March 23rd, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; what, if anything are linguists good for?; part 3

bernmarx commented:
"Most of the academic linguistic treatises I've read, be they textbooks, advanced theory books, or journal articles, are sufficiently rigorous to qualify as effective scientific writings (especially, of course, refereed journal articles). And they're about as accessible as Rome's Spanish Steps are to the wheelchair bound. ... The 'compelling' part of the persuasion includes this art of accessible presentation, and that's where I feel most linguists fail."

I agree with bernmarx. I agree that most of the professional literature in linguistics is incomprehensible; often it's incomprehensible even to other linguists. The situation is not unique to linguistics, but it seems particularly inappropriate that the practitioners of the science of language should for the most part produce incomprehensible written language. The interesting questions, I believe are: (1) Why does it happen? and (2) Why does it persist even when linguists are using spoken language?

Why does it happen?
It happens because the role models linguistics students have for written language include an array of opaque "classics" that every student absolutely has to read. And you can't just read them the way you'd read ordinary language. You fight your way through every sentence; you spend endless amounts of time reading this vile stuff over and over again, struggling to understand what it was intended to mean. There is no more efficient way to internalize a really bad style of writing. And when you write -- and present at conferences -- the linguistics papers that are required of you in your graduate program, you do your best to live up to the standards set by the role models. With each generation of linguists the incomprehensibleness of the writing is perpetuated, strengthened, and nurtured. Any attempt to write in a fashion that a reader might not only understand but also enjoy is immediately labeled "popularization" by your colleagues, even when your stated goal is to write for the general public.

Why does it persist even when linguists are using spoken language?
Have you ever watched a tv spot where a reporter pleads with an MD to "explain that to our viewers in ordinary English" and the doctor tries version after version without ever managing to do that? The same thing happens with linguists. They spend so much time immersed in the written language of the discipline that it inevitably leaks into their speech. And unlike the problem with MDeitySpeak, it's not just a matter of a different vocabulary, a problem that listeners could solve with a good medical dictionary. The linguistics professional register adds to its jargon a tangled and intricate syntax that makes matters much worse. Plus, the pragmatics rules that go with the register include these two:

Rule 1. Monopolize the conversational space.
Rule 2. Be rude.

The more successful a linguist is, the more time he or she is likely to spend communicating in this fashion. It's not just ironic -- it's insane. Linguists should be setting the example for clarity and persuasiveness in both their written language and their speech, for the simple reason that they are the experts in language the way chemists are the experts in chemicals. And they are fully capable of doing so.


bernmarx also commented: "Convincing other linguists of something related to language is a science. Convincing non-linguists of something related to language is an art."

I don't think so. I think that -- for linguists -- convincing non-linguists of something related to language is also a science. We do know how.