This is a long-overdue follow-up to my post (from April 26), announcing the availability of the film The Linguists on Babelgum.com. A couple things that I failed to point out in that post: first, the version of the film on Babelgum is the DVD version, not the slightly shorter cut that has aired on PBS; second, there are several additional clips that you can watch separately on Babelgum that are on the DVD. Search for "the linguists" on Babelgum and you'll find links to the trailer, the film, and the additional clips. These are all available for some unspecified limited period, so watch 'em now if you're interested.
What I'm really following up on here, though, is this comment by Jesse Tseng.
I was struck by this sentence [in the film, spoken by David Harrison–eb]:
I don't see how you can justify devoting your research career to the syntax of French (a language with millions of speakers), when the skills that you possess could help document a language that is going to go extinct within your lifetime.
Hmm. The fieldwork skills I possess would make me go extinct long before any tribal language I helped to document. And good luck doing any syntax at all with your 15 sentences of Kallawaya…
Seriously, I was disappointed to hear this gratuitous swipe at the colleagues down the hall. I would like to believe that we are all engaged in a common endeavor, with the same justifications. And when linguistics departments get cut, all the sub-fields of linguistics go down together. Or are they hoping that the money then gets funneled into Anthropology?
[ni:v] replied thusly:
@ Jesse Tseng: I think this is a matter of what angle you're looking at it from. When he said that it really struck me because I feel the same way. I am hoping to go into research of undocumented languages, so that line completely falls into place with how I feel.
However, I don't think it was said maliciously; I interpreted it as Gregory (I think it was he who said it?) simply expressing his passion for what he does, and that he couldn't work on any language that has so much work done on it and no immediate chances of going extinct.
This is the spirit in which I took the comment, too, although unlike [ni:v] I have no particular aspirations to research on un(der)documented languages. But of course Jesse Tseng is justified in having been struck by this "gratuitous swipe at the colleagues down the hall" — there are certainly better ways to express one's personal passion than to say "I don't see how you can justify [doing something other than what I do]". But in the context of the film — which is, after all, about endangered languages and the plight of their speakers — is there really a better (or even "good") way to express the relevant sentiment? When David screened the film here in San Diego, he turned to me during the relevant part of the film and whispered, smiling: "I hope there are no French syntacticians here." Clearly, David understands that the comment is inflammatory, and perhaps unnecessarily so, but would those of us linguists who don't work to document endangered languages feel any differently if David had instead said either one of the following?
"I couldn't work on any language that has so much work done on it and no immediate chances of going extinct."
"I feel an obligation to use my skills to help document languages that are going to go extinct within my lifetime."
The real issue appears to be the specific reference David made in his comment: "the syntax of French", which in academic-linguistics-speak might be interpreted as code for something like, "abstract theoretical mental masturbation work on a major, standardized European language". [Full disclosure: my own work could easily be categorized in this way.] David's expressing a personal value judgment on linguistic research; to the extent that we feel fine about what we do, we shouldn't take offense, and to the extent that we feel that such documentation work is also important, we should be glad that there are people like David out there doing (and promoting) it.
[ Added later: A review of a book co-edited by David Harrison, David S. Rood, and Arienne Dwyer (Lessons from Documented Endangered Languages, John Benjamins, 2008) was recently posted on the LINGUIST List. There are also a couple of recent articles on endangered languages in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Peter Monaghan ("Languages on Life Support" and "Another Kind of Language Expert: Speakers"). Finally, there is an upcoming Festival of Languages in Bremen, Germany, which (according to the LINGUIST List announcement) "is meant to familiarise the general public with the idea of the linguistic diversity of our world as a positive value of humankind that needs to be preserved." ]