LINGUIST List 5.709

Mon 20 Jun 1994

Disc: The popularization of linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. claudia brugman, Re: The popularization of linguistics
  2. Michael Kac, Prese criptivism and related issues
  3. Mark Douglas Arnold, More on popularization
  4. , linguistics in schools

Message 1: Re: The popularization of linguistics

Date: Wed, 15 Jun 1994 16:57:43 Re: The popularization of linguistics
From: claudia brugman <>
Subject: Re: The popularization of linguistics

I benefited enormously from having a morphology component to my 7th-grade
curriculum. It was good for us to see that latinate and germanic
vocabulary of English have different morphological structures, and being
able to identify latinate vocabulary took me a long way in building my
working vocab. by showing me generalizations. When I tutored high-school
students in the Oakland ghetto to pass their SATs, the same principles
showed them how to guess the meanings of latinate vocabulary items. I can
imagine that a phonetics/phonology component would help students learn to
spell English better--once we give up the idea that English is spelled
"phonetically". (I remember trying to make sense of the claim that the
"sh" sequence in words like "ship" is a diphthong.) An informal
transformational model is often used to explain the relationships between
e.g. actives and passives, and it seems to make a lot of sense to both
first- and second-language students. As we increasingly see the need for
bilingual schooling in the early years it makes sense (as a previous poster
has noted) to be able to explain the articulatory differences between the
phonetic inventories of the languages being taught. I teach first-year
university students who don't know what nouns and verbs are, much less what
subjects and predicates are, and they are grateful to learn basics of
grammar that they see as missing from their secondary training. And they
are not content with "a verb is an action word". They LIKE it when I give
distributional characterizations of lexical categories. They like that I
can show them that the possessive "its" (no apostrophe) is an instance of
the minor rule that pronouns don't get apostrophes, even though other nouns
do. Giving generalizations helps learning, and linguistics is about
finding them, right?

I spend a lot of time wondering why grammar is made so intimidating and/or
boring. Why, for instance, are students willing to learn physics, but not
language skills, after acknowledging that it's hard and requires analytical
skill? Why can't we teach grammar from the premise that it's interesting,
that it's beautiful, that all speakers are already competent and simply
need the vocabulary and discernment to render the unconscious conscious?
We could even teach prescriptive grammar from a non-prescriptive point of
view. It seems to me that, far from being useless, [a competent
application of] the linguistic orientation on language structure could be
precisely what's missing from language teaching at the moment.

I'm not sure what if any is the logical relationship between the inadequacy
of language teaching in the schools and the treatment of linguistics and of
language issues in the popular press. I was pretty horrified by Lila
Gleitman's report. I was pretty horrified to read Pinker's report (in _The
Language Instinct_) of the mangling of his and Myrna Gopnik's work by
popular journalists. I am pretty horrified by the subsequent
misunderstandings of that book itself by popular journalists
(I don't get US press here so I'm inferring from information on LINGUIST).
Despite the negatives reported in my recent review, I found Pinker's book
about as accessible--and entertaining--a presentation of the concerns of
linguists as anyone could have given, and the fact that it could be
misunderstood or misrepresented suggests to me that certain of the Mavens
won't budge from their positions simply because they can be shown to be
irrational. (Maybe this is Pinker's punishment for his own
linguist-bashing?) I started my review with a mention of Pinker's _Talk of
the Nation_ visit. In that show he responded really cogently to a
prescriptivist caller, with the argument that beautiful and clear writing
is something that *should* be striven for. Why do the Safires not pick up
on that position (also propounded by Geoff Nunberg and others) and take it
up as their own? Possibly because _they_ aren't clear or beautiful
writers, merely "correct" ones. Possibly because being a clear or
beautiful writer is not a matter of following rules.

BTW, I want to thank Pinker for responding to my review and pointing out
places where perhaps my reading was less than careful. I have some
responses to his reply, but since no one else has publicly taken up the
topic of _The Language Instinct_, I'm not going to post them here. I would
think that since the popularization of linguistics has gotten a lot of
attention on LINGUIST lately, more subscribers would want to read and
debate the utility of this book to the general populace--or, as a previous
poster put it, that segment of the populace that's of roughly _Scientific
American_ level, since we know that columnists for the _New York Times_
can't comprehend it.

