MISSIONARY LINGUISTICS.

Michael Erard, the Official Language Journalist of Languagehat (see, for instance, here), has written an excellent piece for the (now defunct) magazine Search called “Holy Grammar, Inc.,” about the increasingly controversial mix of religion and linguistics practiced by SIL International, a partner of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Erard describes the origin of the institute in this passage:

SIL was founded in 1934 by Cameron Townshend, an Oklahoma missionary who wanted to offer linguistics training to Bible translators during summer-long sessions (SIL stands for “Summer Institute of Linguistics”). On trips to Mexico, Townshend had realized the ludicrousness of giving Spanish Bibles to Indians who didn’t speak or read Spanish. Early on, he was joined by some serious linguistic scholars, Kenneth Pike and Eugene Nida, who had credentials and ties to a world of academic respectability.
“Early on, this fledgling program was greeted with a lot of respect from the linguistics world,” says William Svelmoe, a historian at St. Mary’s College in Indiana and Cameron Townshend’s biographer. “Pike was getting connected with all these big names in linguistics, who were fascinated by the project and just interested in the fact that here we had a bunch of people who were actually going to get out and do the grunt work.”

And for a long time linguists were happy to let these guys “do the grunt work” so they could have material to analyze. But “a younger generation of linguists are beginning to feel uncomfortable…. They’re noting how much SIL’s faith-based science has gotten woven into the DNA of their discipline.” Among them is Lise Dobrin, who “began to consider how much the presence of SIL saturated her years in Papua New Guinea”:

An epiphany came at a 2005 conference on language documentation and values that she attended. She recalls that the linguistic records of Spanish priests in New Spain (the collective historical name for Spanish colonies in the Americas) were being praised, which was a notable departure from the usual anti-colonial critique of Spanish destruction of indigenous cultures. Dobrin says she noticed SIL members in the audience, which went unremarked upon. “It’s this weird dissonance,” she says. “If we’re talking about values, why can’t we talk about how SIL is doing all these things?” In Papua New Guinea, she had seen how Christian beliefs infused everything that SIL linguists did. “Before they would do anything, they would have to stop and pray. It’s their world, and it suffuses everything they do, so the idea that you could be SIL and not be wearing your Christianity and your hopes for other people on your sleeve—I don’t believe that, given what I’ve seen.”
At the end of the conference, she talked to a colleague, Jeff Good, who admitted to the same misgivings. He pointed out that linguistics was the only scientific discipline that relies on missionaries for data and infrastructure. “And I said, oh my god, we have to do something about that,” Dobrin says. “We have to actually say it out loud, and not just to each other in a whisper.”
The result was a panel discussion at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference, titled “Missionaries and scholars: The overlapping agendas of linguists in the field.” Speakers had a variety of perspectives on SIL, including historian Svelmoe and linguists Patience Epps, Courtney Handman, Ken Olson (who is a member of SIL), Dan Everett (a former member of SIL, now a critic), Good, and Dobrin. A collection of essays from the panel will be published in the field’s flagship journal, Language, in September of 2009.

I urge anyone interested in the topic to read the whole article, and I look forward to the special issue of Language.

Comments

  1. A contentious one to be sure. Some random observations:
    * Some SIL linguists are very good (and indeed, some become academic linguists); and some are bad. You sometimes do have to second-guess their data analyses.
    * That the mainstream of linguistic in the US thought collecting language data beneath it for even a year, let along thirty, is contemptible. The Australian mainstream did not go that way—and it’s no coincidence that generative grammar never got a foothold here.
    * Sure the evangelical linguists have an ideology. As if the academic linguists don’t. And the original article does point that conundrum out. Sure new linguists can go forth and sin no more (especially, try not to be complicit in South American coups, as SIL has been accused of). But judging the missionaries is too facile an outcome: secular linguists can be seen through just as colonialist a lens.
    * If there is any value in collecting lots of language data (and the question “what’s in it for the communities” does have to be asked)—then you gotta admit, SIL do still have much of it, along with a hell of a lot of infrastructure. What’s Dobrin gonna do, refuse to read any work done by SIL? Never use Ethnologue and Shoebox? Is that really going to address the underlying issues?
    * No coincidence that the SIL was for a long time banned from Vanuatu—and that as a result we know far less about the languages of Vanuatu than we do about the languages of Papua New Guinea, which has been saturated by SIL for years. Again: *if* knowing stuff about lots of languages is a good thing, then what’s your alternative that’s going to scale? (Also pointed out at length in original article.) I actually know an academic secular linguist who’s done doctoral work in Vanuatu. But that was just one language out of 300…
    Like I say, a contentious one. The SIL has a blemished record. The SIL has also done good linguistics—and they also do community language work, which academic linguists don’t do as much of. And there’s a power imbalance inherent in fieldwork, whether it’s done by a missionary or an atheist. The conversation needs to be a lot broader than “Missionary Bad”.

  2. Kim Witten says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I have mixed feelings about SIL and therefore am always interested to read different perspectives about them and what they do. Also, big fan of Michael Erard and his writing, so this post makes me extra happy.

  3. Nick,
    as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the discussion is much more nuanced than “missionary bad”.
    Sure the evangelical linguists have an ideology. As if the academic linguists don’t.
    Well, no, not the kind the evangelicals have.
    whether it’s done by a missionary or an atheist
    That’s a false dichotomy – I’m sure there are plenty Christian* field linguists out there who are not missionaries. The main point here is not what your beliefs are, but rather if you let them influence your work. And since a lot of a field linguist’s work involves interacting with the community and even becoming a part of it, the missionary mindset might not always be helpful.
    *’Christian’ as in “Credo in unum Deum…”, not necessarily ‘born-again’.

  4. michael farris says:

    The biggest trap that missionary linguists are liable to fall into is not being linguistically oriented enough.
    That is, if they’re not interested in the language on its own (as opposed to as a means to an end) they’re liable to miss lots of important stuff. In extreme cases this can include sabotaging their own work by forming their message in ways that the local culture cannot accept (as in ignoring evidential restrictions and unwittingly saying they were present personally at the crucifixition and ressurection).
    They can also lead to the creation of missionary-registers of the language. In the abstract this doesn’t alarm me since the general human tendency is for sacred language to be somewhat different from everyday language. It can be a problem though if the missionary doesn’t realize what’s going on and passes on the special register they unwittingly helped to create as typical examples of natural language use (which I know has happened).
    Whether the particular traps that missionaries are liable to fall into are worse than those that secular linguists are liable to fall into (due to overadherence to inappropriate theoretical models, general sloppy work and goofing off instead of working on their files etc etc etc) is another question.

