The colleagues down the hall

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This is a long-overdue follow-up to my post (from April 26), announcing the availability of the film The Linguists on 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." ]


  1. Jonathan said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    Although I am only an amateur, I can attest that my life has been quite enriched by the study of French and its syntax. Is that selfish of me? I never thought so.

  2. Chris said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    Imagine a biologists said something like this: "I don't see how you can justify devoting your research career to the study of ants (a species with billions of members), when the skills that you possess could help document a species that is going to go extinct within your lifetime."

    In this context, the swipe seems even MORE gratuitous, no?

  3. Mike Keesey said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    I can't imagine a biologist saying that, because ants are not one species, but thousands of species (over 10,000). Substitute "ants" with, e.g., "Formica rufa", though, and you have a good point.

  4. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    I think ultimately it comes down to the fact that everyone thinks what they're doing is the most important. While David may or may not insist that every linguist work on documentation and not theory, there are many linguists who absolutely do espouse this view. I was at a conference recently where a woman praised her university for working with endangered languages and not "useless theory". But why stop there? What are languages more important than species? Shouldn't we rather be biologists? Or closer to home, why aren't we all devoting our lives to being doctors so that we can save human lives? Each person has their own idea of what is the highest good, and some people (myself included, from time to time) get extremely agitated when someone else insists that their career is the highest good.

  5. Jana said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    What got me about that French syntax comment is hearing from a fellow linguist that there does not seem to be any justification for working on (theoretical and/or French) syntax. What are we going to do with all the data that the linguists in the movie collect? Just put them in a database and say "Look! This is what these now-extinct languages looked like!". How is there more/better justification for that than for working on a language whose syntax will change over time too and whose syntax we can barely model with any of our theories? Personally, the worst part was a linguist making this statement. If it had been any other person, I would have brushed it off thinking "just another one who doesn't understand what we do" but from a linguist?!!

  6. Chris said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    What is particularly ironic is that Harrison lists "computational phonology" as an area of interest on his web page. He notes that he studies this because it poses "interesting challenges for Linguistic theory…"

  7. peter said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    Labeling something as "useless theory" says more about the person doing the labeling than the object labeled. Speech act theory in the philosophy of language, for instance, has turned out to be very useful for designing artificial languages for machine-to-machine communications, something which Adolph Reinach in his 1913 monograph on the pragmatics of promises seems to have forgotten to mention.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    In The Rise and Fall of Languages, R.M.W. Dixon makes the following proposal (p. 130):

    To become a professional in any field one has to undertake the appropriate training, and then serve an apprenticeship. A surgeon attends medical school and then does routine operations before going on to do innovative work in, say, heart transplantation […] A linguist must be taught the principles of Basic Linguistic Theory, and also receive instruction in how to describe languages (through Field Methods courses). The ideal plan is then to undertake original field work on a previously undescribed (or scarcely described) language, and write a comprehensive grammar of it as a Ph.D. dissertation. Every language poses some kind of theoretical challenge, and solving this is likely to lead to feedback into theory, helping to enlarge and refine it.

    My teacher Morris Halle used to argue a somewhat similar point in a very different way. Morris didn't insist on training in field methods, and he didn't emphasize work on undescribed or scarcely described languages, but he did urge his students to aim first of all to produce a better, more complete, and more insightful description of a significant part of the grammar of some specific language; and to trust that theoretical contributions would emerge from that effort.

    My own opinion is that aspiring linguists ought to aim for a sort of compromise between Dixon's prescription and Morris's — and given the current state of the world, an emphasis on endangered languages is certainly appropriate. On that basis, perhaps it would be kindest to take David Harrison's remark as advice for someone looking for a research topic, rather than as criticism of choices already made.

    Elan Dresher's 1998 review of Dixon's book ended with this amusing, if rather unfair, parody:

    G'day, mate, Bob from Australia here. What are you staring at, never seen a dinkum linguist before? Maybe I don't look like your kind of linguists, we don't dress quite so formally out in the bush. I've been reading your magazine. A fine publication, lots of theory, all sorts of formalisms. One refined thingo to move words around, another whatsit to check features, very delicate instruments. A lot of good they'll do you in the Amazon jungle. Now let me show you something, it's somewhere here in my tucker-bag… Here it comes, step back, it's pretty big – now, that's an analytical device! Sharp, too. When you're eliciting unfamiliar grammatical constructions and you're back of Bourke three days by canoe from the nearest village, this is what you want to have with you. I call it the Basic Linguistic Theory. It's gotten me out of a lot of scrapes. And you can use it for spreading your vegemite. Careful with that, I'll just put it back now… I've been browsing through your State-of-the-Articles: argument structure, thematic roles, ergativity… All those tall poppies don't know what they're talking about. You know how I learned about ergativity? Arguing semantics snout to snout with an eighteen foot crocodile – that'll teach you to tell an agent from a patient. You just can't get that kind of experience sitting in an office at uni. You've got to get out in the field, that's where the languages are, mate! That's where I'm going now, and if you want to be a go-ahead linguist, then you'll take my advice and put down this magazine, pack a billy and a Basic Linguistic Theory, grab a pair of sunnies and a good hat, and get out there, too. We'll keep a snag on the barbie for you.

