Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Linguistic Ecumenism

Hi. I've been MIA for a bit, and haven't posted yet, so I thought I'd better say hi, and thanks for inviting me to be part of the team and stuff.

Today I'm going to talk about linguistic ecumenism.

In my two years at the fringes of the linguistics academic community, one thing I notice over and over again is that different fields of linguistics don't talk to each other. I believe the reasons for this include the following:

1. Time. Who has time to read a lot of research in her own field, much less the less-relevant fields?

2. Disdain. It is easy to get dogmatic about something you know a fair bit, but not a huge amount, about. My first exposure to linguistics was Chomskian*, and the arguments for it are quite conviincing. The arguments against it are not given. There are plenty of structural linguists, who, with good reason, think sociolinguistics is premature: how can we study language variation when we don't even know what language is? And there are plenty of sociolinguists who, also with good reason, think structural linguistics is oversimplifying to the point of failing to capture anything about language. Etc.

3. Ignorance. Linguists who know nothing of a given subfield of their discipline are likely to fail to see the value of it, or even fail to notice its existence.

Another thing I've noticed is that there are many students, especially at the undergrad level, who are still interested in subfields of linguistics that are not their specialty. I've spoken to many young linguists on this very topic, and while some are somewhat agreeable for the sake of being friendly or polite, and throw in half-joking comments like "well, sure, except for [insert derided subfield/theory here]", many are in full agreement. Enough that I say we start an explicit movement.


A spectre is haunting linguistics -- the spectre of Ecumenism. All the powers of old linguistics have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: prof and chair, Chomsky and Labov, MIT dogmatics and UCLA postmodernists.

Where is the theory in opposition that has not been decried as foolish by its opponents at MIT?

Two things result from this fact:

I. Ecumenism is already acknowledged by all traditional academic powers to be itself a power.

II. It is high time that Ecumenical Linguists should openly, in the face of the whole linguistic world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the spectre of ecumenism with a manifesto of the movement itself.

To this end, imaginary Ecumenical Linguists of various institutions have assembled in my head and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in English, IPA and possibly French if we feel like it.

We have laboured under the pretense that separate subfields of linguistcs are in conflict with one another. No more! We must recognise that linguistics is a science, and therefore (1) is virtually always wrong, and (2) must by definition be constantly open to refutation, alternative theories and new data. A good scientist is excited by problematic data and opposing viewpoints. A good scientist struggles against her ego in the service of the search for knowledge. Brothers and sisters, the ego must not win!

We, the new generation of linguists, must rise up against this dogmatic separation! We must fight for the time to keep up on research from outside our tiny specialties! We must fight down the egoistic need to be right, and embrace opposition, debate, and cooperation!


* A math prof once told me that the greatest compliment a mathematician can get is for his name to be used as an ordinary noun: uncapitalised and subject to morphology. Chomsky's halfway there.


meagan louie said...

When you say "separate subfields of linguistics," do you mean the rather wide distinction between structural linguistics and socio-/anthropological linguistics? Or do you also mean the tendency to brush away phenomena one cannot explain by saying: "Oh, well, that's a phonologist/phonetician's job, not a semanticist/syntactician's"? Or even the somewhat smaller difference between syntax and semantics. What I find amusing is that what divides these linguists, to a large part, imo, is language. It's pretty painful for me to read a semantics article because I can't speak semanticese and don't know half the terminology - like you said, basic ignorance. We need something like "phonology awareness week", then "syntax awareness week", etc. With awareness ribbons or lance-armstrong-style wristbands!

aislin stott said...

I, for one, want an Ekumen of Linguists tee shirt. "THIS PHONOLOGIST SUPPORTS AMNESTY FOR SEMANTICISTS". Also: I think we could probably rustle up a German version of the Manifesto, and we should try for Italian and Japanese as well, just to get the major languages of the field down.

Of course, it would be kinda awesome if it said something different in each language...

Meaghan Fowlie said...


It's not so much that we shunt responsibility for a phenomenon to another field that bothers me - in fact, I generally support that kind of thing - but rather the tendency to imagine one's own subdiscipline (be it general structural linguistics, Optimality Theory, Disrtibuted Morphology, or dialectology) as the basic definition of linguistics/language, and refuse legitimacy to other approaches.

Additionally, a phenomenon that is similar but not identical is the drive to dismiss out of hand different overall theories, instead of taking one another seriously as scientists, and realising that dissent is a necessary part of the search for truth. For example, the Chomskian school laughs at the categorial grammarians, and vice versa. Why?

Meaghan Fowlie said...

omg Ekumen of Linguists?! Sweet!

If we really are going to translate the manifesto (I mostly included that part because it was in the Communist one, which I copied almost word-for-word in the introduction part, but it also seemed relevent, this being linguistics and all) we can do some communal editing if you want.

I gues I should get on an IPA of it. Any idea how to post such a thing?

meagan louie said...

You could take a screencap of the IPA version (alt + printscreen on a PC, but I don't know about a mac), then post it as a picture...that way you wouldn't have to worry about incompatible fonts. (Blogger was claiming that it tried to make Blogger compatible in "love" the so-called universal language...Fools! Don't they know they should have at least made Blogger IPA-compatible???!!!)

And out of curiosity, why do semanticists need amnesty?

aislin stott said...

Isn't Blogger Unicode-compliant?