skeptical about the mainstream 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 2)

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for the interest in skepticism about mainstream linguistics. I’ll continue!

In addition to sheer conservatism and the ascribing of undue status to works produced by the famous, there are also other factors which may make it more or less difficult to publish. At any given time, some viewpoints – currently, for instance, ‘multiculturalism’ and some aspects of postmodernism – are very ‘trendy’ and indeed ‘politically correct’; papers espousing the relevant views are liable to be favourably regarded. Indeed, in public presentations (at conferences and such) where one can be identified it often requires courage to speak in criticism of such an offering. This trend also means that papers endorsing views contrary to those in political or cultural favour may struggle to achieve publication, even if they (and their authors) are otherwise sound; or, if they do achieve it, they may then be subjected to withering and arguably biased criticism. None of this implies that intellectual ‘rebels’ within the mainstream are necessarily correct in opposing majority mainstream viewpoints; the issue is that of critics obtaining a fair hearing, especially when they are well qualified on the matters at hand. Where this becomes difficult, the need for skepticism about the academic mainstream will obviously increase.

In fact, some skeptics have actually become known mainly for critiquing mainstream – if often contested – positions rather than non-mainstream ideas. Negative comments of this kind can sometimes be partisan and overstated, but in other cases they can be legitimate or arguably so.

Skeptical comments on mainstream linguistics, specifically, can be directed at a range of arguably unwarranted mainstream assumptions/ideas. These include: Chomskyan ‘nativism’; bizarre analyses of data adopted under the influence of unproven and often unlikely theories which are apparently regarded by some linguists as virtually immune to criticism; undefended and inadequately/inappropriately grounded analyses of basic grammatical structures; support for dubious but ‘trendy’ or ‘politically correct’ sociolinguistic theories (sometimes under postmodernist influence); exaggerated postmodernist ideas more generally; etc. Some specific examples will follow in later posts.

As noted, some of the skeptical criticism which the linguistic mainstream receives is produced by linguists themselves, as illustrated last time by the case of Göran Hammarström. In addition to Hammarström, various other ‘insiders’, thoughtful linguists who have been more able than most to remain independent of the various ‘paradigms’, have written of these matters in an essentially skeptical way (while not necessarily identifying as skeptics). Perhaps the most prominent of these linguists is Geoffrey Sampson, who has antagonised some other prominent linguists by arguing very persuasively that their pet theories are empirically empty or obviously contradicted by inconvenient data (see later on this issue). Sampson, in fact, goes some way along the road taken more indiscriminately by Amorey Gethin and others (again, see later), suggesting that many of the unexplained facts (cross-linguistic and language-specific) and many of the theoretical issues debated by linguists may find their solutions in other domains such as psychology, and that – while there is a clear role for linguistic description and the necessary generalisations – a truly valid general linguistic theory would thus be minimal in scope.

Some of the linguists who critique the linguistic mainstream are skeptical linguists turning their skepticism on their own mainstream (as they are often urged to do by the non-mainstream thinkers whom they criticise). Obviously, I myself identify as a member of this group. I would argue, in fact, that mainstream linguistics is perhaps more in need of skeptical attention than some other mainstream disciplines. One reason for this is the relative lack of consensus or orthodoxy in linguistics, and how this is handled. Obviously, on many major issues involving language almost all linguists do in fact agree with each other, at least in general terms. However, one does not have to penetrate far into linguistics to find disagreement on basic points. There are many competing ‘schools’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘frameworks’ within many of the branches of linguistics, differing from each other on such fundamental and basic issues as, for instance, the ‘true’ or most insightful grammatical analysis of sentences as straightforward as ‘Mark drank his beer’ in a language as well-described as English (the largest issue is that of whether this sentence divides into two constituents or three). Of course, all fields display some differences of this kind, despite displaying substantial cores of shared ideas. In the case of linguistics, however, the degree of disagreement is so great that the need for skeptical attention would appear greater than in some other disciplines.