  5. Nicholas Ostler says:

    Isaac Asimov ‘Foundation’ 1953:The character Bort remarks “Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history and in that respect it’s fulfilling–” UK Panther edition, p. 90

  6. The thing that has irritated me the most about missionary linguists comes out of my situation with a moribund language spoken only by older people. After some years of work, missionary linguists dismissed the language as doomed to die and hence not worth any further effort in analysis, translation, etc. This despite the language continuing to exist for another thirty years while I grew up and finally came to work on it. This pragmatic attitude would be the exact opposite of an academic linguist’s position.
    And then there’s always tagmemics…

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    @Nick N: If the “Australian mainstream” failed to follow the hostility to fieldwork of the trendy American academy, why isn’t Papua New Guinea full of secular Australian academics doing linguistic fieldwork in sufficient numbers to prevent poor Prof. Dobrin from having had to associate with these SIL types that make her so uncomfortable? PNG is certainly conveniently located if you’re starting in Australia.
    I like the fact that Dobrin was shocked into action by going to a conference that told a historical story with a different political spin than she expected. But I actually thought it was close to conventional wisdom among historians of early Latin America that the only significant faction of opinion arguing for better treatment of the Indians and their cultures and languages came from within the church. Not that it was the only or even the dominant view within the church, but that it was the only game in town in terms of occasionally-practically-effective dissent from a pure subjugation-and-coerced-assimilation model. Empires of the Word (by some fellow whose name is the same as a prior commenter) has an interesting account of how subjugation-and-coerced-assimilation on the language front got substantially worse in Latin America after independence in the 19th C. largely because the clergy typically had less institutional clout with the new regimes than they had had with the colonial authorities. Of course, Guarani has done pretty well in Paraguay, and the possibility that this is not unconnected with Paraguay’s undemocratic-even-by-neighborhood-standards political history presents some potentially interesting ironies.

  8. I’m as anti-Christian as the next atheist guy, but the usual anti-colonial critique does get tedious. If the Spanish priests did good linguistic collection, it seems better to acknowledge that than to take a stand against centuries-old atrocities. I am an adherent of the Missionary Bad Theory though, so off to find out more about this coup complicity allegation.

  9. I have to second the points made by Nick & J.W. If linguists disregarded all data collected by people with ulterior motives, they’d likely be forced into Zenlike contemplation of the structure of nothingness.
    My historical-comparative dissertation on PNG Austronesian languages made extensive use of often sketchy SIL data (which I usually had to reinterpret) and the sometimes very thorough documentation of German missionaries (who often cooperated closely with academics–as well as imperial/colonial authorities, of course).
    Western academics tend to be especially hostile to Christianity, but it seems to me that two other major global, evangelical, scripture-based religious traditions–Buddhism and Islam–can be equally tarred with ideological imperialism and simultaneously credited with spreading literacy and other sorts of learning.

  10. @J. W. Brewer: Australian linguists were waiting to run out of Australian languages first, before they went further afield. That’s arguably I actually know two recent PhD students who did do doctoral work in PNG.
    Neither of them is finding work as an academic linguist; neither did I. And that is the real reason why there will for the foreseeable future be more missionary linguists than academic linguists.
    Didn’t get as far as Spanish in my namesake’s book. Not surprised to hear that happened though…
    @ Bulbul: Everyone has an ideology, and ideology influences your work inevitably, and Western academic linguists are not Above It All.

  11. The result was a panel discussion at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual conference, titled “Missionaries and scholars: The overlapping agendas of linguists in the field.” Speakers had a variety of perspectives on SIL, including historian Svelmoe and linguists Patience Epps, Courtney Handman, Ken Olson (who is a member of SIL), Dan Everett (a former member of SIL, now a critic), Good, and Dobrin. A collection of essays from the panel will be published in the field’s flagship journal, Language, in September of 2009.
    Oh I am *so* looking forward to that issue now.
    But back to the main point: The whole situation is a bit of a Catch-22. The SIL folks have the resources to get the actual documentation done and to further sponsor professional secular academics, but at the same time pushing an evangelical agenda as a motive for said research, i.e. to distribute evangelical materials to the speakers of said langauges to be documented… it’s a violation of the neutrality of the researcher… but then you have to call into debate what is the role of the field linguist?
    Is the field linguist supposed to be an impartial observer, a passive documenter of scientific data? To what extent is it proper for the researcher to get involved in the culture that s/he studies?
    Here with SIL, as it is reported, that they take their ultimate goal as to interfere with the natural progress of the culture as their underlying agenda and the impetus for sending their researchers out. This seems to be the worst level of interference that the researcher can do. Nevertheless they do show results, however shoddy they can be on occasion.
    So yeah, it’s certainly an ethical issue, but as to what we can do to revise the research infrastructure into a more ethical way, it seems difficult to say.
    Anyway, that’s just my general musing on the issue, I’ll be looking forward to carefully reading that panel when the next quarter of Language gets sent out.

  12. One criticism that has been made of SIL linguists involves their “reconstructions” of “proto-languages”: at least one non-SIL linguist has claimed in print that, because of SIL linguists’ practical aim [translating scripture], these so-called reconstructions are much more akin to the invention of written koines than to comparative linguistic reconstruction as the term is usually understood. In like fashion their measures of mutual intelligibility have as their aim to establish how widely a Bible translation in one variety would be understood.
    Still, much of their work is of excellent quality, and far superior to all too many academic linguists’ work. Sad to say, academic linguists have only themselves to blame for this: and indeed the article understates the seriousness of the issue: it’s not just that academic linguists ceased to be fieldworkers, it’s that they ceased to even know or care about the many languages that had been and were being described. A doctoral student in linguistics, at an Ivy league University, once asked me in all seriousness what a “language family” is: her historical linguistics classes had involved diachronic syntax only. I fear she may have been far more typical of young linguists today than I’d like to think.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    After referencing her concerns about the Missionary Menace, Prof. Dobrin’s webpage says that “Other work looks at the western agenda to help local people document and develop their endangered languages, and how this may be at odds with the community interests in the Melanesian Sepik, one the most linguistically dense and complex areas of the world.” So the secular language-preservationists may be in “ethical” trouble too. The “natural progress of the culture” to use a somewhat baffling phrase employed by Mattitiahu, is apparently that the kids want to speak Tok Pisin, not the grandparents’ language which happens to be of interest to the visiting white anthropologist lady.