    So you can see that the, um, differences of perspective implicit in David's remarks have been around for a while.

  9. Barbara Partee said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

    It's progress that some find it shocking that he said that. Seems to me the linguistic world used to be much more divided and mutually hostile than it is now. Now there are lots and lots of linguists who agree that theory can help fieldwork and fieldwork can help theory, and that you can indeed do interesting work on a language you're not a native speaker of, and that it's actually very useful for the field that different people go at it in different ways. I will choose to trust that David didn't intend to belittle the theorists or those who work mainly on the language they know best, which might be English or French.

  10. Claire Bowern said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    I wouldn't wish some of my theoretical friends on my endangered language-speaking friends … I don't think they'd get on too well. I'm not in favour of making fieldwork compulsory either (although it would improve the sales of my book…), although having said that there are a couple of things that really annoy me. One is almost exclusively theoretical linguists who think they have to "do" endangered languages so they get a bit of data and jump on the bandwagon with no clue about how to actually do empirical linguistics. Everyone's worse off for that (and it irritates me more that people seem not to realise that an article written on the basis of an hour's work with a language you've never seen before isn't likely to be very sound). Another is pseudo-empiricism, the type that begins with "this is an a-theoretical description, where rather than coming at the data with preconceived notions I tackle the language on its own terms," a statement which seems to be to be content-free, to put it charitably. I guess I just get irritated by bad science full stop. rant over…

  11. Jonathan Badger said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

    Actually, Chris, the biological example isn't that far-fetched. Biologists who study model organisms in the lab often get criticized by field biologists who study endangered species in the wild. As with linguistics, the criticism misses the mark because 1) the ability to function well in the field isn't something everyone possesses, and 2) work on model organisms can inform field studies.

  12. Michael Maxwell said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    I rather believe that the degree to which a documentary study of an endangered language can inform theory depends on what kind of linguistics you're doing. Phonologists or phoneticians can answer certain kinds of questions from the phoneme inventory, or from lots of carefully transcribed words (which may for instance reveal a pattern of vowel harmony).

    Syntacticians learn less from the typical descriptive study, because the quantity of data needed to support or refute a syntactic theory tends to be much more (and perhaps of a different type).

    Morphology is, I think, somewhere in between. Certain kinds of questions (like possible kinds of reduplication) can with luck be answered by a relatively small number of cases, and a 100k word corpus of the right language might just be sufficient. On the other hand, that 100k word corpus may be missing precisely the form you need, and only directed elicitation may reveal it, because it's rare. (How many examples of expletive infixation will you find in an English corpus? How big a generic corpus will you need to pin down what determines the position of the infix?)

    So while "Basic Linguistic Theory" might be useful for guiding elicitation enough to answer some kinds of questions, there will be other questions for which the data resulting from that kind of elicitation is likely to be insufficient. I conclude that there's room to do very basic corpus collection and/or elicitation on some languages, but we had better study some other languages to the same extent that French has been studied, or we'll never be able to answer some questions about human Language.

  13. Thorleif said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 1:27 am

    I'm actually less bothered by Harrison's comment than by the sneering tone of Mr. Tseng on Babelgum: "And good luck doing any syntax at all with your 15 sentences of Kallawaya…"

    No, not everyone is well-equipped for doing fieldwork on endangered languages. At the same time, I'm amazed at the "not my problem" attitudes I've encountered among some of my more theoretically-minded colleagues with regard to language preservation. With a language supposedly going extinct every two weeks, I'd be astounded if Harrison *didn't* feel frustrated with the apathy he perceives.

  14. peter said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    Mark Liberman (July 2, 2009 @ 6:19 pm) quoting Elan Dresher:

    "G'day, mate . . . When you're eliciting unfamiliar grammatical constructions and you're back of Bourke three days by canoe from the nearest village, . . .

    Canoe? Village? It's clear this speaker has not been to the Bush back o' Bourke in a couple of hundred millenia.

    [(myl) Elan's parody clearly has Amazonia and Australia all tangled up together. I believe that this was done on purpose, with satiric intent. But it's certainly confusing.]

  15. Chris said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    (For the record: Not the same Chris who has posted twice before on this thread.)

    I have to admit I don't really see why people get upset about languages "going extinct". There is a certain sense in which a language that has gone extinct will never appear again in the same form, like a species, but… languages go extinct when nobody *chooses* to speak or learn them. (Or when all the current speakers are killed, but I think we can all agree that the disappearance of the language is not the biggest problem with that scenario.) When the children of its current speakers prefer to learn a language that allows them to communicate with a broader community rather than one that… well, what exactly *is* a language good for other than communication with the community of its speakers?

    In short, it seems to me that languages don't so much go extinct as be abandoned, and it isn't necessarily any more tragic than the abandonment of a fashion trend.

  16. Andrew M said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    Harrison's comment reflects a very normal feeling, but in needlessly polemic moralizing terms. One of the few moral values of linguistics is that language death is a terrible thing. (Chris, you heretic! :)) Another is that it is noble to do something about it, either work to preserve or maintain the language dying, or at least to document it. Harrison asks how anyone could "sin" by using their skills on robust languages.