Dr. Claudia Brugman
English Department and
School of Languages
University of Otago
PO Box 56
Dunedin, New Zealand
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Message 2: Prese criptivism and related issues

Date: Wed, 15 Jun 1994 19:31:48 Prese criptivism and related issues
From: Michael Kac <>
Subject: Prese criptivism and related issues

I wasn't going to get involved in the discussion of the
popularization of linguistics since I have much too much to do, but
I can't seem to stay away from it. The recent postings by Salkie,
Dyvik and Hudson on the popularization of linguistics prompt the
following comments. First, I second the sentiments they express,
which is in itself neither here nor there except that they may be
pleased to know that someone else agrees with them.

At the risk of appearing to engage in self-promotion (which I am
indeed engaging in) I refer interested parties to my contribution
to the festchrift for Bob Stockwell, to wit:

Kac, Michael B. Two cheers for prescriptivism. In C. Duncan-Rose, J.
Fisiak and T. Vennemann, eds., Rhetorica, Phonologica, Syntactica:
A Festschrift for Robert P. Stockwell. London: Routledge. 79-85. 1987

My position there agrees pretty much with Salkie's; I also make
some rather sketchy suggestions about how linguistics might be
taught at the secondary school level along lines that I think would
be congenial to Hudson. One reservation I express is that it would
require much better teachers than are typical at least in US public
education these days (though see my note below) -- but that's
hardly a problem unique to the study of language.

In regard to public school teachers, I do have some encouraging
news from the front, which is that training in linguistics is
becoming a required component for *some* teachers in at least
some parts of the US -- though the target audience to which I
refer is those seeking licensure for ESL. I have taught students
from that cadre both in Minnesota and Arizona and while they are
not, by and large, at the level one might wish in one's fondest
dreams, neither are they in general as terrible as in one's worst

My most recent experience in dealing with this group came last
summer in a course in English syntax geared specifically to them.
The students in the class had already had an introduction to
linguistics and a course in English phonology and morphology. I
used Baker's book, which is not the ideal text for that kind of
course (and has a lot of typos and other glitches in it) but which
serves the purpose well enough all things considered. The
students handled the technical details pretty well, though some of
it did cause a certain amount of brow-furrowing and puzzlement.
The area where they seemed most deficient was one that was
unexpected (though in retrospect maybe it shouldn't have been),
namely familiarity with formal written English. This came out in
two specific ways that I remember (there may have been others).
Baker relies heavily on the *such that* variant of the relative
construction as a way of getting at the position of the gap in the
relative clause, and many of the students in the class had no prior
acquaintance with this construction. Similarly, many of them
professed never to have previously encountered the use of the
bare infinitive in a sentence like *I insist that you be here* and
thus did not see why there was an ambiguity in e.g. *I insist that
you know the answer*.

Michael Kac
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Message 3: More on popularization

Date: Thu, 16 Jun 1994 15:54:26 More on popularization
From: Mark Douglas Arnold <>
Subject: More on popularization

Although I sense that these (and other) comments are essentially
"preaching to the choir", I would like to provide another example of
why some exposure to linguistic theory should be included in
secondary education. (Of course I do not mean HPSG, RG, GB, etc. in
specific, just something to do with studying the abstract machinery
of language.) My specific example is another instance of the kind of
language-mythology-begets-questionable-education-policy mentioned by
Michael Newman.