  14. A doctoral student in linguistics, at an Ivy league University, once asked me in all seriousness what a “language family” is: her historical linguistics classes had involved diachronic syntax only. I fear she may have been far more typical of young linguists today than I’d like to think.
    BLUHGHGWUHBLWUH …Whaaaaaaat?
    Look, I know that Campbell & Mithun (1980) are quoted for having said “Diachronic syntax is where it’s at”, but seriously now that is ridiculous.
    Granted, historical linguistics has become more and more marginalized as a subfield since the event of generative grammar, and maybe it’s the case that I’m slightly bitter about the fact, but that doesn’t mean you can just take genetic classification of languages out of the cirriculum because it doesn’t have a place in coming up with new psycho- and neurolinguistic research.

  15. the “natural progress of the culture” to use a somewhat baffling phrase employed by Mattitiahu, is apparently that the kids want to speak Tok Pisin, not the grandparents’ language which happens to be of interest to the visiting white anthropologist lady.
    Perhaps I should clarify what I mean: I meant the natural development in terms of the “non-interference” of the observing anthropologist. Should the the kids want to speak Tok Pisin rather than the grandparents language, I don’t think the anthropologist ought to have a say whether this development is right or wrong… a measure of scientific impartiality. But however if the speakers want a heritage language program, by all means then go ahead with it.
    The sociolinguistic concerns ought to be determined by the speech community rather than the scientist interloper.
    I better stop there since the question of language preservation as the secondary goal of language documentation is controversial, but to leave with a quote from Peter Ladefoged (which I am taking secondhand from Christopher Culver’s Linguistic Weblog)
    “The most noteworthy is his anecdote of talking with a Dahalo speaker who is proud that his sons have been to school and claims, smiling, that they speak only Swahili. Ladefoged ends by saying “Who am I to say that he was wrong.””
    (see further debate ad loc although I’m with bulbul’s comments to the thread on this one.)

  16. >I’m with bulbul’s comments to the thread on this one
    To that thread as opposed to this one? :-) Absolutely. Ladefoged was right: however much regret the assimilated grandchildren have on the loss of their culture, it wasn’t the grandchildren’s call to make, and it’s not Whitey McLinguist’s call either. That’s just paternalism.
    You can record the language (insofar as the language community allows you to), you can put the case for bilingualism to them, you can help them explore alternative ways of being enfranchised. But it’s their language and their material disadvantages, not yours. An annoyance expressed in PNG with SIL-driven education is with the tokples schools, which use the local vernacular. The parents dislike it, because tokples is not going to get their kid a job in Mosbi. And really, how dare anyone respond to them “suck it up”?
    I was going to chime in chez Culver, but won’t. Culver’s banning of Wikipedia links from his blog (and from what I can infer, deleting them from someone’s comment) is his right; and it’s my right not to condone it.

  17. @Etienne: There is a jeremiad to be chanted about the marginalisation of Historical Linguistics—which also happens in Australia: four years after I lectured Historical linguistics there was no such course any more in my university, and the reason I got to lecture it in the first place is because it wasn’t a core concern of permanent staff.
    … But I restrict myself to noting that not all Ivy league institutions have worldclass linguistics departments anyway…

  18. @ Brock: admittedly that was a throwaway line; the accusations were about collaboration of missionaries in US intelligence gathering, in the leadup to the Guatemalan United Fruits coup. There’s plenty of animus towards Wycliffe throughout South America though.

  19. Still, much of their work is of excellent quality, and far superior to all too many academic linguists’ work. Sad to say, academic linguists have only themselves to blame for this
    Yes, that’s the core of the problem right there, and Erard’s piece expresses it very well (I wrote and told him I thought he’d gotten the balance exactly right).
    A doctoral student in linguistics, at an Ivy league University, once asked me in all seriousness what a “language family” is: her historical linguistics classes had involved diachronic syntax only. I fear she may have been far more typical of young linguists today than I’d like to think.
    I… don’t even know what to say. Between that, “creation science,” and various other phenomena of the current age, I’m starting to wonder if we bounced off some invisible wall and are heading back into the past. Next up: reading the future from cracked tortoiseshells!
    Culver’s banning of Wikipedia links from his blog (and from what I can infer, deleting them from someone’s comment) is his right; and it’s my right not to condone it.
    Yeah, what the hell is that about? Weird.

  20. Nick,
    Everyone has an ideology, and ideology influences your work inevitably, and Western academic linguists are not Above It All.
    Of course they’re / we’re not, but that is not a) the point, b) what your original comment was about. There is a world of difference between a linguist who comes to to, say, Vanuatu to do field research with the ultimate purpose of writing a PhD thesis and a linguist who comes to Vanuatu to do field research with the ultimate purpose of converting the natives to his/her brand of Christianity. Especially if that particular brand is evangelical Christianity.
    I may be reading too much into this, but your comment smelled of this notion of false balance so popular with the media nowadays. As soon as you point out how the Yorks suck, some people will go out of their way to show you that the Lancasters are as bad, no matter how much truth stretching this requires.

  21. John Emerson says:

    I had some Micronesian friends once who hypothesized that missionaries are people who were not successful in their own culture and had to go overseas, sort of like some of the expat beachcombers and hippies you sometimes find eking out existences in third world countries. Alternatively, some missionaries seem to be highly alienated people who dislike their native culture.
    The parish priest here in Wobegon was good friends with Bishop Arkfeld, who visited once, and who seems to have been an adventurer as much as anything else.

  22. @ Bulbul: I know about the irritatingness of He Said She Said. I won’t say I wasn’t doing that too; but my own knee-jerk reaction is to the righteous condemnation of evangelism, where humility is required. Because the academic linguist is tangled up in colonialism and power games too—all the more insidiously if they think they’re not.
    That’s reading too much into your comment too of course. :-)
    Gotta say, I don’t like being a post-colonialist scold. In fact, I hated that second-guessing your power relations thing so much, I refused to have anything to do with fieldwork—which in Australian general linguistics is indeed a Career Limiting Move.
    I got particularly turned off when I found out a fellow student, now lecturing, was not allowed to put their name on the front of dictionary they were compiling—because the community wanted it known it was their language, not the linguist’s booty. The humility that forces on one as a language worker infuriated me, and made me want never to go near that situation. It infuriated me all the more because I knew they had a point.

