Via Laudator Temporis Acti, a quote from Joshua T. Katz, “What Linguists Are Good For” (Classical World 100.2 [2007]: 99-112):

To most administrators and to all too many of our own colleagues, linguists are covered in nineteenth-century dust, which is, as we all know, a far dustier dust, being tainted with old methodology, than what classical archaeologists encounter in the Roman Forum. Or, alternatively, we are interested in so-called modern linguistic techniques, but these have the stench of social science, which some of our colleagues think smells less good than the Roman sewers’ humanities. Either way, we linguists are narrowly focused misfits with a humorless eye for grammar and no interest in, much less imagination for, wider cultural questions. Such is our stereotype, but I have never met a good linguist who fit the bill (certainly none of my teachers did), and all of us must do what we can to combat it, in our scholarship and, even more important, in our teaching. Linguistics is a broad, vibrant, and result-driven discipline, not the recherché domain of fuddy-duddies, and it really shouldn’t be very difficult to persuade our students and colleagues that this is so.

It’s heartening to see an important point made so eloquently. (Of course, it applies to real linguists, not the Chomskyan kind who were so prevalent until recently. The phrase “broad, vibrant, and result-driven” is the tell-tale one.)


  1. From my exceedingly amateur perspective, lack of understanding of what linguistics is and what linguists do is an issue with ramifications outside the academic world. I may have mentioned before that when I was at school (pre-uni, I mean) in England, I enjoyed learning languages and (according to one of my teachers) had an exceptional gift for it. I gravely disappointed my first-year (fifth-grade?) Latin teacher by acing the end-of-year exam and then dropping Latin for German.

    I sometimes thought about taking languages at A-level, but (a) UK schools then were in the grip of what we might now call STEM fever, and promoted the sciences over woolier disciplines, and (b) I had no idea what studying languages as an undergraduate might entail and what it might lead to. Teaching? Translating? What else? So sciences it was. It’s probably relevant that I came from a very non-academic background and the need to study something that offered tangible career opportunities was a large factor in my thinking.

    Now that am I old and retired, it’s easy to indulge in what-ifs. Although if linguistics in those days was indeed subservient to Chomskyan hegemony, then I don’t know that I would have prospered. Perhaps I could have been a philologist, which means less than linguist to most people.

  2. UK schools then were in the grip of what we might now call STEM fever, and promoted the sciences over woolier disciplines

    Is this not still the case?

  3. Quite possibly, although my sense is that there was a big emphasis on STEM subjects in the 60s (post Sputnik, the white heat of technology) that ebbed somewhat in the following decades and has been revived again more recently. But I haven’t lived in England since the early 80s, so that may not be true.

  4. Remarkable time to be positively quoting Joshua Katz, given that he was fired this week from Princeton.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Is this not still the case?

    Very much so. Our wise and far-seeing government has determined that there is no real value in the state providing any other form of education (at university, either.)

  6. Remarkable time to be positively quoting Joshua Katz, given that he was fired this week from Princeton

    Oh for god’s sake. I don’t check the employment status of everybody I quote, and frankly his behavior, however reprehensible, has nothing to do with the value of the quote. You seem to be providing a sterling example of “cancel culture,” if you mean what I suppose you to mean.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    I had thought Josh Katz was a classicist (like the proprietor of Laud. Temp. Act.), so it was particularly interesting to see him talking up linguistics. But it turns out that his doctorate (like his prior degrees) is in linguistics, and his residence in the classics dep’t at Princeton is, I surmise, a side effect of that university’s lack of an actual linguistics department, which as I have noted before is a scandal for the discipline (i.e. that a major research university can continue to get away with the position that having a linguistics department is an optional extra rather than a basic necessity shows how marginal the discipline is).

    Wikipedia reports that his dissertation (Harvard, 1998) was on “Topics in Indo-European Personal Pronouns,” with the late Calvert Watkins as his adviser.

  8. Princeton came to have a linguistics department very late indeed, but it does have one now, and sompe people there do interesting work.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    The situation may have improved somewhat but what Princeton now has (based on looking at their website) is a “Program in Linguistics,” which does not appear to be a proper department and which has no actually-tenured faculty of its own. The affiliated faculty who do not have an appointment in another more proper department exist under the aegis of something called the “Council on the Humanities” and appear to be a couple assistant professors and a bunch of (presumably non-tenure-track) lecturers.* So perhaps an experiment that it would be easy for the administration to pull the plug on, but still better than the way things used to be.

    *Which is not to say they don’t do interesting work, only that their institutional position is precarious.

