Ross Perlin, whom we met here as a reviewer (of the Yiddish-Japanese Dictionary/Yidish-Yapanish Verterbukh/Idisshu-go jiten), has a very interesting essay in Dissent, called “Radical Linguistics in an Age of Extinction.” I doubt anyone will agree with everything he has to say, but it begins unassailably — “Modern linguistics is founded on a radical premise: the equality of all languages. … Where native speakers are concerned, no language, dialect, or accent can meaningfully be described as primitive, broken, or inferior” — and continues to describe linguistics in a politics-drenched way that is not often seen. He terms what I had thought of simply as linguistics, or structural linguistics, or pre-Chomskyan linguistics, as “radical linguistics,” and I guess in the terms he outlines it is. He writes:
Equality, diversity, respect for orality, descriptivism (not prescriptivism), and “going to the people”: these remain fundamental tenets for any program of radical linguistics, and for anyone who cares about human language. But today there are sobering realities. The concept of linguistic equality has done little to change popular perceptions. Nor have two centuries of revolutionary political and social movements, though certain large-enough languages have been elevated to official status in the course of national liberation struggles. Nearly everywhere, a persistent stigma clings to minority languages, provincial dialects, “non-standard” accents, and working-class “sociolects,” not to mention the linguistic registers used by women, young people, and LGBTQ speakers. The vitriol routinely trained on Black English in America is representative, although politically committed linguists like William Labov and John Rickford have devoted their careers to documenting and defending its integrity. Debates about language are rarely just about language—they’re always about the speakers.
And he pithily describes Noam Chomsky as “a radical and a linguist but not a radical linguist.” Read the whole thing if you’re not allergic to the language of radical politics. (I forget where I got the link, but it may have been the Facebook feed of Franz Boas, who’s surprisingly hip and lively for a guy who’s been dead since 1942.)