  23. And, as for the world of difference between writing a grammar and converting the tribe to Christianity… sorry, but I no longer am as sure that the locals see as big a world of difference. What does a grammar mean to them? And academic linguists do get reviled by indigenous peoples, for what they see as exploiting them, with not enough of a payback to the community.
    Am I saying there should be no more grammars and no more fieldwork? God no. But just as these peoples are a Culture, not just an obstacle to the Millennial Reign, so too are they a Community, not just a Study Object; and the Community does have a right to ask what’s in it for them. A PhD in itself is not enough of an answer.
    I don’t have the answers; that’s why my day job is in IT. I have seen attempts to come up with answers. I’ve also seen responses “we’re not there to do linguistic social work”, which I confess some grudging sympathy for.
    But these are the quandaries that make me impatient with Missionary Bad. The issue for linguists is not just Missionary Bad, but Whitey Bad.

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    It is “natural” (in the sense of utterly ubiquitous in human history) for human societies and cultures to interact with other human societies and cultures, and to “interfere” with those other cultures and be “interfered” with in turn. Preaching the Gospel, compiling a grammar that will serve as a Ph.D. dissertation, encouraging bilinguial education, installing water purification technology, trying to get the village midwives to use comparatively sterile blades to cut umbilical cords, trying to get the village women not to put up with patterns of sexual behavior by their husbands that put the women at risk of HIV infection . . . all are interference. You can argue the merits of each (as well as assessing the likelihood of practical success of each initiative if it pushes against rather than works with the grain of the preexisting culture), but the only way to carry out a consistent ethic of non-interference is to put New Guinea under a big glass dome and not let anyone in or out.
    As to non-world-class Ivy League Linguistics departments, by my count only 4 of 8 Ivy League schools really currently have what you could call a full-service department, and of those 4 only one or two (probably Penn and maybe Cornell?) have a department that is as prominent in the discipline as the average humanities/social sciences department at the relevant university is in its own respective discipline. Although the Ivy League department where I got my B.A. did at the time have a doctoral candidate who’d come all the way from Australia to New Haven for the opportunity, so maybe that counts as evidence of world-classness. For the other 4 Ivy League schools, Dartmouth seems to have made great strides since I was an undergraduate (and doesn’t generally do grad school in most disciplines anyway) and Brown is Brown (the linguists may be thrown in with Cognitive Science but at least they’re kept segregated from the semiotics people). But the fact that Princeton and Columbia have as little as they do and apparently aren’t particularly ashamed of it says something very negative about the perceived importance of linguistics in the American academy.

  25. Certainly the secular academic world has its own ideology. In my work in Finno-Ugrian linguistics, I’ve often felt pressure to celebrate the Mari people’s revival of their traditional religion. As a Christian, I cannot do that. There is a widespread feeling that linguists cannot only study a language or even do political work to ensure the language remains protected, but must instead celebrate all features of the indigenous culture.

  26. Alternatively, some missionaries seem to be highly alienated people who dislike their native culture.
    Projection? Some academics seem to be highly alienated people who dislike their native culture.

  27. John Emerson says:

    I’m not an academic, so it would well for you to to direct your snide insinuations of projection elsewhere.
    But I am indeed alienated from my own culture, and I have this in common with some (but not all)missionaries!
    If this thread has degenerated into shouting about the pros and cons of missionaries, allow me to say that some missionaries are shits, and others are perfectly wonderful people.

  28. I no longer am as sure that the locals see as big a world of difference. What does a grammar mean to them?
    So what? Are we all supposed to adopt the worldview of those particular locals? I am no apologist for Whiteboy Imperialist Hegemony, but I’m not fond of bending over backwards in an attempt to make up for centuries of hegemony either. To me, decisions in various places not to do archeological investigations of ancient remains because the people living there now claim, on the basis of no evidence except their imaginations and/or traditions, that the people who left the remains were their ancestors are plain nuts (the decisions, that is, not the people), and claiming that nobody but you and your relatives is allowed to publish material on your language is equally nuts. Don’t want the Bad Hegemonic Interlopers to learn your language? Don’t teach it to ‘em. But trying to bully people into withholding information that the community of linguists finds useful on the grounds that it’s “stealing your voice” or whatever is just bullshit. The concerns, interests, and needs of linguists are every bit as valid as those of the members of indigenous communities.

  29. Oh, and Chris, since you’re here: what’s the deal with banning Wikipedia links? You’ve linked to it yourself (here, for instance). It’s a valuable resource and the obvious place to turn for information on obscure topics. I understand that it has its problems, like every human institution, but why treat it like the Dark Side?

  30. Nick,
    all your points are well taken and much appreciated. I guess that while your concern is power and its manifestation in the relationship between the missionary/linguist and the community, mine is the attitude of the missionary/linguist towards the language and its speakers. It all ultimately comes down to my admittedly biased opinion of the two groups: I have met many missionaries, most of them of the evangelical kind, and all of them treated other people not as human beings, but pretty much the same way a con man treats his marks or most politicians treat their voters, i.e. just a means to an end. I suppose there are linguists who treat speakers of the language they study similarly, as rungs on an academic ladder, but to be honest, I haven’t many any of them. All the linguists engaged in studying minority and endangered languages in far away lands I know are brilliant and decent people aware of all the possible trappings of their position, whereas most missionaries I’ve met either metaphorically or literally believe they can do no wrong because, and I quote, “they have Jesus in their hearts”.

  31. Nick,
    But just as these peoples are a Culture, not just an obstacle to the Millennial Reign, so too are they a Community, not just a Study Object
    Funny, I thought this was the default position nowadays. Same goes with recognizing that a language belongs to its community and so do, to a certain extent, the fruits of a linguist’s research. I’m pretty sure that at least Terry Crowley thought and wrote so.
    I don’t have the answers; that’s why my day job is in IT.
    Mine too. Is this where failed linguists go? :)
    John,
    missionaries are people who were not successful in their own culture and had to go overseas
    Back at high school and college, that was the general opinion on all the US and UK expats who came to Central Europe to teach English. The corollary was that only those who couldn’t cut it in the Czech Republic or Poland came to Slovakia :)
    But I am indeed alienated from my own culture
    Aren’t we all?