  10. Princeton offers a certificate in linguistics. The certificate is quasi-equivalent to a minor at other schools.

    On a personal level, I had a fantastic freshman linguistics class at Princeton taught by A. Carlos Quícoli. (I don’t think it was a freshman seminar, as I had one of those in economics taught by later Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz, but I digress.) If I had had the option to have majored in linguistics, I would have.

    [begin rant]
    Instead I wound up in chemical engineering, completing a senior thesis that wasn’t the one I chose. At the time, professors in the department gave thesis options to dovetail into their research interests. I signed up for one, and my choice was assigned to another student without my being told. The student completed the work over the summer, and I had to go around begging for scraps, as if the double assignment were my fault.

    Meanwhile, I was working on a certificate in the East Asian Studies program, which I didn’t complete when I had to drop fourth semester Japanese to complete my senior thesis, and when my general East Asian history class was derailed when one of the co-instructors, a (whole slew of expletives deleted) in the History Department decided to screw over the other co-instructor for tenure. The blackballed colleague left Princeton, leaving our grades in the hands of the jerk. I was already on the latter’s bad side for dropping a seminar my junior year that had just over the needed number of students to carry. He treated my grade in my senior year course with concomitant assholery.
    [end rant]

  11. My university in the 60s offered English (described as “English” but without any linguistics component) at undergraduate level. “English” involved reading interminable lists of (to me) extremely boring old books, and once started on a course, finances back then dictated you continued on that course. The net result was that I got a degree but read very little for years afterwards because books to me were to be enjoyed, not analysed. I would love to have studied linguistics, so count yourselves lucky if you did have that luxury. (Reading returned to me later in life and is now an absolute joy, no thanks to my alma mater). Did anyone else have a similar experience?

  12. I’m reminded of Saul Lieberman’s introduction to Gershom Scholem’s lectures on “Jewish Gnosticism,”
    when he reportedly said: “Nonsense is nonsense. But the history of nonsense is scholarship.” (Some recall: “…study of nonsense.”)

    And O. Neugebauer’s “The Study of Wretched Subjects,” Isis 42 (1951) 111, a reply to a dismissive review of E. S. Drower’s publication of the Mandean Book of the Zodiac.

  13. Did anyone else have a similar experience?“.

    I remembered a happier story of a Chinese girl (whose English name was Elise, I think… But I am not sure. I think everyone knows that Chinese students chose foreign names when they study foreign languages). Children in her town are made to study what she called “olympiad mathematics” so that they could take exams in one of schools where it is taught. Such schools are prestigeous and parents want their children to study there, but she just hated “olympiad mathematics” and wanted to study English instead and she won and studies useless attractive English instead of useful horrible math.

  14. I knew a girl in Taiwan who insisted on studying French instead of the much more prestigious English in college (her English was excellent, but she enjoyed French more).

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    I wonder who told her that maths are useful, I don’t imagine olympiad questions or the techniques used in their solution have immediate applications in land surveying or insurance calculations.

  16. David Eddyshaw—the Princeton faculty includes Florian Lionnet, who works on the languages of Chad (including Laal, a genuine African isolate). A little far from your area, but of some interest, I imagine.

  17. J.W. Brewer says

    Not to get too sidetracked on the details of one particular university, but in what may be a change since Craig’s time the Princeton “Program” not only offers a “certificate” (said to be local jargon for minor) but offers the possibility of an “Independent Concentration in Linguistics.” I think “concentration” is local jargon for “major,” and that “independent” means that this is still not part of the standard menu of concentrations undergraduates can choose among but rather one that you need special permission to do. So, again, a marginal and precarious discipline within the context of the host university, without even getting into the fact that the “Program” does not appear to offer the Ph.D.

  18. J.W. Thanks for the clarification.

    I’d have to go find my Undergraduate Announcement to see if the Independent Concentration option was available in my day for linguistics. I did know a student who was a few years ahead of me who had gotten approval for his own “major” in East Asian cartography, so independent concentrations existed, but most students stuck to the offered majors as an independent concentration implied a lot of additional work.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    Meanwhile, Laud. Temp. Act. has another quotation that gets us back to the recurrent question of the difference between an, um, linguistician and a philologist: “This sense of the reality of texts makes it something of a wonder to me that more children don’t grow up to be philologists — though, given the job market, it’s just as well.”

    This from a 2010 talk by Stephanie Jamison (published in 2011), who was hat’s grad school contemporary before being (among other and no doubt more notable accomplishments) the teacher of the class in historical linguistics I took as an undergraduate.

Speak Your Mind