A victory for S

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I'm at the Linguistic Society of America meetings (in San Francisco) and spent part of the morning sitting in on the LSA's Executive Committee meeting. The part I attended was mostly about a fairly long document detailing the programs of the society and their objectives. In the midst of this came a digression on linguistic (adjective) vs. linguistics (noun) as a modifier of a noun.

The specific question was: should the text refer to the linguistic community or the linguistics community?

In the end, a vote was taken, and the S version (nominal) won handily over the version without the S (adjectival).

After the vote, I remarked about how much I'd like to blog about linguists voting yes or no on S, and Steve Anderson noted that these discussions weren't privileged, so I was free to post. A chorus of groans ran round the room as people realized that if I could post about it, I would.

Misgivings about linguistic community centered on its similarity to speech community, which is not at all what was intended in the document.

Of course, both variants are acceptable, here and in other combinations, for instance linguistic society vs. linguistics society (no doubt some people see a subtle difference between the variants). So we have

Linguistic Society of America, Chicago Linguistic Society, North East Linguistic Society, Linguistic Society of New Zealand, etc.

Berkeley Linguistics Society, Texas Linguistics Society, High Desert Linguistic Society, Linguistics Society of Korea, etc.

(also Linguistics Association of Great Britain). Some names pretty much have to have the form X Linguistics Society, because they parse as [ X linguistics ] + society 'society for X linguistics' (where X linguistics refers to the linguistics of X languages), rather than as X + [ linguistics society ] 'linguistic(s) society of X', where X is a place or institution, e.g.:

Slavic Linguistics Society 'Society for Slavic Linguistics', Southeast Asian Linguistics Society 'Society for Southeast Asian Linguistics', etc.

(of course, there could also be a Southeast Asian Linguistics Society 'Linguistics Society of Southeast Asia').

My impression is that in the 'linguistic(s) society of X' readings, the nominal variants are more frequent than the adjectival variants, but there's nothing problematic about the adjectival variants. I say this as a member of the Linguistic Society of America (adjectival from the first).


  1. Mark P said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    Linguistic Society or Linguistics Society – I understand them to mean the same thing, and would expect an organization with either name to be concerned with the same thing, but they do seem to be subtly different. At the least, Linguistics Society is harder to say.

  2. Nathan said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    How about linguistical, by analogy with mathematical?

  3. JRH said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    To me, the nominal makes more sense; the adjectival form strikes me as describing the nature of the society rather than stating the subject of the society. I always get a chuckle when I see mention of the American Physical Society. It seems as though they're saying that their society is somehow more tangible than other societies. (On the other hand, an "American Physics Society" would, to me, be unequivocally a society about physics.)

  4. Lance said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    "Linguistics community" struck me as so obviously the only choice that I was about to post that of course, when talking about the subject of study, you'd use the noun form and not the adjective. I mean, it's not the "American Chemical Society", it's the "American Chemistry Society".

    And then I Googled. And, oops.

    Then I realized that the AMA is the American Medical [not Medicine] Association, and similarly there's the American Philosophical [not Philosophy] Association, the American Psychological [not Psychology] Association, the American Mathematical [not Mathematics] Society, and even the American Physical [not Physics] Society. The last one surprises me, because "physical" seems more distant from "physics" to me than the other adjectives from their corresponding fields of study. In general, though, my first intuition had been that the societies aren't themselves especially (for instance) philosophical or psychological, but rather that they concerned philosophy and psychology. Clearly my first intuition was wrong—not just empirically, but even for me, since I'd never before hesitated over the names of these organizations.

    Which goes to show that it's possible to be wrong about one's own intuitions. All the same, I much prefer "linguistics community". (I think I also prefer "chemistry community" over "chemical community", and certainly "physics community" over "physical community", but at this point I'm not even sure.)

  5. Ian Preston said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

    The same issue is there for economists. The top learned and professional societies all seem to opt for the adjectival variant (American Economic Association, European Economic Association, Econometric Society, Royal Economic Society and so on) and the same for their journals (American Economic Review, Economic Journal). Perhaps the choice is intended to clarify, for instance, that the first-mentioned is an American society to promote study of the economy, rather than a society to promote study of the American economy, although you could say it makes it sound like a society for frugal Americans. If you restrict attention to a subfield of the discipline you get the nominal variant though (so you tend to get Public Economics Associations rather than Public Economic Associations, say).

