skeptical about the mainstream 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 1)

Hi again, everybody! Thanks a lot for your ‘votes’! Seven people responded and I’ll try to deal with all proposed topic areas in due course. One topic area – skepticism about mainstream linguistics – obtained two votes, and so I’ll start there.

This is a topic which obviously has considerable potential relevance for skepticism about mainstream scholarship more generally, perhaps especially in the humanities.

Obviously, skepticism in any given intellectual discipline is typically directed at ideas towards the outer edges of that discipline. It generally focuses upon positions within the discipline (or dealing with its subject-matter) which are not merely controversial but so controversial or ‘strange’ that they can reasonably be called ‘non-mainstream’, ‘fringe’ or ‘non-standard’. Even in cases where the qualified thinkers are themselves seriously divided (so that there is no orthodoxy or consensus – although some positions may still be more controversial than others), comments of an overtly and specifically skeptical nature are relatively rare in the mainstream literature itself.

The explanation for the neglect of the mainstream by skeptics may seem obvious enough. The skeptical enterprise involves subjecting the claims of non-mainstream thinkers and practitioners – who are typically not themselves academics or professional researchers – to tests of the kind which are routinely undergone by the claims of mainstream scholars. The latter receive intensive and prolonged training and examination in the basics of their disciplines; their preliminary drafts and initial pilot studies are discussed and criticised by their colleagues and others; their ‘finished’ books and papers are exposed by house and journal editors to anonymous (‘double-blind’) peer-review and often rejected or returned for re-writing, and – if and when published – are assailed in a barrage of further criticism; their experiments are replicated again and again in a determined effort to find sources of error or alternative explanations. In contrast, a non-mainstream publication is typically a book written at a fairly popular level and published by the author or by a press with few academic pretensions, or an article in an ‘anomalist’ journal or on a web-site used largely by those who share the author’s basic non-mainstream position. There is sometimes a review process, but the authors, editors and reviewers – who often form a close-knit group, very much on the edges of the relevant scholarly worlds – agree in upholding the basic ideas which divide them from the mainstream; reviewers will generally attack only points of detail. In this context, skeptical scholars provide (albeit only after publication) the processes of testing and review which non-mainstream publications would otherwise lack. Naturally, their conclusions and assessments are usually negative.

Many scholars confronted by skeptics trained in their own field take the view that skeptical work of this kind is simply unnecessary in the context of mainstream thought. They believe that the safeguards outlined above really do work well enough to obviate the need for specifically skeptical examination. Skeptical linguists, for example, are sometimes asked what difference there is between skeptical linguistics, as applied to the mainstream, and just plain linguistics, conducted within the usual academic constraints. This view is understandable, and obviously it is not entirely inaccurate; but the amount of doubtful material which achieves serious publication might suggest that additional vigilance is indeed needed. Some non-mainstream authors actually suggest that skeptics should direct their attention at the mainstreams of their own disciplines as well as or even instead of at non-mainstream material; and, while one might not wish to take such an extreme view of the matter (almost diametrically opposed to that of some mainstream scholars as reported above), it is more than arguable that some mainstream ideas do warrant more skeptical attention than they tend to receive.

For instance, the degree of conservative bias which inevitably affects publication and acceptance of novel ideas probably does mean that some of the more obviously mainstream works which are published may indeed owe too much of their success to their mainstream status (although non-mainstream writers certainly exaggerate the degree to which such things occur).

One very interesting study along these lines was produced by the adventurous mainstream linguist Göran Hammarström, in an unfortunately little-read 1971 article which illustrates how the published views of very eminent linguists may appear ludicrous when looked at in a different (maybe more realistic or more ‘common-sense’) way and without undue respect for their reputations. Hammarström summarises four works of linguistics which may all appear nonsensical to the uncommitted intelligent reader. Three of these are journal articles; the fourth is a mainstream book (The Sound Pattern of English; New York, 1968). The three short pieces are very obviously non-mainstream, not to say bizarre, in nature, and the thinking involved is lacking in self-criticism. (Details on request!) Hammarström suggests that they were accepted in error by the editors of the journals in question; in the first two cases the editor was a dialectologist rather than a theoretical linguist, while in the third case the journal had a language-specific, not overtly linguistic focus.

On the other hand, the book in question was written by the very prominent linguists Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle; it was taken very seriously by the linguistic world as a whole when it appeared, and, while now dated in many respects, is still regarded as a ‘classic’. Hammarström argues that in fact the thinking set out in this work is little if any less ludicrous than that rehearsed in the three shorter pieces discussed earlier. Much of the theory developed in the book is highly abstract, counter-intuitive and seriously under-demonstrated. For example, abstract ‘underlying representations’ for the spoken forms of English words are established, often appreciably closer to current spellings than to orthodox phonemic representations. (This is associated with the Chomskyan claim that more abstract, non-phonemic spelling is psychologically preferable.) In associated works, theoretical findings based on these ideas are applied to other languages and indeed are treated (as is normal in this tradition) as of universal application if valid. However, Hammarström argues (quite cogently, and later supported by other linguists) that these and other such Chomskyan analyses are inadequately justified (both for English and cross-linguistically), and at times they appear simply bizarre. They have, it seems, been highly respected in large part because of the prestige and perceived authority of authors such as Chomsky and Halle – far greater than those of the authors of the three shorter pieces, who certainly had far inferior training in the discipline.

