Linguists as villains

A letter from Martin Schell (Princeton ’74) of Klaten, Central Java, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly of April 4th points an accusing finger at linguists:

I wish Olivia Waring ’12 success in her study of Tibetan dialects as a Sachs scholar (Campus Notebook, Jan. 18). Ironically, the “homogenization” that she wrings her hands about is directly attributable to the study of linguistics that she loves so much. As Patrick Geary notes in The Myth of Nations, “The infinite gradations of broad linguistic groups in Europe were chopped up by scientific rules into separate languages,” leading directly to standardized languages in 19th-century Europe.

Aside from the fact that linguistics these days is not much like the linguistics of the 19th century, there’s the question of what the linguists of those days had to do with the development of standard languages in 19th-century Europe: were these linguistic scholars (who were mostly historical-comparative linguists, philologists, and dialectologists) responsible for “chopping up” the language varieties of Europe “by scientific rules”?

Not at all, by the usual accounts of standardization, which see it as directed by political figures, writers and critics, educators, church authorities, and other public figures — insofar as standardization is directed rather than spontaneous. The role of linguistic scholars in these developments seems largely to have been to describe the linguistic practices of socially and culturally significant groups, by compiling dictionaries and grammars for the varieties used by these groups.


4 Responses to “Linguists as villains”

  1. Michael Newman Says:

    If you want to accuse linguists of something terrible, a much more plausible accusation could be how the study of historical linguistics in the 19th century, in particular the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European fed into the various Aryan ancestry myths that led eventually to you-known-who (as well as more minor weirdnesses like Theosophy). Of course it’s a fallacy to blame linguists for Hitler and the nazis, but if you’re determined to say something nasty about an undergraduate who won a grant to do linguistic research, it’s not quite as off base as the one outlined above.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Quite so. Early Romantic ideas led in many different directions, including serious folklore studies and dialectology (both taking the material of Das Volk seriously). But any set of ideas can be exploited for dark purposes.

      I refrained from assuming animus on Schell’s part towards Waring (though it was tempting) and chose to criticize him on the basis of the facts about language standardization (in the 19th century) as I know them.

  2. the ridger Says:

    Indeed. On the walls here are big maps showing “Languages of Europe / Africa / South America / the MIddle East / etc”. Only in Europe do the languages fall neatly along national borders. As much the nation-state as anything else, but it’s quite striking.

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