positive. It is this attempt on the part of
prescriptivists to function as linguists that most drives linguists to
apoplexy. Indeed, going beyond simple incoherence, some prescriptivists
have gone so far as to make deep theoretical claims, as we have seen in the
recent Safire's famous (on linguist list) recent Mother's Day column. More
than just what Lila Gleitman remarked in her response on the list, Safire
confuses deep structure with universal grammar--thus showing among other
things that he didn't even bother to read the book he was critiquing.

Michael Newman
Dept. of Educational Theory & Practice
The Ohio State University
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Message 5: why linguistics matters

Date: Sat, 11 Jun 1994 20:07:15 why linguistics matters
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: why linguistics matters

There are various ways to respond to Chris Li's opposition to the inclusion
of greater metalinguistic awareness in school curriculums. One would be
the "why does algebra matter?" approach. In fact, as an exercise in
learning, exploring one's own linguistic intuitions is something that a 13
year old can start to do far better than analyze formulas because they only
to reflect.
Yet I think there is a more important reason. A degree of linguistic
sophistication matters a great deal because language matters a great deal.
Moreover, in the absense of knowledge sometimes very damaging myths spread.
 These very from popular chauvinistic notions to mistaken ideas about
language learning. Sometimes the two types of myths combine in ways that
hurt people. Working in elementary education, I hear from my students all
kinds of horror stories about schools where children are diagnosed with
language deficits because, it is believed that they haven't been exposed to
enough language in the home. I'll give you three guesses as to the race
and socio-economic status of the families of these "langauge deficit"
children. What they do with them is also easily predictable to anyone who
knows how schools work: They are taken out of their classrooms for
language "enrichment." What do you think the enrichers do? The answer in
case you haven't figured it out by now is try to teach these
kindergarteners and first graders how to talk. I kid you not. If this were
simply a waste of time, it wouldn't matter, but the time they're wasting
drilling and killing is time the kids could be learning in their classes,
learning among other things how to use the language they learned on their
own in many different ways.

That is one example of damaging nature of language myths. I'm sure others
can come up with different ones. In any case, a modicum of understanding
of what language is composed of and how it is learned would stop a lot of
this nonsense. Linguistics is emminently practical.
Michael Newman
Dept. of Educational Theory & Practice
The Ohio State University
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Message 6: Linguistics in the secondary school

Date: Mon, 13 Jun 1994 10:42:21 Linguistics in the secondary school
From: Karl Teeter <>
Subject: Linguistics in the secondary school

In response to Chris Li, who sees no reason for teaching linguistics in
the secondary school (9,829) 5.680:
Dear Chris, (1) Linguistics is not about "picking up" languages. By your
arguments, there would be no point to teaching history or literature in
secondary school, either, since each individual has her/his own history.
(2) Linguistics IS, like it or not, about the human mind and soul, or
whatever equivalent one might wish to substitute for these terms. And
finally, (3) Linguistics is NOT in a state of flux. What is in a state
of flux is linguistic theory, thank goodness, which gives us something to
do even after graduate school -- in the 1950s when I was a grad student
(B.C--before Chomsky) we worried about questions such as "Is grammar real
or a linguist's artefact?" and similar boring trivialities.
 --Languages should be taught/learned in primary school
 --Linguistics should be taught in secondary school
 --Linguistic theory should be taught and discussed in tertiary school
 And finally, however we manage or fail to change the situation, THE
Yours, V. Teeter, Professor of Linguistics,
Emeritus, Harvard University
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