  32. michael farris says:

    What I think linguists (secular and missionary) can do.
    Make speakers of minority languages aware of costs and opportunities of all the choices open to them.
    Much language shift takes place in a vacuum where the entire weight of state and popular propoganda against language maintenance and in favor of assimilation to a larger language and in an atmosphere of “there’s no other way”.
    Linguists can (and should!) make the speakers of the languages they study aware of the costs and opportunities of either sustained bilingualism or language shift (generally the only two feasible options). Neither is ideal and both have costs.
    What the people do after that is their own business, but a secular linguist can at least try to help make sure that whatever choice is made has been an informed choice and not one made according to someone else’s agenda.
    I think the same goes for religion, it’s not the place of a secular linguist to approve or disapprove of the religious choices of the people whose language they’re being allowed to examine.
    After a long time (measured in years if not decades) the linguist can (and should!) weigh in as they are (or should be!) de facto members of the community with the same right as any other member to weigh in on cultural issues.

  33. michael farris says:

    Bulbul, the frightening thing is that so many US and UK English teachers in Central Europe are blissfully unaware of the stereotype (mostly due to ignorance of local languagse, culture and the general anglophone obliviousness to non-verbal cues. It used to be part of my standard spiel with any newcomer in Poland along with an appeal to not strengthen the stereotype with their own actions.
    “only those who couldn’t cut it in the Czech Republic or Poland came to Slovakia”
    Where do those who couldn’t cut it in Slovakia go? Hungary? Ukraine? (certainly not Ukraine, they’d be eaten alive there for sure).

  34. I agree with John Emerson’s latest post–in its entirety. Can I call that ‘injection’?

  35. John Emerson says:

    Back at high school and college, that was the general opinion on all the US and UK expats who came to Central Europe to teach English.
    In Taiwan several of the English teachers I worked with were reported to be fugitives from justice back in the US.
    I myself jumped from marginality to repectability simply by crossing the water. When I returned to the U.S. I became marginal again, and remained so.
    As for your story — remember, Prague was the party animal center of the world for awhile there. The expats of whom you speak there were not unsuccessful at anything, they were successful partiers. Perhaps on the downward path, but successfully so.

  36. In Taiwan several of the English teachers I worked with were reported to be fugitives from justice back in the US.
    Me, I was just a fugitive from my dissertation.
    Is this where failed linguists go? :)
    Absolutely!

  37. With regard to keeping your language out of the hands of outsiders, don’t forget that the Qing, creators of one of the world’s largest early modern empires, also forbade foreigners to learn Chinese. I guess one reason was to keep missionaries out and maintain control over their realm :)
    Now their own language (Manchu) is almost extinct and the Chinese are setting up Confucius Institutes (ugh!) around the world to aid the spread of Chinese language and culture.
    The point of the above? Just thought I’d add to the reek of bullshit.

  38. I have to agree with Michael Farris: a secular linguist has a responsability to make certain basic truths of linguistics known to their informants, the most important of which, for minority language communities, is the fact that every language is a unique system, knowledge and use of which does not preclude knowledge and use of others.
    Another truth, though, is that language and culture are separate entities: and it seems to me that Christopher Culver is entirely correct in not celebrating the revival of Mari religion: but this should be the position of ANY linguist working with ANY linguistic community.
    As linguists, our primary job is to study languages, and if, as linguistic specialists, we can help enlighten their speakers as to the nature of language, thereby allowing them a more informed outlook on such matters as language planning, all the better.
    But on non-linguistic matters (ESPECIALLY on something as sensitive as religion), frankly, a good dose of humility (I almost wrote “Christian humility” here…) is something a lot of fieldworkers could use.
    One last point (Nick, Mattitiahu): My point in my earlier post is this: it isn’t only historical linguistics, it’s general awareness of the world’s linguistic diversity that is seemingly as endangered among young linguists as the diversity itself is. I’d wager that most young linguists today couldn’t name that many more languages (living or extinct) than your typical educated layman. The decline of historical linguistics is a symptom of this larger trend, I think: that would account for the similar decline of typology.
    Sometimes I imagine that in the early twenty-second century some archeologists will unearth something of extraordinary linguistic interest (A library in Punic, Oscan or Etruscan, for example), and because of the death of fact-based linguistics in the twenty-first century the discovery will have no impact whatsoever within Academia…

  39. I didn’t think it was possible to be more depressed about the state of historical linguistics than I was when I left the field, but I discover there is no bottom to the abyss.

  40. michael farris says:

    “But on non-linguistic matters (ESPECIALLY on something as sensitive as religion), frankly, a good dose of humility (I almost wrote “Christian humility” here…) is something a lot of fieldworkers could use.”
    On the one hand I completely agree.
    On the other hand … consultants _will_ ask the opinion of linguists on all sorts of things (during formal elicitation and at other times). The linguist who refuses to answer or tries to stay all business “Excuse me, but we really need to work on those possessed complimentizers today” isn’t going to get very far (or will not leave good memories behind).
    When it’s been specifically requested, an honest and respectful answer (within the relevant cultural restraints as far as the linguist understands those) is not inappropriate.
    I have no idea about what a culturally appropriate (Mari) version of “As a Christian it makes me sad to see you turn away from Christianity” would be but I can’t think of any reason for Mr. Culver to not say that if asked.
    Fieldworkers do need to remember the unequal power relations that are often involved in fieldwork, on the other hand they shouldn’t get swelled heads and assume that the natives are going to take their word for gospel (as it were) either.

  41. One last point (Nick, Mattitiahu): My point in my earlier post is this: it isn’t only historical linguistics, it’s general awareness of the world’s linguistic diversity that is seemingly as endangered among young linguists as the diversity itself is. I’d wager that most young linguists today couldn’t name that many more languages (living or extinct) than your typical educated layman. The decline of historical linguistics is a symptom of this larger trend, I think: that would account for the similar decline of typology.
    I agree completely, and I don’t mean to derail this general point by my own complaints about the decline of my own linguistic subdiscipline (but since I’m a bitter, bitter person, more will immediately follow on that). More than once I’ve met a linguistics student around these parts who thought it a novel thing to learn a language written in a non-Roman script.

