November 04, 2003

Secret cabals of the linguistic elite

Laurence Urdang is the founder of Verbatim, a quarterly publication devoted to mildly humorous writing on language. A collection of writing from Verbatim has just been published (Erin McKean [ed], Verbatim, Harcourt, 2001; ISBN 0-15-60129-X; paperback US$14.00.), and Urdang contributes a foreword. In that foreword, as Lynne Murphy points out in a review (Language 79.2, 2003, 660-61), Urdang makes this astonishing remark about the linguistics profession:

Not all those who are interested in -- even fascinated by -- language are willing to make the effort to study linguistics, which is probably just as well. Professional linguists guard their domain zealously, often forbidding any untrained "amateur" admittance to the secret annual cabals sponsored by such august institutions as the Linguistics Society of America, the Dialect Society, the American Name Society, and so forth.

Now, as it happens, there is no Linguistics Society of America, and there is no Dialect Society, so that might explain any difficulty with finding secret annual cabals under those names. But there is a Linguistic Society of America, and there is an American Dialect Society, and we can assume Urdang was intending to refer to them. So where the hell does he get the nonsense that he writes about them?

The LSA holds a large annual meeting which is widely publicized (go to < /2004annmeet /index.html> for full details of the upcoming one; the Sheraton Boston is not exactly a secret location). Members of the press attend when newsworthy stuff is on the program (as when there was a debate on the great Ebonics controversy). Despite the need for the meeting to finance itself through registration fees, I have never seen LSA staff making even the slightest effort to check on whether members of the public are walking into sessions right off the street. Try it for yourself: just walk in and listen to a lecture or two. If you can pull together $65 you can become a full LSA member for a year and vote in its business meetings. There are no qualifications or training prerequisites. Put down $1500 and you can be a member for life (an incredible bargain, because you get a valuable and expensive journal delivered four times a year, and as its price increases for hoi polloi your membership gets cheaper and cheaper until it is as if the LSA is actually paying you money). And as for the American Dialect Society, they meet jointly with the LSA, so you get to attend their sessions too, at the same hotel, if you go to an LSA meeting.

So what is Urdang talking about? Did "professional linguists" ever do something to him to embitter him thus? There is a legend that Alfred Nobel refused to endow a Nobel Prize in mathematics because his wife ran off with a mathematician. It is completely untrue. But conceivably Urdang had a comely wife who succumbed to the blandishments and intricate covert structures of some theoretical syntactician, or yielded to the persuasive prosody of some beguiling phonologist, and went off with him or her to some secret cabal at the Sheraton Boston? No. That wouldn't account for the fact that further down the page (p.xiii) he proudly lists ten professional linguists who contributed to Verbatim under his editorship. The trouble is, with the very first one he spells the name wrong (it's an extremely famous name: Dwight Bolinger).

So why would Urdang want to assert that linguists hold secret meetings that the "untrained" are barred from, when this has never been true? I have no idea. Why is it "just as well" that language enthusiasts should stay away from linguistics? (Should animal lovers stay away from zoology too, is that the idea?) Why does Urdang stress that "language is the property of us all, and thoughts and opinions about it must not be reserved for the few who regard themselves as the elite" (McKean, ed., p.xiii)? When did the LSA, with its active program of outreach to the public (see the website), ever say or do anything that suggests linguists "regard themselves as the elite"?

Of course people who have no education in linguistics should be able to express their opinions about language whenever they want. I am aware of no linguist who has ever denied that right. I'd really like to know why a man so ignorant of linguists and linguistics that he can't even name Bolinger or the LSA correctly is accusing the members of the strikingly egalitarian linguistics profession of declaring themselves an elite and keeping him out of widely publicized meetings.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 4, 2003 02:43 PM