May 24, 2006

Report from the language log security department

Mark Liberman's post (see here) on the Guardian article in which the writer practices linguistics without a license echoes many other Language Log complaints about this crime, which appears to be running rampant throughout our society these days, not just in the press. For example, one evening at a dinner party I was the only linguist present when a psychiatrist sitting next to me felt it necessary to lecture me on the evils of Vernacular Black English, uttering nonsense in virtually every sentence. More recently, I've found that the legal profession has a distressing lack of knowledge about our field. And I won't even go into the problems that educators have with this. But let me relate an incident that happened to me just yesterday.

In my role as one of the security officers at Language Log Plaza, I was forced to issue a citation to a PhD dissertation writer who, in her preliminary draft, falsely referred to part of her research as linguistics. Okay, it was a psychology dissertation and so maybe I should have cut her some slack. But, as a law-abiding linguist, I felt that I had to enforce the law. So I ticketed her for driving her dissertation on the wrong side of the road. In a conciliatory tone, I explained that I was doing this for her own good. I wouldn't want readers of her final draft to accuse her of practicing linguistics without a license.

Like many psychology dissertations, her research was a rather good content analysis of lots of data that she had carefully gathered. Among other things she used a computer program to count the number of times personal pronouns and other language features occurred. She backed this up with a good statistical analysis. The problem is only that she referred to this as a linguistic analysis. She found instances of indirectness but didn't say anything about how this worked. It was simply a good tallying exercise. Same for conditionals, passives, and instances of politeness. No linguistic analysis of these features--only their presence or absence. She used a research approach that was appropriate enough for what she was trying to accomplish but it simply wasn't linguistics.

Mark is quite correct about the way journalists mangle linguistics in articles that compare one language with another. Past Language Log posts, too numerous to mention here, have also dealt with journalistic ignorance of such things as the alleged language learning of birds and animals, how many words there are in the English language, and that there are no words for X in language Y. Maybe it's our job to give citations to offenders but there is also a whole lot of work for us to do in the education of our sister disciplines. We haven't been very good at this.

Posted by Roger Shuy at May 24, 2006 12:38 PM