Professional linguists have not been conspicuously effective in dealing with this problem. Some, especially those influenced by postmodernism, seem to adopt a quasi-relativist view on which the issue is (perhaps) acknowledged but is not presented as truly problematic, even where the different ‘frameworks’ appear to be offering incompatible analyses of the very same aspects of the matters in question. One can make any set of ‘assumptions’ which is not self-confounding or refuted by obvious facts, and can then extrapolate massively from these ‘assumptions’, with little fear that anyone will actually attempt to disprove them. Limited interest is shown in the question of how far the ‘assumptions’ and ‘paradigms’ upheld by a given group of linguists might actually prove demonstrably preferable to alternative ideas. A further problem here lies in the fact that different ‘schools’ do not by any means always agree even on what is valid and relevant evidence in such cases, or at any rate upon the relative importance of different types of evidence (for instance, some linguists regard typological surveys across many languages as crucially important in resolving issues of analysis and theory, while others prefer to rely mainly upon close, abstract analyses of one language or a few languages).

One reason for this situation lies in the relative intractability of linguistic data. Linguistics is an essentially empirical subject; but, in the more abstract or speculative areas of such a domain, it is not always easy to adduce decisive reasons or evidence for preferring one account or analysis to another. However, it is surely preferable to seek to address this kind of issue with whatever decisive evidence may be found, rather than to forge ahead at great length with any one ‘paradigm’ in circumstances where there can be little confidence that it really is the ‘best’ available.

The training of academic linguists and the nature of many linguistics departments contribute (often inadvertently) to these problems. Some departments have a strong bias towards one ‘paradigm’ or another. Many of these ‘paradigms’ have now developed in such depth and detail that students must spend several years familiarising themselves with one ‘paradigm’ before their grasp of the material is at such a level that they can make fresh contributions at the ‘cutting edge’. Differences within the ‘paradigm’ are discussed, but its basics are often left unchallenged. Furthermore, many of the central concepts and issues within each ‘paradigm’ are intelligible only within that ‘paradigm’.

More next time, including some specific examples!


6 Responses to skeptical about the mainstream 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 2)

  1. Ed H says:

    I’m not in touch with the world of linguistics, but the last time I was close to being in touch with it, I didn’t see a lot of evidence of “trendy postmodernism.” I’d be skeptical myself of claims that “trendy postmodernism,” that bugaboo of every self-proclaimed skeptic, is in fact a problem in the field and it would take some serious evidence for me to believe it.

    Oddly enough, If I remember correctly, “postmodernism” itself (or at least Lyotard’s “postmodernity”) grew out of “poststructuralism” which was a reaction to the introduction of Structuralist (Sausurrean) linguistic theory into other subjects like anthropology (Claude Levi-Strauss). So linguistics — French linguistics from the turn on the 20th century — is actually the ultimate source of the scary, contemptible “trendy postmodernism” that now menaces the field!

    Anyways. Back when I was interested in linguistics I learned enough about Chomsky to eventually turn on him and get interested in people like Ronald Langacker instead. I have no idea if anybody cares about Ronald Langacker anymore, but his stuff seemed pretty amazing.

    The straw that broke the Chomskian camel’s back was the fact that, as a very amateur student of his work, I wasn’t able to find any explanation for the fact that in English, adjectives come before nouns. Chomsky seemed to make so much of word order, particularly the order of heads of phrases and other components, and English was supposed to be head-first, and adjectives came before nouns, so what the fuck? I mean, maybe there was a simple explanation, but *NOBODY SEEMED TO TALK ABOUT* this basic fact of the most-Chomskyized language in the world.

    The best I could get was somebody on the internets telling me that in Engish adjectives were actually determiners, so they went before the head, but that seemed to make mincemeat of the whole point of languages being head-first or head-last, since if you could just say “in this language, such-and-so is actually a determiner” and flip it to the other side of the head, then “head-first” or “head-last” doesn’t actually tell you anything.

    So fuck Chomsky, I said.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks for this.  I agree that what passes for linguistics (not very recognisable to more traditionally oriented linguists) as practised in the world of postmodernism (Kristeva etc) was important in the rise of the very tendencies that I deplore here. 

      Specifically in the world of sociolinguistics, where I operated for quite some time, there certainly has been an element of what I’ve called ‘trendy postmodernism’, particularly in respect of the favouring of the usage and language-related attitudes of groups deemed to have hitherto been deprived of attention, such as ethnic minorities and females.  Some examples of this will follow.  (I do grant that there are other factors operating here, some of which may be more important; and, of course, that there are other sub-fields of linguistics where this kind of thing seldom arises in any case.)

