Two linguists walked into an x-bar…

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A couple of weeks ago, it became clear that a certain number of Language Log readers feel that we don't devote enough attention to linguistic celebrity. "As a non-linguist", wrote Moira Less, "I must admit to having been surprised at how infrequently Chomsky is mentioned here (almost never?). I think he's only linguist who is world famous."

I observed that Chomsky's name had come up in three posts in the previous month, and about 120 times since the blog began, which works out to an average of about twice a month. But in vain — Moira took this as confirmation rather than refutation, and others chimed in as well.

So I'm happy to be able to point you to a facebook group featuring not one, but two celebrity linguists: Labov vs. Chomsky—Ultimate Smackdown.


  1. language hat said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 8:45 am

    I find it bizarre that people would come to a linguistics blog expecting to read about linguistic celebrities, but I guess we live in a celebrity culture.

  2. Greg said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 9:18 am

    @language hat – we're so used to having celebrities talking about things that aren't relevant to them, that it somewhat bothers people when they read something scholarly and learn that the only people they know of in the subject area don't have an opinion or haven't done work in that area. My degree is in physics, and people expect Stephen Hawking to have something to say about topics that have nothing to do with blackholes or cosmology. Heck, people still ask about what Einstein said about things that weren't even developed in his lifetime.

  3. Greg said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 9:19 am

    Also, I for one want more Wittgenstein in LL posts.

  4. Jake said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 9:30 am

    Bob Ladd is a legend and should be a celebrity. Just ask anyone in my year group at Edinburgh….

  5. Mark P said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 10:33 am

    Now that's the way to solve language questions – two linguists, opposing sides, bare knuckles. See the weigh-in! Hear the pre-smackdown banter! Two go in the ring. Only one comes out.

  6. Chris said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    Seems to me that Chuck Fillmore would have been a more appropriate opponent for Chomsky…I'm just sayin…

  7. Chad Nilep said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    … or George Lakoff, to give it that Darth Vader / Luke Skywalker feel.

  8. Sili said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:17 am

    errr – but isn't this blog pretty much written by celebrity linguists?

    And I know I've seen Pinker, Trask and Jeppesen mentioned so I think someone isn't paying enough attention.

    I'd chime in for more about Rask, but I do realise he's been dead for too long.

  9. Sili said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    Oh – and just to blow my own horn:

    Chomsky enough for ya?

  10. Josh Millard said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    And how come we don't hear more from that nice Brizendine woman?

  11. Breffni said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 11:54 am

    Mark L, languagehat and Greg: Chomsky is routinely described in the media as the most influential figure in linguistics. Someone who frequents a linguistics blog finds Chomsky is not mentioned as much as expected, given that reputation. And never mind raw mention-counts: the point is that when his name comes up, it tends not to be in contexts like “Chomsky showed that…”, or “Chomsky argued…”, or even “Chomsky’s claim about X is wrong” – not even in the grammar posts. So a perfectly reasonable person with a curiosity about the field might well ask, why is that? Is his renown out of proportion to his influence in the field? Can research grammar without reference to Chomsky's ideas? (It would be perfectly fair to ask why Hawking didn’t get much attention on a cosmology blog with a particular interest in black holes.) I don’t think it’s necessary to impute a daft obsession with celebrity to anyone.

    Arnold Zwicky gave a straightforward and informative answer: “most of the work that LLoggers do is not informed by Chomsky's most characteristic ideas or by his specific proposals, so he doesn't come up much here”.

  12. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    I speak for Moira, she's not available on weekdays before midnight.

    But look, this is a pretty serious facebook group. They ask questions: "is it 'Chomsky' or 'Chompsky', something I had also noticed. And they know who this Labov is, which is more than I did: 'He is so wise but also so approachable and so good.'