    Language preservation rests ultimately in the hands of speakers, but linguists have a bigger role in documentation. The danger is that if documentation isn't thorough, it stands little chance of enlightening theoretical linguists with data that challenges their theories, and it stands even less chance of serving the community that speaks the language.

    The problem is that thorough documentation of far-flung languages requires an intense and lasting commitment to being far away from one's normal life. Most endangered languages are spoken far from anywhere linguists are situated. Being separated for months at a time from spouses, children, friends, food, religion, work, and colleagues, is justification enough for many people to study languages closer to home. So are disdain for, disinterest in, or outright fear of traveling to or working with people of a totally different culture. Some people hate travel period.

    And those are just the practical reasons. There are research reasons as well. We have learned at least as much about human language by studying a few languages in depth as we have by learning about thousands of languages in a cursory manner. Given the re-orientation of linguistics that came out of studying English, German, French, and Icelandic in depth, one might say we've learned more. Add to that the fact that many nations' funding agencies are busy funding research about the languages spoken in them, not languages spoken just anywhere. We could go on all day with justifications.

  17. Tim Silverman said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    @Mike Keesey: rather than Formica rufa, what about Drosophila melanogaster or Caenorhabditis elegans or Arabidopsis thaliana or Homo sapiens? People have considered these individual species worthy of in-depth study. For any diverse and complex phenomenon, an individual researcher can study it in depth or in breadth, but not both. It doesn't make sense to me that all researchers should take the same approach.

  18. MikeyC said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    It's obvious that books about French syntax sell more copies. Most linguists need to earn a living. ;-)

  19. Michael Medley said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    I am surprised that no one has speculated on why Harrison singled out "French" syntacticians instead of "English" syntacticians. The latter are far more abundant and at work on a language that is more of a threat to minority languages than French is, as illustrated in the segment of the film shot in Orissa. Regardless, he had a choice–why did he choose "French"?

  20. Nicholas Waller said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    @ Tom Silverman – to keep up the waste-of-space French angle, they do things like Drosophila melanogaster research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

  21. Olga said,

    July 3, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    The problem is of course two-sided. I worked for a few years in a theoretically-oriented linguistic research project. The attitude there was that there are "data gatherers" who do that low filthy work in the Amazon or Australia or somewhere else with plenty of snakes. Once they've gathered the data (I always imagine that they use butterfly nets for this), they take it back to the proper linguists who then dissect it and insert it into their theories. I found this attitude hard to bear.

    Then I worked in a documentation project, and this also has some problems. We were concerned solely with the documentation and hardly ever tried to solve a problem we encountered. As a result, the people that are (or should be, considering the time they spend there) most knowledgeable about a language are not necessarily the ones writing about it. That's no good either.

    But I guess we all need someone to look down upon. I look down upon all people that are in one of the two categories I mention above — myself belonging to a third one, the one that'll do both.

  22. Nick Lamb said,

    July 5, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    “we all need someone to look down upon”

    Yes, e.g. see

  23. Alissa said,

    July 5, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    I find the attitude that documenting endangered languages is the only thing worth doing fairly common among the (at least undergrad) linguistics students I know, and some can be a little too self-righteous about it. I agree with Olga that neither extreme is good. The comment in the film did bother me a bit. I think if there is room for linguistics at all in the world, there is room (and a need) for both theory and fieldwork. I guess the bigger question is, actually, what the point of linguistics in general is. I get asked that a lot and don't have a very good answer besides the natural human desire to know everything about our world and ourselves. How do other people answer that question?

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 3:56 am

    Seeing that there is no agreement about the simplest nomenclature for English syntax, unless French is very different the comment is not so much gratuitous as appallingly ignorant.

  25. MikeyC said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Just how many linguists are working on French syntax? Do we know?

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    I think at the time I acquired my B.A. in Linguistics I knew more about Dyirbal syntax than French syntax (although 22 years of subsequent forgetfulness may have leveled the playing field somewhat). Is this a personal tribute to the scholarly/entrepeneurial skills of R.M.W. Dixon or evidence that there was a shortage of linguists working on French syntax?

  27. Franz Bebop said,

    July 6, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    Suppose an amateur linguist wanted to help do this kind of field work, documenting languages which seem to be headed towards extinction.

    Aside from enrolling as a grad student at a university Linguistics program, what could such a person do to get involved? Can someone post some URLs to information about preservation or documentation efforts? Are volunteers wanted?

  28. MikeyC said,

    July 7, 2009 @ 4:58 am

    You could ask David Harrison for advice on that, Franz:


    I've invited David here in hope he will respond to some of the comments.

  29. John Lawler said,

    July 11, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    @MikeyC – Great idea! Thanks.
    @Franz Bebop – One way is the SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics, which is selective about its volunteer membership, but does more for language documentation and preservation, in toto, than anybody else, and (IMHO) everybody else.
    If you're Christian, consider it. In any event, they are always (in my experience) very helpful to linguistic colleagues and they make the best and most useful software. And they have no theoretical axes to grind, which is at least refreshing.

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