      Langacker’s work is still read with interest by open-minded linguists.  In the UK and Australia, systemic linguistics, which differs greatly from Chomskyan linguistics, has long been, and remains, a serious rival to the latter.  Etc, etc.  I agree fully about the ‘dodges’ which are common in Chomskyan work; I am going to refer to some of this material.


  2. edheil says:

    Hm… re: “the favouring of the usage and language-related attitudes of groups deemed to have hitherto been deprived of attention, such as ethnic minorities and females.” — “Women,” surely, not “females?”

    I’d think that paying attention to marginalization and attempting to redress the balance, and listen to previously silenced voices, would be simple justice & decency, not “trendy postmodernism,” but maybe you’re talking about things that go well beyond that? I’ll be reading with interest as usual.

    Thanks for letting me know about “systemic linguistics”! I’m glad to know it’s out there and I’ll keep an eye out for it if I slip back into the “amateur study of linguistics” habit again. I mean besides reading this blog!

    • marknewbrook says:

      Hi & thanks again!  Comments much appreciated!  I meant to include females of all ages, not only adult women.  I agree that paying attention to marginalisation, listening to previously silenced voices, etc is important and is in itself a very good rather than a bad thing.  Sorry if anything I’ve said might be taken as suggesting otherwise – not intended!  But this does not imply that what these voices (any more than more traditional voices) have to say is to be treated as automatically correct or beyond criticism.  And what I was referring to was indeed the tendency to go beyond listening to previously silenced voices (etc), either by claiming that all viewpoints are always equally valid (even where facts are concerned) or treating the previously silenced voices as automatically preferable or more authoritative (or, inconsistently, adopting both stances at once).  In fact, I was not referring to linguistics specifically when I mentioned ‘trendy postmodernism’ (some of my own worst experiences at conferences etc have involved philosophical rather than linguistic issues), and some of the sociolinguistic issues where this kind of thing does arise are marginal to my remit here; but (for example) some sociolinguists (one is Penelope Gardner-Chloros) have appeared to dismiss analyses developed by male sociolinguists as artefacts of the authors’ backgrounds while themselves advancing alternative (feminist) analyses which are also assumption-laden and no better supported by the evidence.  When I made this point (in moderate language) in a seminar discussion I had a frosty response from some feminist colleagues (despite myself identifying as a feminist).  I grant, of course, that such reactions are my no means universal.  I will say a little in later posts about issues involving ethnicity.  Mark

  3. Pacal says:

    The mention of “political correctness”, simply raises my craw. It has been more than 20 years and yet the mantra hasn’t changed.

    I am getting so tired of the mantra that challenging “political correctness” requires courage etc. It is another boring mantra.

    it is simple nonsense. Attacking “political correctness”, as been “politically correct” for more than 20 years. In fact nothing labels someone as a boring, conventional and throughly unoriginal thinker in todays society than complaining about “political correctness” and how it stifles free thought. The decible level hysteria about “political correctness” has been going on and on.

    One of the more boring features of “political correctness” is how so many of those who attack it pat themselves on the back for their ‘courage”. The fact is attacking “political correctness” is group think among large sections among the intellectual elite and not to do so can earn banishment.

    I also love how many of those who attack the big bogyman of “political correctness”, conflate criticism with persecution and supression.

    There are many , many examples of group think in the anti-“politically correct” crowd. Pinker the psychologist for example talks endlessly about how discussing and investigating genetic group differences requires “courage” and “bravery” yet these positions are merely centuries old prosaic opinions requiring no “bravery” at all. However it doesn’t stop those people from pating themselves on the back for their “courage”.

    I personally think Post-Modernism, in its extreme form is crap and that certain types of “relavitism” are insane. I’ve never felt any pressurer to stifle my opinion on those things.

    There is a very large section of Academia where war against “political correctness” is in fact mandated and demanded. It is esspecially promenent among the Psychologists who devoutly believe in group genetic differences.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks for all your comments, Pacal; much appreciated, and for the most part I concur!

      I hope that for my own part I don’t appear obsessed with ‘political correctness’.  I realise that some make far too much of this issue; but I do stand by what I have said here about my own experiences and those of some other ‘modernist’ linguists.  Of course, some of the issues here have become less important over time.

      Keep it up, anyway!  Cheers! 


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