December 03, 2005

liberal linguists

In a post I discuss in an update to my note on the use of elite to denote individuals, Ranesh Ponnru identifies me as "Geoffrey Nunberg, the liberal linguist." Fair enough, at least according to principles of semantic compositionality -- I plead guilty to both. Still, the locution struck me as odd in a Gricean way, maybe because we linguists don't think of our political views as relevant to our research in the way they are for political scientists or economists. To my ear, "liberal linguist" evoked the same how's-that-again? reaction you'd get from a phrase like "liberal biochemist" -- or for that matter, "liberal phonologist."

Of course people often refer to Chomsky as a "radical linguist, "left-wing linguist," "leftist linguist," "loony-left linguist," and so on, but despite any number of ingenious efforts to link Chomsky's linguistics to his politics, I don't think many linguists buy the connection. Even if the majority of linguists have left-of-center political views, there's nothing in the average syntax article that would give you any insight into the author's political views (well, apart from the example sentences, on occasion -- though Chomsky himself rarely strays from examples involving John and Mary). But I wonder how many people outside the field would tend to read a phrase like "leftist linguist" as equivalent to "practitioner of leftist linguistics," rather than simply as a concise identifier. Just curious.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at December 3, 2005 12:57 PM