Now anyone can watch The Linguists

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As I announced on Thursday, David Harrison was just here in the San Diego wing of Language Log Plaza to screen and discuss the film The Linguists, at UC San Diego on Thursday and at San Diego State University on Friday. Both events were hugely successful — a fantastic turnout of around 150 people at each screening. David then headed to Rutgers University (my graduate school alma mater, as it happens) for a similar event during Rutgers Day on Saturday, where I'm sure the turnout was also great.

In case you missed all of these screenings, or if your PBS station didn't air it (or you don't get even have a PBS station!), or if you just want to see it again, the film is streaming for a limited time at Babelgum. Click and watch!


  1. Brian Campbell said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 12:22 am

    Thanks for the Babelgum link! Just saw it for the first time; I don't have a TV, and it hasn't ever shown near me, so I've been waiting for a chance to see it. It was really good!

  2. [ni:v] said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 7:25 am

    I watched it last night and found it inspiring. One of the things they said in it struck me: "If we lose a language, we lose a unique way of looking at the world". I have to agree. I wonder if this conflicts with the Language Log belief that languages don't affect how we interpret the world?
    (I hope I've understood and phrased that right…I'm not criticising; I'm genuinely interested.)

  3. Jason Stokes said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    Tried to watch, but couldn't contact the server. Overloaded due to the astonishing slashdotesque power of the language log?

  4. Oana Uiorean said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 8:29 am

    I noticed the same sentence as quoted by [ni:v]. I've also recently read a short study report which shows that, at least as far as grammatical gender is concerned, people's thinking about objects can be influenced by the grammar of their particular language. I quote from the conclusion: "Considering the many ways in which languages differ, our findings suggest that the private mental lives of people who speak different languages may differ much more than previously thought." See the article at

    [(myl) Or see "Sapir/Whorf: sex (pro) and space (anti)", 11/19/2003; or these more recent discussions.

    As for the so-called Sapir/Whorf hypothesis in general, the main problem is that it's often presented in various preposterous forms, including for example the idea that it's not possible to invent or even to grasp a concept unless your language already has a single word for it. In addition to this logical fallacy, Pop-S/W-ism also generally features a truly extraordinary level of factual inaccuracy; from time to time we amuse ourselves by noting the instances of this that fall under the "no word for X" syndrome.

    Even the more limited idea that different languages embody different ways of looking at the world, which in some form is surely true, carries a risk of foolish exoticizing.

    For one of the other sensible and well-supported lines of research dealing with S/W, see the series of posts by (and about) Paul Kay, e.g. "What Whorf would have said", 1/15/2006; "Color vocabulary and pre-attentive color perception", 2/23/2009.]

  5. Confused said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    "If we lose a language, we lose a unique way of looking at the world"

    If there's one thing I've taken to heart from reading Language Log, it's that languages do not limit our thoughts or the way we can see the world. If this is so, how can any language give someone a unique way of looking at the world? I'm not trying to be a smart-aleck—I'm genuinely confused by the contradiction in these two concepts, which seem to be held simultaneously by many linguists.

  6. Eric Baković said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Confused sez: "I'm genuinely confused by the contradiction in these two concepts, which seem to be held simultaneously by many linguists."

    Which "many linguists" are you referring to? The views represented in "The Linguists" are Harrison's and Anderson's; the views represented on Language Log are those of the (individual) authors who express them. Despite the minor contradiction (if it even is one; see Mark's response to Oana Uiorean's comment just above), one can agree fully with the Language Log view and still think that "The Linguists" is worth watching, and one can agree fully with the view in "The Linguists" and still think that Language Log is worth reading.

  7. Tim Silverman said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

    It might be possible for aspects of a language (or any other cultural phenomenon) to favour certain ways of looking at (certain aspects of) the world, or to make those ways more salient or obvious or easier to articulate, without in any way preventing people from looking at the world in alternative ways whenever appropriate. (Not to mention the fact that a single language may embody multiple ways of looking at a given phenomenon, and that different people may mentally interpret the same linguistic structure in different semantic frames.)

  8. Jesse Tseng said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    I was struck by this sentence:

    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?

  9. [ni:v] said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    I appreciate the replies from Eric and to Oana Uiorean's (I don't know who wrote it…) comment.

    @ 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.

  10. DRK said,

    April 27, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

    Oh, OK. That's nice, too.

    I am a little disappointed, though. I thought Language Log had installed a webcam, and now we could observe linguists at work, 24/7…..

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