LINGUIST List 5.690

Tue 14 Jun 1994

Disc: The popularization of linguistics

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  1. "Raphael Salkie, University of Brighton,RMS3VMS.BRIGHTON.AC.UK, Prescriptivism
  2. Helge Dyvik, Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics
  3. Richard Hudson UCL, linguistics in schools

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 13 Jun 94 14:34 BST
From: "Raphael Salkie, University of Brighton,RMS3VMS.BRIGHTON.AC.UK <RMS3VMS.BRIGHTON.AC.UK>
Subject: Prescriptivism

Several people have recently discussed how to deal with people who are angry
about what they see as declining standards of English. I'd like to throw in a
few points.

Firstly, we need to distinguish a reactionary prescriptivist concern about
"correct grammar" from a legitimate concern about clear thinking. Sloppy
thinking is widespread and needs to be exposed when it is about important
issues. It's hard to pin down what makes for clear thinking, but those of us
who teach are pretty good at spotting it and distinguishing it from sloppy
thinking. Maybe some of the examples which prescriptivists regularly raise are
linked with sloppy thinking.

Secondly, prescriptivism about grammar is often linked with harking for a
golden age in other respects: the days when there was no crime, men were men,
decent women could walk the streets, there was a sense of community, and so
forth. A wonderful book that demolishes the myth of the golden age, at least
as far as crime is concerned, is Hooligan: a history of respectable fears by
Geoffrey Pearson (London: Macmillan, 1983). Pearson shows how the claim that
crime has got worse can be traced back at least to the beginning of the
nineteenth century, and it had as little factual basis then as it does now.

Thirdly, there comes a point when rational argument is pointless. As scholars
who are committed to rational inquiry this is sometimes hard to accept. The
recent suggestion on the List that we poke fun at prescriptivists by calling
for lost inflections and pre-Great Vowel Shift vowels to be restored is a good
idea. The point is that someone who gets angry about grammar is probably
unhappy for a variety of good reasons. It makes sense to say: "I can see you
are very angry about this. Maybe you could tell me why." You might find some
common ground in this way.
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Message 2: Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics

Date: Mon, 13 Jun 1994 09:55:49 Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics
From: Helge Dyvik <>
Subject: Re: 5.680 The popularization of linguistics

Chris Li writes:

>While the subject may be interesting to linguists, "why do we need to learn all
>that abstract stuff -- nobody actually uses it" is one question I cannot
>provide an answer to. Can anybody? People seem to pick up languages perfectly
>without resorting to abstract analyses, and those who do resort to them don't
>necessarily learn them better or faster.
>Another concern is that the discipline at the
>moment seems to be in such a state of flux -- linguists, even, hardly agree
>with each other, and graduate students of linguistics often invest years
>learning a theory only to have it declared invalid the moment they master it.
>It would be very difficult to justify ourselves if we were to force millions of
>young people to invest time in subject that teachers and students alike find
>relatively useless, and then a few years later, say "sorry folk, that was
>a mistake, let's try again".

The presupposition underlying Li's first argument seems to be that the
needs of practical language teaching are the only conceivable reason why
schools should be concerned with language. In the case of most other
subjects, however - physics, chemistry, biology, geography, social science,
history, art, music... - they are taught because it is fairly
uncontroversial that reasonably enlightened people ought to be familiar
with some (current) insights about their physical and cultural environment.
I need not expound on the importance of language in human affairs on the
Linguist List - so why should language be an exception? As the enlightened
public is expected to know the chemical composition of soap, or the concept
of an elementary particle, why shouldn't they also be expected to know
something about what a tone language is, or an isolating language? Why is
it unreasonable to expect pupils to understand a little of the concept of
case, to learn that there are alternatives to the case systems that can be
pointed out to them in familiar languages, and perhaps even make the
brighter of them wonder about ergative systems? Why not learn about
different ways of forming wh-questions than the English one, without
'movement', and thus learn to see familiar things with fresh eyes? Why is
it OK for the enlightened public to be ignorant about the ways languages
vary socially, or the way the structure of their own language has changed
through the centuries, or the way children acquire language? Etc. etc.
Don't tell me that this is more difficult than the other subjects they are
expected to study. Don't tell me that they will necessarily find it
hopelessly dry and abstract. Who cannot give examples of pupils or
laypersons who have stumbled across a good book or article on linguistic
matters, found it fascinating, and wondered why this sort of thing was
never mentioned in school? (In my own case, long ago, the book was Otto
Jespersen's The Philosophy of Grammar.)

Li's second argument about linguistics being in a state of flux carries
with it another presupposition: that conveying some insights from
linguistics is more a question of teaching about linguistic theories than a
question of teaching about language. But even though our knowledge as
linguists about linguistic theories may need frequent revisions, much of
our knowledge about language is relatively stable, I think we may safely
say. (There is an interesting epistemological point lurking here, but that
belongs in a different discussion.) Undoubtedly many linguistic insights
can be conveyed without getting bogged down in details about
government/binding, minimalism, unification or lambda abstraction.

The basic problem is the prescriptivist tradition. Grammar, to the extent
that it is taught at all, is a subject that is taught in the imperative, so
to speak. Much would be gained if teachers could be convinced and enabled
to approach grammar in an experimental way, letting their students
discover, frequently with surprise, the structure of what they already know
about wellformedness and shades of meaning - in short, letting them realize
that there is a complicated phenomenon here that it is possible to be
curious about, and, furthermore, one with data a lot more accessible to the
general high school student than the data of particle physics. This works
well in undergraduate courses - why shouldn't it work in school?

Helge Dyvik

Helge Dyvik
Department of Linguistics and Phonetics
University of Bergen Phone: +47 55 212261
Sydnesplass 9 Fax: +47 55 231897
N-5007 Bergen, Norway E-mail:
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Message 3: linguistics in schools

Date: Mon, 13 Jun 94 09:20:07 +0linguistics in schools
From: Richard Hudson UCL <>
Subject: linguistics in schools

Chris Li thinks linguistics is unsuitable for schools, on
various grounds:

- Linguistics is too abstract.
 Depends what you mean by linguistics, but there's
 certainly no reason to identify it with purely
 theoretical linguistics. Learning to transcribe
 phonetically, or to segment words into roots and endings,
 or even to pick out main verbs, isn't particularly
 abstract. You could equally well argue that science is
 unsuitable for schools because it's too abstract and
 theoretical. I recently wrote a book in which I found
 suitable `linguisticky' things for every year from 7 up
 (`Teaching Grammar', Blackwell, 1992).

- Linguistics is useless
 That's not how a lot of school-teachers see linguistics.
 I was recently at a large conference of English teachers
 (the Commission of Inquiry into English teaching, run by
 the Times Education Supplement and the British Film
 Institute) where no linguists spoke but everyone who
 mentioned it agreed that it would be very useful both to
 the teachers and to the students - e.g. to be able to
 talk about the syntax of different passages, or to be
 able to discuss discourse structures properly, or to be
 able to explain rules for spelling and punctuation. None
 of these things can be done without use of linguistic

- Linguists can't agree among themselves.
 Not so. I compiled a list of 83 points on which I found
 about 50 of my colleagues (in UK) agreed (`Some issues on
 which linguists can agree', JL 17, 1981, 333-344). When
 we're talking about school-level linguistics, most of the
 things we disagree about are out of sight.

Dick Hudson
Dept of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
(071) 387 7050 ext 3152
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