  6. Lance said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:27 pm

    Update to the previous post: "mathematics community" gets 57,000 Google hits; "mathematical community", 59,500. "chemistry community" outnumbers "chemical community" by 44k to 40k, which isn't particularly much. I should seriously stop trying to have intuitions…

  7. James Wimberley said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    Is there any pattern that determines which arts and sciences become ~ics (physics, linguistics, economics, numismatics) and which ~ology (biology, hydrology, theology, sociology)? I take it that these are the two live forms, unlike the ~y ending of alchemy and chemistry. If visitors arrived from Alpha Centauri, the boom in Centauran studies would either go under centaurics or centaurology.

  8. Christopher Stone said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 9:18 pm


    I think you're giving your intuition short-change. In your first post, you're comparing apples to oranges; the vote favoring "linguistics community" to "linguistic community" came from the Linguistic Society of America, which certainly follows the trend you pointed out in the naming of professional organizations (My own intuition is that linguistic community is closer in meaning to speech community than linguistics community is).

    As for the Google hits, I don't think they really reflect what's going on here. As Dr. Zwicky pointed out, both variants are acceptable in various constructions; I'm sure this is the case with "mathematical" vs "mathematics" and "chemical" vs "chemistry". When talking about communities, for both chemistry and mathematics it's pretty obvious you're talking about the academic communities themselves as opposed to, say, communities that are the subject of those academic communities. To be clearer, it seems unlikely that those in mathematics would frequently (or at all) refer to a community whose identity is linked to mathematics (at least, outside of academia).

    That certainly isn't the case for linguistics, where references to communities bound together by language are frequent, to say the least. There isn't really the same ambiguity for chemistry or mathematics that there is for linguistics.

    The same thing can be seen for biology: a biological community would seem to be a community based around their biology, while a biology community would seem to be a community based around the study of biology. Searching Google, "biology community" pulls up teachers' associations, meetings for professional organizations, etc. "Biological community" pulls up references to ecology, the environment, etc, which seems to back up the nominal vs. adjectival intuition.

  9. Martin Ewing said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    Yesterday, the New York Times had a nice long article on 'R': http://tinyurl.com/8xhcet. Today, here we are with 'S'. What happens tomorrow?

  10. John Cowan said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

    As I understand it, the American Oil Chemists' Society, whose members are professionally concerned with lipids, is willing to have people draw the false conclusion that they study petroleum instead — because calling themselves the "American Fat Chemists' Society" was felt to be too subject to misreading.

  11. mondain said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    How do you parse this?

    Societas Linguistica Europaea

  12. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 3:21 am

    mondain: "How do you parse … Societas Linguistica Europaea?"

    I never claimed to be presenting a general account of parsing society names, and *certainly* not of parsing such names in a language other than English — like Latin, as in this case. Your question is totally irrelevant to my posting — not perhaps without interest in some other context, but beside the point in this one.

  13. Nylund said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    Using the oil chemist comment as inspiration, surely we can all agree that Oil Society would be preferable to Oily Society. In general, using the nominal makes more sense to me. I am surprised to learn of all the examples to the contrary.

  14. Mark Etherton said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 5:04 am

    John Cowan: Oil Chemists vs Fat Chemists

    There was a famous example in the UK of the Essex village of Ugley, where the local branch of the Women's Institute was so tired of the obvious jokes that they changed their name to the Women's Institute of Ugley.

  15. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    There's the added consideration that the form Linguistics Community makes it clear to the general public that you're not just a bunch of fluent speakers of foreign languages (which might be implied by Linguistic Community). Indeed, the latter form might even suggest that what you have in common is that you all speak the same language. The slightly exotic register of Linguistics Community marks you out as people who are concerned with language (in some possibly mysterious way).

  16. Aaron Davies said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    this reminds me of a couple things: first, the "-theoretic" adjectival suffix, as in "quantum-theoretic" or "game-theoretic", which always makes me do a bit of a double take. second, the "New-York Historical Society", which very carefully includes a hyphen in their name to clarify that they are concerned with the history of new york, rather than being a bunch of new yorkers concerned with history at large.

    in general, my intuition is that preferring the adjective forms is a somewhat older and/or more formal usage, possibly involving the disdain some apparently express for noun-noun compounds. i dimly recall a classic language log post about the origins of the word "linguistics" itself, which featured a quote something along the lines of the "the discipline called 'linguistic'”. linguistic intuition being what it is, tho, i could be completely mistaken.

  17. paulieglott said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 7:22 am


    I find saying linguistical about as elegant as saying ironical, romantical, etc. I'd rather deal with the ambiguity of linguistic society than the embarrassment of having to say linguistical society.

  18. speedwell said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    God forbid they refer to themselves as the American Lipid Chemists' Society, I suppose.

