April 06, 2004


At the end of a recent post, I indulged in a little rant on the topic of people who pontificate ignorantly about language. To save you the trouble of following the link, here it is again:

I hate this role of correcting elementary errors of linguistic analysis, or questioning unthinking prescriptions that are logically incoherent, factually wrong and promptly disobeyed by the prescriber. Historians aren't constantly confronted with people who carry on self-confidently about the rule against adultery in the sixth amendment to the Declamation of Independence, as written by Benjamin Hamilton. Computer scientists aren't always having to correct people who make bold assertions about the value of Objectivist Programming, as examplified in the HCNL entities stored in Relaxational Databases. The trouble is, most people are much more ignorant about language than they are about history or computer science, but they reckon that because they can talk and read and write, their opinions about talking and reading and writing are as well informed as anybody's. And since I have DNA, I'm entitled to carry on at length about genetics without bothering to learn anything about it. Not.

I want to insist that this has nothing to do with professionalism. There are plenty of careful, interesting, creative discussions of language-related matters from people who are not professional linguists and may not even have any formal training in the field. For example, "Tenser, said the Tensor" has just described a story by Ted Chiang "about a linguist trying to learn an alien language and writing system". TstT also links to an interview with the author, and points out that Chiang identifies himself as a linguistic autodidact:

Q: In your Story Notes at the end of the collection, you talk about the physics underlying "Story of Your Life," but what really fascinated me about the piece was the discussion of linguistics. What is your background in this field and how did you go about constructing the grammatical oddities of the heptapod's written language?
A: I have no formal background in linguistics, but I'm interested in the subject. I did some reading about how field linguists study a new language, and it occurred to me that if we ever meet a technologically sophisticated species and try to learn their language, we might make better progress by learning its written form. However, I wanted the writing system to be really alien, just as I wanted the heptapods themselves to be, so I tried to make it as different from human writing systems as possible. One particular inspiration was sign language, which has a three-dimensional grammar unlike anything in spoken languages. There's no good way to transcribe sign language; written English has about as much to do with American Sign Language as written Chinese does. I was fascinated by the differences between sign language and spoken language, and tried to imagine an analogous form of language that was designed purely to be written, without being a transcription of speech.

I read Chiang's story a few years ago, when it was reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction #16 (1999), and I enjoyed it very much. It's based on an idea about the influence of languistic structure on the perception of time that I found implausible, though throught-provoking. And the story has an emotionally moving take on the relationship among language, thought and life, using the metaphor of variational principles in physics like Fermat's Principle of Least Time.

I agree with TstT that Chiang's "use of linguistics terminology as well as his description of the theoretical attitudes and research methods of a working linguist really rang true." The interview quoted above does hint that Chiang might be missing some things. It's wrong to say that "there's no good way to transcribe sign language" (look here and here), though it's true that there isn't an orthography widely used among signers. And while it's true that there are three- (or four-) dimensional aspects of sign language structure that are "unlike anything in spoken languages", it would be wrong to conclude that sign language grammar as a whole is completely alien. However, it's clear from Chiang's story that he's a smart person who has thought seriously about a wide range of language-related issues, and that he's read widely about language and linguistics, and paid attention to what he read.

So this is not a question of professional qualifications. Just as there are plenty of careful, interesting, creative discussions of language-related matters from people who are not professional linguists, I'm afraid that there is also a certain amount of silly stuff from people with degrees and even jobs in the field. But that's a topic for another post or two.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2004 05:03 PM