May 05, 2005

Linguists boycott Kansas intelligent design hearings

The state board of education in Kansas plans to hold hearings in May on the "intelligent design" theory of the origin of English, which claims that the language was constructed in the early 16th century by a committee of unknown experts guided by a Supreme Grammarian. But professional linguists are mostly boycotting the hearings.

Six years ago, when conservatives previously held a majority of seats on the Kansas board of education, they established guidelines encouraging schools to give equal time to the theory of linguistic creationism, which claims that English was created directly by God five hundred years ago at the start of the Great Vowel Shift so that the King James Bible could be translated into it. But this triggered a backlash, and they lost control of the board, which repealed the guidelines. Now that conservatives are back in a majority position, they are instead promoting the teaching of the intelligent design theory. But linguists are not willing to appear at their scheduled hearings on the subject.

Alexa Posny, a deputy commissioner with the state department of education, informed the Kansas City Star that linguists have declined to testify on the linguistic evolution side. "We have contacted linguists from all over the world," Posny said. "There isn't anywhere else we can go."

But at Language Log Plaza in Philadelphia, the director of the giant Language Log organization, Dr Mark Liberman, charged that the hearings were a set-up, designed to have a pre-ordained outcome. He said that testifying would only permit the intelligent design theory to take on the appearance of legitimacy.

"Intelligent design is not going to get its forum, at least not one in which they can say that linguists participated," he said. "Language Log is in full support of Kansas Citizens for Linguistic Science on this."

In a letter to George Griffith, science consultant to the Kansas State Department of Education, Liberman said: "After much consideration, Language Log respectfully declines to participate in this hearing out of concern that rather than contribute to linguistic education, it will most likely serve to confuse the public about the nature of the linguistics enterprise."

Supporters of intelligent design say it is a theory with scientific backing. According to dissident linguist and itinerant preacher Immanuel Quierbaiter, who plans to testify at the hearings in favor of intelligent design, "Anyone who takes an unbiased look at the intricacies of the English language as detailed in Harvey's English Grammar will see that it shows evidence of having been carefully designed for its communicative purpose. It is beyond belief that such a system could have simply evolved through random processes of change."

Historical evidence of such processes of change has been refuted, he claims: "There are gaps in the literary record that the linguistic evolutionists have never explained."

Opponents of the theory, however, believe that it represents an attempt to smuggle religion into English classes. Said Dr Liberman: "If intelligent linguistic design is a viable theory, it should be defended through articles in peer-reviewed journals, not lobbied for politically in school boards."

Privately, linguists are more outspoken. A senior official of an important professional organization of linguists, reached at her office at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, said, "Are those crazies at it again? Well I don't want them driving down here from Topeka and picketing my classroom; no goddamn comment from me."

And one Language Log staff writer who declined to give his name, speaking briefly with a reporter while waiting in line at Language Log Plaza's café, the Latté Linguistica, snapped: "Intelligent design my ass. Have you looked at the lie / lay situation? It's a total disorganized mess. One thing I'm sure of: we're not looking at the product of a perfect mental organ created with the guidance of a higher grammatical power."

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 5, 2005 02:19 PM