My wife just attended a conference for university administrators
dealing with "Quality" initiatives and assessment tools in higher
education. The attendees of one of the sessions learned that the
language of a certain Plains Indigenous People has no word for "why".
This fact was used to explain why the culture of this people was not
interested in picking apart the universe and figuring out why
everything works the way it does; in particular, the fact that the
people hold fast to their creation myths despite theories about the
big bang or evolution illustrate the import of not having a word for
"why". (So Whorf is alive and well; nothing new there.) Moreover,
the session speaker, a native speaker of said why-less language,
finds English to be "flat" in it's expressive usefulness, a
sensibility which evidently had nothing to do with the fact that this
individual's need to use English did not arise until after puberty,
but which could actaully be explained (thanks to a comment from a
participant) by the fact that the Romans essentially crushed the
inherent expressive force of the language during their occupation of
Britain. I don't so much have a problem with the fact that these
ideas were put forth (though I'll admit I find them comical), but my
wife's impression was that the session attendees drank this stuff up
without question.

I'm not going to claim that a linguistics class in high school would
have meant that all the session attendees would have come to the same
conclusions that I would have come to about the material discussed in
the session, but at least such a class would have given them some
tools (if they wished to use them) to think critically about the
claims and not just take it as gospel because a "linguist" said that
a language without a word for "why" means the culture of the people
isn't concerned with figuring out why the universe is the way it is.
(I probably would have been taken out and stoned if I had been there
to point out that creation myths do exactly that.)

So what's it matter? Well, there's a bunch of university policy
makers running around thinking that English is deficient in its
expressive usefulness, and that "exotic" languages with no words for
"why" are to be admired for the different take on reality that they
allow their speakers.

Clearly a high school class in linguistics isn't going to completely
change the way the world views language, but at least it would give
people the opportunity to be exposed to the scientific study of
language and its relation to the mind. And on top of that, as anyone
who has taught Intro to Linguistics knows, linguistics provides an
excellent opportunity to expose students to the rigors of critical
thinking and to develop problem solving skills, all without the cost
of lab equipment and supplies. What more could education
administrators want?
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Message 4: linguistics in schools

Date: Thu, 16 Jun 1994 01:41:18 linguistics in schools
From: <>
Subject: linguistics in schools

I have read with interest the many objections to my objection to the inclusion
of linguistics in a secondary school curriculum, which range from the very
reasonable to the very emotional. Especially helpful was the feedback from
people who are actually involved in secondary education, and I stand corrected
on many points, including the need to distinguish between "linguistics" and
"theoretical linguistics", and the fact that the linguistics that would have
been taught at the secondary school level is something which linguistics
generally agree on. Thanks to those who pointed this out.

There were also a number a messages in which the discussion took a
philosophical turn, stressing the importance of linguistics towards the
understanding of "the human mind and soul", giving arguments along the line of
"if not study linguistics, why study anything at all", "why study algebra",
"why study physics" .... it is here that I think we, as linguists, are being
overly defensive, and are losing sight of the big picture. I do not wish to
clutter the net by diving into this philosophical debate, which I can guarantee
will be neverending. But what I do wish to point out is a very surface-level
fact: there was someone who responded by saying that she never found the
mathematics she learned in high school to be of any use, and therefore,
linguistics is equally, if not more important than mathematics. This appears
 to be a case of looking at
the world from within the linguist's bubble. Were we to switch from the
linguist's perspective to that of real life pre-college entrance high school
student, it would become all to clear that mathematics is needed if he wanted
to major in engineering, or physics, or psychology, in fact, all the sciences.
(To sidetrack a bit, I actually find linguists' general lack of knowledge in
certain types of mathematics, e.g., differential geometry, very detrimental to
the field, limiting it to certain simplistic types of mathematical tools, which
I personally believe to be inadequate -- but that is another issue)
The same goes for physics, history, and a lot of other subjects in current
curriculum -- they provide basic knowledge indispensible to a wide range of
disciplines. While it is also possible to argue that linguistics is a kind of
indispensible knowledge, it is so on a lesser scale, and necessary for a
smaller range of subjects (on this point, it is probably difficult to get an
unbiased view on a linguists' network). While I've been persuaded that certain
less-disputed aspects of general linguistics can be taught at the secondary
school level, I'm not entirely convinced that it cannot be taught as part of,
say, an English or language course. I am not convinced that linguistics
deserves to be taught as a mandatory independent subject in secondary school
 any more than pharmacology or criminology does, and I believe academics in
these disciplines will be able to offer good reasons why theirs should be

Chris Li
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