December 10, 2006

From My Office Wall

The pressures of end-of-term chaos -- term paper drafts, exam construction, urgent meetings with desperate students, and a depressingly large bunch of committee meetings -- have reduced me to a staring-at-the-wall state, and on the wall in question are two of my favorite quotations from linguists' writings, so I thought I'd put them here for the possible edification of those who might not have encountered them before. The first is from p. viii of Stephen R. Anderson's book A-Morphous Morphology (Cambridge University Press, 1992):

Linguistics will become a science when linguists begin standing on one another's shoulders instead of on one another's toes.

And the second is from the late great Jim McCawley's review, in Linguistics 18:911-930, of Frederick J. Newmeyer's book Linguistic Theory in America (New York: Academic Press, 1980):

Newmeyer's attitude here...resembles the traditional Christian attitude toward sex: the pleasure of gathering data is proper only within the confines of holy theory construction and when not carried to excess; recreational data-gathering is an abomination.

Not to sound extreme or anything like that, but I think Anderson's words ought to be tattooed onto the brow of every linguist. I'm thinking here of two subspecies in particular: those who think that the best way to make yourself look smart is to make somebody else look stupid, and those who think that people of a different theoretical persuasion are a threat to one's own intellectual development.

As for McCawley's comment, I take no stand on whether his charge against Fritz Newmeyer is justified, but it will resonate with those linguists who, like me, can get excited about the tiniest new fact that is recorded in their field notes or uncovered in their reading ("They have a root that refers solely to the drumming of a ruffed grouse? Cool!") -- especially those of us who have met with condescending sneers from linguists who find such bits of language BO-ring and want to make sure we know that. (And no, I am not defending genuine bores who insist on telling all their colleagues about all the exciting new facts they've discovered about their favorite language.)

Posted by Sally Thomason at December 10, 2006 09:14 AM