Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 8

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!

8 EMMA COCKER

Like many ‘fringe’ authors, some artists and commentators on the arts apparently believe that scholars – including linguists – hold (or can reasonably be read as holding) that their theories and observations as published in books and articles are definitely correct, not admitting of any challenges, alternative stances or modifications. One such writer is Emma Cocker, an ally of John Latham (discussed briefly last time), who finds this supposed viewpoint unwelcome because of her own focus on the ‘margins’ between entities and the uncertainty of analyses (a popular theme among artists).

Although those of us who are active skeptics do of course find SOME alternative ideas ill-founded, this very ‘strong’ interpretation of what we say reflects a serious (and surprising) error in respect of our intent. Most academics – while confident enough to subject their ideas to scrutiny through publication – are well aware of the provisional nature of academic ‘conclusions’ and of the large amounts of uncertainty which obtain (perhaps especially but not exclusively in the humanities and social sciences). (However, we ARE also – naturally – much more interested than are artists in the RESOLUTION of uncertainties wherever possible, by synthesis or by the identification of some analyses as preferable to others.)

Some writers of this kind also advance more specific ideas (not necessarily non-mainstream) about language – though not always very explicitly or clearly; they are accustomed to using vivid metaphors rather than precise ‘academic’ wording. Cocker herself suggests that ‘seams become audible in the spoken language of certain districts’ (which, she explains in correspondence, refers to interference between dialects/accents in contact situations), and that speech can be ‘twisted and reversed’ (this refers to usage such as Cockney ‘backslang’, as in rofe meaning ‘four’). She discusses these two phenomena in the context of her more general notions about language and the mind, chiefly with respect to her ‘margins’ (these notions are only to a limited extent empirically grounded).

However, both phenomena are already rather well understood: the former is much more widespread in language generally than Cocker seems to imagine and normally requires no special explanation, and the latter is (obviously) typically involved in the encryption of information. Novel perspectives are always of interest; however, they need to be explicitly expressed and exemplified if linguists are to assess their validity and/or significance, and they are more likely to be genuinely useful if they are informed by knowledge of existing ideas within the discipline (even if their proponents reject these ideas).

More next time!

Mark

PS: For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:
http://linguistlist.org/pubs/books/get-book.cfm?BookID=64212

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

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One Response to Linguistics ‘Hall Of Shame’ 8

  1. edheil says:

    As far as future topics go, I’d be very interested to hear your commentary on this article:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/linguists-identify-15000-year-old-ultraconserved-words/2013/05/06/a02e3a14-b427-11e2-9a98-4be1688d7d84_story.html

    It seems extremely dubious to me, but I’d appreciate hearing a professional opinion on it.

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