  42. I didn’t think it was possible to be more depressed about the state of historical linguistics than I was when I left the field, but I discover there is no bottom to the abyss.
    I’ve been coming to the conclusion lately that if one wants to do historical linguistics and have some kind of job afterwards, you’ve got to subassociate yourself with some other linguistic subfield or related philological discipline as well… I suppose it’s not mandatory, but it’s becoming necessary for practical concerns (gasp! dare we speak of practicality?) like to keep job prospects open.
    While this doesn’t really bother me since I equally enjoy philology as well as linguistics, it sometimes gets difficult to justify to my colleagues in the Classics department why I partake in extra-disciplinary (from their prospective) sideprojects like trying to reconstruct Proto-Coptic phonology and morphophonology.
    Likewise, if I go into the Linguistics department which only teaches one historical linguistics course which is not always taught year-to-year, people start looking at me funny when I say I’m a graduate student in the Classics department studying historical linguistics and I’m afraid that they don’t take me entirely seriously because I’m not up to date with current models in cognitive subdisciplines of linguistics.

  43. Bademantel says:

    Mattitiahu, don’t be too despondent! Your young linguistics student is barely out of the cradle!
    I originally decided I wanted to learn Indonesian because I couldn’t imagine myself leaving the warm, comfortable world of Roman letters to wrestle with totally alien squiggles. It took a graduate of the Japanese department five minutes to change my mind. Her comment was “Japanese is just a normal language, like any other language”. So I took Japanese instead, and now Chinese, and I decided without hesitation to plunge in and try and learn the Mongolian alphabet. Don’t write people off merely because they haven’t (yet) considered going beyond the familiar.

  44. John Emerson says:

    It’s amazing how many otherwise-bright people are intimidated by non-roman scripts. Chinese is one thing, but in most cases you just have to learn 30-40 signs, many of which have simple and reliable roman-alphabet equivalents.
    Foreign-language phobia, foreign-script phobia, and foreign-phoneme phobia are all signs of extreme conventionality and ethnocentrism (which need not be accompanied by bigotry, I hasten to add.)
    Part of the reason that some of us are so militant against excessive prescriptivism is that prescriptivism can also be a mark of extreme conventionality and, in many cases, authoritarianism. In the worst cases you have people claiming personal superiority on the basis of eighth grade shibboleths which are not really valid.

  45. To Michael Farris: I think we’re pretty much on the same page. What is important is that we make it clear to our informants that our opinions on non-linguistic matters are laymen’s opinions, which should therefore be taken CUM GRANO SALIS. On linguistic matters we’re (a little!) more reliable.
    Mattitiahu: your story sounds familiar. I once worked in a Modern Languages department which thought it was ridiculous that the Linguistics department spent so much time documenting indigenous languages: but the linguists within said department saw no value whatsoever in diachonic linguistic research (unlike the folks with the Modern Languages department, who did see such value, as long as it involved studying a language with a rich literature, that is), and seemed to regard thoroughly documenting these languages as less important than using data from them to score some theoretical point.
    The fact that to my mind comparative/diachronic study of indigenous languages would have been far more interesting than what either department was doing did lead to an equal degree of expressions of incomprehension on the part of students and professors in both departments.

  46. it’s general awareness of the world’s linguistic diversity that is seemingly as endangered among young linguists as the diversity itself is
    Really? I thought that was a Chomskyan thing – why bother studying other languages when all we can learn about Language can be learned from English.
    John,
    It’s amazing how many otherwise-bright people are intimidated by non-roman scripts.
    Very true. Back when I taught Arabic, I was shocked to find out that most of our first-years couldn’t read Cyrillic. Their first assignment: learn Cyrillic. And so they did (I can be pretty intimidating, especially with my head shaved like it was back in ’02) and later some of them admitted that learning Cyrillic made learning Arabic script seem much easier or less daunting.
    in most cases you just have to learn 30-40 signs
    True, even for Devanagari if you discount the conjuncts of which there are shitloads. Then again Ge’ez is a different story. So is Khmer with the two series and subscripts.
    Mattitiahu,
    you’ve got to subassociate yourself with some other linguistic subfield or related philological discipline as well
    That’s how it seems to work, yes. That other subfield is the one where you earn whatever passes for a living wage in our discipline and it’s usually something more mainstream, something that attracts students.
    but since I’m a bitter, bitter person
    A yeshive student comes to a rabbi and says:
    - Rebe, I have become an atheist.
    The rabbi looks at him and asks:
    - How long have you been studying Torah and Talmud, young man?
    - Fifteen years now, rebe.
    - Fifteen years and you have the khutzpe to call yourself an atheist?! Come back after ten more, then we’ll talk!
    I equally enjoy philology as well as linguistics
    what’s the difference between the two in your book?

  47. I finished my dissertation on historical-comparative typology in obscure New Guinea languages in 1982. Those were three kisses of career death, and I had already begun exploring other options, but what really convinced me to change fields was a Fulbright year in Romania (in 1983-84!), where the most important use for linguistics and philology seemed to be to build nationalism and support irredentism.

  48. Bulbul: For me the distinction between the two is that Philology, while incorporating linguistic awareness, ultimately serves the end of reading culture through textual and linguistic analysis of documents, whether they be gravestones or literary epic, whereas linguistics for me has little to do with reading cultures directly, but is primarily concerned with the scientific study of language and languages.
    That’s just my way of seeing it. I’m sure other people may have other ideas.

  49. I think I make the same distinction Mattitiahu does.

  50. Mattitiahu, hat,
    thanks. The reason I asked is that where I come from, philology essentially equals linguistics. In fact, my linguistics degree is in “Modern Non-Slavic Philology” :) The only distinction between the two seems to be that, as in your definition, philology does indeed place a lot emphasis on the relationship between the language and the culture, while linguistics is almost universally understood to mean all the cognitive stuff.

  51. Joel,
    details, please please pretty please.

  52. Joel, happily linguistic arguments for “we were here first” no longer matter to most young Romanians and Hungarians. But sadly that’s because there are hardly any Hungarians left, and the young Romanians have no use for abstract things like language and history.

  53. whereas linguistics for me has little to do with reading cultures directly, but is primarily concerned with the scientific study of language and languages.
    It makes Linguistics sound much less interesting than Philology.