  19. Mark Liberman said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    There's an older pattern for these adjectives, according to which they can freely be applied to people as well as organizations to indicate their area of expertise or interest. This usage mainly survives now in phrases like "physical scientist" or "chemical researcher", but the OED gives e.g. "the physical Empedocles" meaning roughly "the physicist Empedocles"; or the quotation "How to analyze limestones..my chemical friends will be at no loss", where today we'd say "my chemist friends".

  20. David Phillips said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 9:11 am

    The American Physical Society discussed changing its name to the American Physics Society, but the membership stuck with tradition. I couldn't quickly turn up a link to the discussion after the vote; here's a discussion from prior to the vote.
    Members Tell the Board What They Think About a Possible APS Name Change:

    Many of those who responded in favor had personal experiences to recount regarding confusion over the word "physical." Said one, "I now work in a non-academic field (venture capital). Trust me on this…95% of the people I know and work with have no idea what 'physical society' means. Sounds like an aerobics organization. And these people are not idiots, they are engineers, businesspeople etc. CHANGE THE NAME!"

  21. Sheldon Light said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    This reminds me of a debate in my office (a prosecutor's office) over whether to call my unit the "Economic Crime Unit" or the "Economic Crimes Unit." I favored "Crimes" because "Crime" would seem to suggest we're in the business of crime, not of combatting it.

  22. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 9:59 am

    The British comic book "Dandy" had a character called "Bertie Buncle and his Chemical Uncle", meaning what I would call a "chemist uncle". I don't know when that was from, though.

  23. Andrew said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 10:31 am

    Regarding 'Economic', there was of course for a long time an organisation called the European Economic Community, which was certainly not a community of economists.

  24. Nathan said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    @Skullturf: The ordinary meaning of chemist is different in British English from what it is in American English. Chemical uncle may be confusing, but perhaps not as confusing as chemist uncle would have been.

  25. Paul Blankenau said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    So you voted to use an extra S. Given the enormous power of the letter manufacturers, whose sponsorship of Sesame Street was but the tip of the iceberg, I'm disappointed, though not surprised, that you are nothing more than corporate shills.

  26. Cameron Majidi said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

    Imagine how much fun the chiropractors have, given that chiropractic, with no 's', is a noun.

  27. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Mark Etherton: There was a famous example in the UK of the Essex village of Ugley, where the local branch of the Women's Institute was so tired of the obvious jokes that they changed their name to the Women's Institute of Ugley.

    This is yet another Wikipedia error: it's still called the Ugley WI, as this post from the man proud to call himself The Ugley Vicar confirms.

    In fact the name Ugley Women's Institute, far from being a drawback, is a bonus: Ugley WI says people never turn down an invitation to speak at their meetings because they all want to be able to say they've addressed a crowd of Ugley women.

    The organisation of which I am proud to be a founder member, the British Guild of Beer Writers, avoided calling itself the Guild of British Beer Writers in case anyone thought we only wrote about British beers …

  28. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    Hmm, don't know where that link to the Ugley Vicar went – this is it


  29. David Marjanović said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    How old is the adjectival construction in English? Was it imported from French and/or Latin?

    In German, the adjectival construction is rarer than in English, and has always felt like a calque from French to me. (Like for English, I have no idea if that's really the case.) A few decades ago, all institutes of the University of Vienna were renamed from "Adjectival Institute" to "Institute for Noun" (like Paläontologisches Institut to Institut für Paläontologie); the third possibility, "Noun Institute", was not chosen, probably because such compound nouns are written as compound nouns in German, and that would result in very long words (*Paläontologieinstitut) — though this solution is sometimes used colloquially nonetheless.

    This reminds me of a debate in my office (a prosecutor's office) over whether to call my unit the "Economic Crime Unit" or the "Economic Crimes Unit." I favored "Crimes" because "Crime" would seem to suggest we're in the business of crime, not of combatting it.

    Calling it "Economic-Crime Unit", with a hyphen, would have had the same effect, at least as long as you don't say it…

  30. Andrew said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    There is also a Loose Women's Institute. However, 'Loose', the village name, is pronounced like 'lose', not like the regular word 'loose'.

  31. David Marjanović said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    I just wrote:

    was not chosen, probably because

    Actually, there's probably another reason, too: "Noun Institute" is the default, while "Institute for Noun" is clearly a proper name, allowing people to contrast any noun institute with the Institute for Noun.

    Keeping "Adjectival Institute" would have had the same effect, but would have had other disadvantages, see above.

  32. Franz Bebop said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 6:03 pm

    anger management vs. angry management :-)

  33. Albatross said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

    In San Antonio there is a store that sells a lot of telescopes and other scientific equipment. Its name is Analytical Scientific. The store is a neat place, but the name has always been a head-scratcher for me.

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