More on this general theme next time!


9 Responses to skeptical about the mainstream 1 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 1)

  1. Mark Liberman at Language Log is not at all shy about shredding sloppy statistics and spurious conclusions in papers appearing in mainstream linguistics journals. Here are two recent examples:

    “Texting and language skills” (Aug. 2, 2012)

    “It’s all about who?” (July 31, 2012)

    I especially liked this quote from “Texting and language skills”:

    “There’s a special place in purgatory reserved for scientists who make bold claims based on tiny effects of uncertain origin; and an extra-long sentence is imposed on those who also keep their data secret, publishing only hard-to-interpret summaries of statistical modeling.”

  2. tungl says:

    I’d really like to read the Hammarström paper – could you give a full citation?

    Maybe you could also talk about the discussion about the Minimalist Program that was started by Johnson & Lappin and then continued for a few years during the late 1990s and early 2000s. I would like to see your take on that.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks a lot for your interest!  I will look into commenting on minimalism when pos!  Meanwhile, the GH reference is: Göran Hammarström, ‘The Problem of Nonsense Linguistics’, Acta Societas Linguisticae  Upsaliensis, II/4 (1971), pp. 99-109. I realise that this is a bit obscure and I’ll be happy to post a summary on request!  Cheers!  Mark

      • tungl says:

        A summary would be fantastic, though I will also be able to get my hands on a copy through my university library.

      • marknewbrook says:

        OK, here goes (from my forthcoming book):

        The first article, by T. Kluge24, argues that the human capacity for speech results from features of the brain, notably the ‘language centre’, which have become strengthened through the use of the arms, which in turn arose from the overall arrangement of human limbs (two arms, no wings). … Kluge also associates many phonetic features with physiological characteristics; he claims, for instance, that ‘clicks’ (velaric ingressive consonants) are associated with certain ‘racially’ determined mouth structures, and that variations in auditory perceptions of phonetic pitch in speech correlate with air-density and thus with the altitude at which a language is used (this is an extreme version of the commonly-expressed folk-linguistic view that differences in prevailing atmospheric conditions generate accent differences, for instance the ‘adenoidal’ quality of the speech of once fog-bound Liverpool).


        Gerard Schmidt25 relates inter-linguistic differences involving phonetic vowel qualities to perceptions of the number of the colours of light making up sunlight (as displayed in rainbows) and the sharpness of the divisions between them; this explains, for example, why Italian (whose speakers enjoy clearer air) has ‘no diphthongs’ and why non-primate mammals, which have monochrome vision, lack language altogether. (He regards monkeys as having language.) Schmidt also relates linguistic features to the ambient temperatures prevailing where languages are used, to the contrast between urban and rural living environments, and to varying ‘national psychologies’ and approaches to ‘logic’.


        O. Gjerdman26 links features of speech with residence in northern, southern, eastern or western locations (although the establishment of compass directions, especially east and west, depends upon the location of the observer) and local bird-migration patterns.


        REFS 24 T. Kluge, ‘Über eine bisher überschene Sprachengruppe mit Knacklauten (Schnalzen,

             click)’, Orbis, IV/2 (1955), pp. 432-51 (see also T. Kluge, ‘Über eine bisher vergessene

            Sprachengruppe mit Knacklauten’, Orbis, VII/1 (1968), pp. 196-7.

        25 Gerard Schmidt, ‘Thinking and Language’, Orbis IV/1 (1955), pp. 66-73.

        26 O. Gjerdman, ‘Väderstrecken, fåglarnas flyttningar och mäniskors tal’, Nysvenska

             studier, 37 (1957), pp. 57-74.


  3. Pacal says:

    all this illustrates a point i’ve made before that the sheer amount of batshit insane stuff that is published by so-called “mainstrean” thinkers and journals is amazing. Obviously the :”gatekeepers” arn’t entirely effective.

    As for “Skeptics” diverting their attention to “mainstream” ideas. The problem is that “mainstream” ideas before they became “mainstream” already went through a rather thick critical tearing apart. So why do it again?

  4. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    Yes, like in the case of the other early gatekeepers what I wrote had little effect, The nonsense was written by two extremely intelligent persons, Instead of dealing with superficial static forms like phonologists in general they invented deeper forms (which must belong to a superior kind of phonology), These were transformed to become the forms one started from (dynamic must be superior to static). That the whole procedure is meaningless was overlooked by those who were seduced. Goran Hammarstrom

  5. Superb blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of
    any community forums that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get responses from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thank you!

  6. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks for your interest! I don’t myself know of any such fora; the world of skeptical linguistics, specifically, is small. If you like I can ask my fellow skeptical linguist Karen Stollznow, who is more active online than I am. The convenors of this web-site might perhaps know of fora involving skepticism in the humanities more generally. Mark N

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