  54. Philology has been undergoing a slow death since the dawn of the 20th century, and eventually it will be as dead as the meet-meat distinction in English accents: that is, surviving only in one or two relic areas, and there only among the old farts.

  55. The upside about philology is that Chomsky is explicitly not interested in it, so if you identify yourself as a philologist, you communicate that (and that you’re interested in the Grimms and in Boas and so on) in one word.
    If I had managed to get a Ph.D. place with Michael Tomasello, or doing something that would lead to working with him, I’d probably have spent the rest of my life happy, as a linguist, in Leipzig. I didn’t, but fortunately there are other interesting fields out there, I’m reasonably sure I’ll die happy with my life choices (well, I have yet to marry anyone, there’s still scope for me to get that wrong).

  56. michael farris says:

    AFAIK Philology is alive and well in Europe. Where I work we have half a dozen different language majors the formal name of each is “X Philology” – Korean Philology, Modern Greek Philology etc and the newest starting this year, Malay-Indonesian Philology. The coursework covers traditional language classes, literature, linguistics as well as geography, history and culture.

  57. But that is a European use of the word that is much broader than the traditional Anglo-American one.

  58. J. W. Brewer says:

    So it seems we’ve established that no one dislikes missionaries as much as they do the “wrong” (and of course currently dominant) faction within secular academic linguistics. Although being devoted to a fairly theoretically rigorous degree of tolerance I will say that I have no objection in principle if a bunch of cultists want to do fieldwork in New Guinea with the explicit purpose of learning an underdocumented language well enough to translate the complete works of N. Chomsky into it.

  59. Draga Bulbule,
    Here are a few vignettes.
    1. My research project was to read Romanian literature on the Balkan Sprachbund after finishing a dissertation defining a New Guinea-area Sprachbund, with Austronesian languages adapting their word order (and much else) to that of their Papuan-speaking relatives, friends, and neighbors. I can read Romanian and French and struggle through a fair bit of German, but can’t handle any Slavic languages, Greek, or Albanian. I was assigned to an extremely timid Albanianist who proved nearly useless except for a few seminars on Romanian dialectology that I audited. (The subordinate infinitive survived better in Transylvania than beyond the Carpathians, where the Balkan-style subjunctive held sway.) Why Albanian? Of course, it represents the substrate to beat all substrates in the Romanian irredenta.
    2. The Slavic substratum was rather more popular until the late 1950s. It was a real conversation-stopper in the 1980s, in my experience.
    3. I remember reading a collection of essays (by Gamulescu?) whose final list of toponymic etymologies (of Mt. Durmitor, etc.) in then-Yugoslavia reached the inevitable conclusion that Aromanian speakers were there first.
    4. I asked my professor if I could bring him anything from Vienna on our Christmas visit there. He asked for not one single book (too dangerous), only Bayer aspirin.
    5. When I solicited opinions about the work of Sandfeld (and other foreigners) who had first defined a Balkan Sprachbund, I mostly got shrugs, but one paranoid nationalist suggested it may have been a German concoction to help justify taking over the whole region.
    6. I bought a book (possibly in Vienna) on the Balkan Linguistic Union that turned out to be a Hungarian irredentist tract (du Nay 1977). No one would touch that one with a ten-foot Pole! (Hungarian for Danube is Duna.)
    7. Immediately after my year in Romania I returned to present a paper, not worth publishing, about the pitfalls of doing historical linguistic research in an area of competing land claims. It was at the Austronesian conference in Fiji in 1984, a warm and welcoming place after Romania, especially for an Austronesianist. In 1987, Fijians of Austronesian heritage staged coups to prevent parliamentarians of Indo-Aryan linguistic heritage from forming a government.
    It was one sour grape after another on my linguistics path to nowhere. But the joy of language-learning in Romania, especially during our many excursions out of Bucharest, provided one unforgettable adventure after another.

  60. Hat: the (broader) European meaning of the word “Philology” is found in some subfields of linguistics in Anglo-America: in much of the United States “Romance Philology” and “Romance linguistics” are (or were, until recently) more or less interchangeable (My own division of the two is like Mattitiahu’s).
    Joel: I have known a number of educated Romanians, and indeed, to the extent that they knew about Balkan linguistics at all they were either indifferent to it or outright hostile (I even had to tell one that Sandfeld was Danish to counter the insinuation that all German scholarship on the Balkans was purely political propaganda).
    As for Du Nay 1977: I don’t think I’d refer to his work as an irredentist tract: rather it’s a scientific argument in favor of a proto-Romanian URHEIMAT South of the Danube, which of course is widely-quoted by Hungarian nationalists. But behind the pseudonym there seems to have been a serious scholar: indeed my doctoral supervisor thought that the Romanist Robert Hall was the real “Du Nay”.

  61. Nick, Bulbul, Hat: Nobody who reads your blogs with an open mind would justly describe you as failed linguists. The fault, dear Bruti, is in the stars, not in yourselves, and you are by no means underlings to others.
    John Cowan, modestly successful (con)linguist who never wanted an academic career in anything

  62. Christopher: I’m not sure I understand your comment to the effect that “there are hardly any Hungarians left” in Romania: the 2002 census in Romania recorded over 1.4 million Hungarian speakers, which makes Hungarian speakers in Romania one of the most important Uralic-speaking groups in the world (more numerous than Estonian speakers, for example).

  63. Etienne,
    Thanks for another take on the Du Nay book. I found it intriguing, but the few Romanians I asked about it tended to find it inflammatory and dismiss it out of hand.
    On my second and latest trip to Romania in January 2008, we spent a night in a Szekler village, Miklosvar, a village so completely Magyarophone that I felt awkward speaking Romanian, despite the pleasure of speaking it again after so many years. The next night we spent in Bucharest, and then we had to leave. Too damn short. We wasted 3 nights on trains getting there and back from Strasbourg. Next time we fly.

  64. Etienne, excepting Szekelyföld (whose people, however nationalist, tend to keep to themselves), the amount of Hungarians in Transylvania is becoming neglible. In my time in Cluj, I’ve watched Hungarian businesses close up, noticed Hungarian is spoken much less on the street these days, and saw that the official statistics are going down as well. There’s considerable intermarriage, and of course emigration hits Hungarians harder than Romanians because there are fewer of them. The old conflict of Romanians and Hungarians, with its attendant matters like land claims, is no longer at the pitch it was before.