    No wait, that's 'so good at communicating with everyone.' Anyway, as Moira said last time, the young people are interested in celebrity, so give them celebrity linguists and pretty soon they'll be as linguistic as the rest of you. And look at shy, retiring Professor Liberman: he's got a wiki page, he goes to Paris to make speeches, probably flies business class…

    I don't know about Pullum, former keyboardist for Gino Washington and the Ram Jam Band, a group I remember from the sixties, he actually gave up celebrity to devote himself to linguistics, so I wouldn't count on him to back this.

  13. Nathan Myers said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    Can anyone really be a celebrity linguist without fluency in one of nahuatl, navajo, or basque?

  14. john riemann soong said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

    Liberman just made the membership of the group jump by 39 people. By itself that doesn't sound impressive, but that's a 27% increase.

  15. James A. Crippen said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

    @Nathan: Chomsky is only good at English and Hebrew. His parents avoided using Yiddish. He might know other languages but I’ve never heard about it. Anyway, almost all of his work is with English.

  16. language hat said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

    And he notoriously claimed you didn't need any other languages to do linguistics.

  17. Aaron Davies said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 1:00 am

    "Chompsky"–must be the same phenomenon as "hampster". (epenthesis?)

  18. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 5:51 am

    …same phenomenon as "hampster"

    Yes. I even have to stop myself from saying 'blompster' for blomster (flowers) in Norwegian.

  19. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 5:53 am

    LH: (Chompsky) notoriously claimed you didn't need any other languages to do linguistics.

    And do you?

  20. Lugubert said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 6:27 am

    To paraphrase, can Chomsky be even wrong?

    Bunny Mellon said,
    LH: (Chompsky) notoriously claimed you didn't need any other languages to do linguistics.

    And do you?

    I speak rather comfortably some ten languages. As soon as I acquire another dozen or so from several more language families, I'm entering the field of language universals as a newbie. Chomsky is really "left behind".

  21. language hat said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    And do you?

    Not if you want to navel-gaze and pontificate. If you actually want to understand how language works, yes, you need as wide an acquaintance with languages as possible, preferably from several families (not just English-French-German). Of course, Chomsky solved this problem by proclaiming that all languages were the same under the skin, they just have a few different surface rules. Greater twaddle has rarely been taken seriously.

  22. john riemann soong said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 7:58 am

    "Chompsky"–must be the same phenomenon as "hampster".

    It's because /m/ is voiced while /s/ isn't, isn't it?

  23. Chris said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

    I'm not even convinced you need English to study linguistics. Just good ol' first order predicate calculus. Work your way through Tarski's World some summer, and bam! you're a linguist!

  24. Bunny Mellon said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

    Chris said. I'm not even convinced you need English to study linguistics

    Ok this is off topic, but has it ever happened that a baby has been exposed only to math and to no other language words? I just wondered.

  25. Alixtii said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:36 am

    I'd second Greg's request for Wittgenstein, actually, but only because that's where my interests lie. I'm not sure what it would look like if the positivists at LL really tried to do him justice.

  26. Eric said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 7:26 am

    [i]… or George Lakoff, to give it that Darth Vader / Luke Skywalker feel.[/i]

    Which one is supposed to be Vader?

  27. john riemann soong said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

    "Ok this is off topic, but has it ever happened that a baby has been exposed only to math and to no other language words? I just wondered."

    No. I believe this is point is also a major point in Victor Mair's essay on the "ideographic myth" (or something to that effect) on (that is, Chinese characters are essentially meaningless as a form of language without a spoken language with which to correlate them to.)

  28. AlexK said,

    March 29, 2011 @ 8:33 am

    @john riemann soong: I believe that would have more to do with /m/ being a bilabial and /s/ being an alveolar fricative. Because /m/ is articulated with the lips together, and because shortly before the beginning of the articulation of /s/ your lungs prepare to push a faster stream of air for the fricative, when you open your lips after /m/ there is a release of air akin to the one in a bilabial voiceless stop, that being /p/…
    Just my 2 cents' worth.

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