Scholarship and sausage-making

« previous post | next post »

From John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun ("With friends like this", 4/14/2008):

Editors are inherently prescriptivist, because we're employed to make judgments about what is most appropriate for publication, audience and context — and to get out of the way of elegance. Descriptivists, like the doughty linguists at Language Log, range over all written and spoken language, formal and informal, standard and nonstandard, to turn their findings into scholarship. (That's the grand thing about an academic discipline: Once you own a grinder, you can turn anything into sausage.)

Thanks, John… I think.

John might be complimenting us on our allegiance to the spirit of the Enlightenment: Reason as the universal solvent. (Or at least, the universal sausage-grinder.) But the phrase "turn anything into sausage" has a bit more bite than this.

So maybe he means to question our standards for judging the wholesomeness of ingredients: "There are three things you don't want to see being made: sausage, legislation, and linguistic scholarship." But John works behind the scenes at a newspaper, and is not a hypocrite.

He might be evoking the traditional objection to reductionist analysis: interesting complexities are lost when everything is ground up together. (Thus cognitive neuroscientists sometimes complain that their biochemical colleagues are only interested in the aspects of brains that survive processing in a blender.) But the kind of descriptive linguistics that John has in mind is not especially reductionist, and emphasizes (perhaps to a fault) fine distinctions of genre, register, dialect, and context.

In the end, I can't quite get the metaphor to gel. But maybe I'm being too literal-minded, as linguists sometimes are, so I'll leave you with William Blake's The Genius of Shakespeare ("The Horse of Intellect is leaping from the cliffs of Memory and Reasoning; it is a barren Rock: it is also called the Barren Waste of Locke and Newton"):



Comments are closed.