  65. Christopher: No matter how you slice it, 1.4 million Hungarian speakers is not “negligible.”

  66. John Emerson says:

    I say that “negligible” begins at about 200,000, so Iceland just slips in. Hungarians are pretty pungent, so 150,000 Hungarians might still not be negligible. You don’t want to piss them off.

  67. If anything, the animosity towards generative grammar in this thread has left me a little more hopeful as to our field’s future. A good Chomskyan bonfire is always for the best of fun.

  68. Joel,
    mulţumesc :) I hate all the language politicking, too, which is one of the reasons I can’t bring myself to comment on the new Slovak Language Act SNAFU. Ugh.
    pedro,
    A good Chomskyan bonfire is always for the best of fun.
    Matches: check. Gasoline: check. Where and when?

  69. John Emerson says:

    How many of us are actually in the biz. (I’m not, that’s for sure). I think of Hat, bless his heart, as an embittered outsider like myself. (I’m not even an embittered ex-linguist, I’m just an embittered eclectic generalist).

  70. I’m a half-assed linguist. A linguistic hobbyist. I finished my degree and have continued to publish irregularly (mostly in Festschrifts these days), but my postdoctoral employment as a linguist amounts to one postdoc year (83-84) and about 3 semesters of adjunct teaching (91-92), including 1 class on historical-comparative. I’ve depended on computer-support and publications work for a living, apart from one forlorn year (87-88) teaching English in China, which convinced me not to take the ESL/EFL route. (My wife does enough of the last for both of us!)

  71. The notion that the lack of academic position is some sort of disqualification in the subject matter is one that ought to be exterminated from our thinking.

  72. John Emerson says:

    Believe me, M. Cowen, if it was up to me I would happily run a tumbril or manage a gullotine for that project all day long free, gratis, and for nothing.
    But the idea is entrenched, most sadly so among “failed” academics unable to believe either in themselves or in anyone else without an academic appointment.
    That said, I’m not in any sense a linguist, I just enjoy language study and the questions coming out of it.
    In Mongol history for example, where you have to know Mongol, Chinese, Persian, and Turkish, and their phonetic systems and writing systems, and the characteristic mistakes of transcribers in each of these languages, in order even to guess the proper names of some of the players.
    I only know enough to watch the fun, but I’d love to be a player.

  73. Let me put it this way: I’m a privileged linguist. I don’t perish if I don’t publish. I don’t have to follow the latest theoretical fashions. I’ve never had to apply for tenure. I don’t have prepare for class or read and react to countless student projects, although I am occasionally asked to review a book or referee an article. I just do whatever research strikes my fancy when I can find the time.
    The drawbacks are that I have to pay my own way to the few conferences I care to attend, and I’ve never had the chance to follow up on my dissertation fieldwork, but I still hope to publish (before I perish!) a reasonably comprehensive grammar of the language spoken by my hosts in PNG. They have little interest in my linguistic output (though some expected me to translate at least the Gospels into their language), but they were happy to use my work to show that they had established a spelling system sufficient to start their own village vernacular school [Tokples Skul]).

  74. they were happy to use my work to show that they had established a spelling system sufficient to start their own village vernacular school
    Then I’d say you’ve accomplished more in this world than 90% of Chomsky-era linguists. And you do indeed lead a good life; take note, grad students, there is a world outside academia!

  75. John C.,
    perhaps it’s not the lack of an academic position per se (as much as I hate the corporate environment, I don’t think the academia is any better), but rather the opportunities usually afforded to one when under the umbrella of an academic institution. For one, you get paid (peanuts, I know) for doing what you love, whereas us corporate whores spend 8-10 hours/day working for the man, which doesn’t leave much time for research, let alone writing anything publishable. Research leave? Forget it.
    Then there’s the question of access to resources, though I gather that has more to do with my location than anything else.
    John E.,
    “failed” academics unable to believe either in themselves
    You’re making too much sense :)
    hat @joel:
    Word.

  76. As one of the corporate bitches aforesaid, I know whereof you speak, bulbul; most of my ambitions to do the Great Work (in any of many fields) have had to go a-glimmering in the interests of feeding and clothing the growing family, with no end in sight (the Cowans die in harness, as a rule, except for those who die of drink, a fate I have avoided by never drinking). So it goes.
    Still I occasionally enlighten someone on the Internet about something or other, and that’s, I trust, to my credit.

  77. Maybe when you’re ninety-seven you ought to start drinking.

  78. in most cases you just have to learn 30-40 signs
    What happened to the joy of learning? It’s hard for me to imagine learning a new alphabet as a tedious chore. I chose to study Korean because of its writing system, and because it’s not Indo-European; I wanted something different. Chinese intimidates me because I’ll probably never be proficient at it, but I chose to learn common hanja while studying Korean because, again – joy of learning.
    Then again, I’m a young wannabe linguist whose primary interest actually is historical linguistics, so I might not be representative of my generation.

  79. For what history and statistics are worth, Crown, I’ll be doing damned well to make it to sixty-seven. But thanks for the thought.

  80. You’re right, you’d better start now.

  81. You’re right, you’d better start now.

  82. “Failed academic” sounds terrible. How about “dilettante”? (Even worse….:( )

  83. Dissenter says:

    1. Hooray for generative linguistics! (in some incarnations)
    2. Boo for missionaries! (and religion, in all incarnations)
    Also, @Nick: “The issue for linguists is not just Missionary Bad, but Whitey Bad.”
    Oh, shut UP.

  84. “And academic linguists do get reviled by indigenous peoples, for what they see as exploiting them, with not enough of a payback to the community.”
    …until the idigenes start thanking them. There is more than one language revival program in the US that depends on the work of academic linguists, and there is a generational split between the burn-out old boomer-aged former activists who were all censorious back in the day on the one hand, and the younger people trying to actually do something of practical use for their people.
    As for the condemnation of missionaries’ linguistic work, we have missionaries to thank for the preservation of Anglo-Saxon, and Irish itself before that, along with all the pagan oral literature that survives. And can we please pull the chain on all the “rape-fantasy” narratives about religious conversion? The Irish and then the Saxons in turn shed their old religions like worn-out clothes, without any lot of colonialist oppression.

  85. “Failed academic” sounds terrible. How about “dilettante”
    I think we must once again turn to German to find the right term: Sprachwissenschaftler im freien Beruf.

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