Time, and intellectual community

In the latest (December 2020) issue of the journal Language (vol. 96, no. 4), Brian Joseph’s “What is time (and why should linguists care about it)?”, an article that originated as his presidential address at the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) annual meeting in New Orleans on 4 January 2020. The article (abstract below) combines broad humanistic scholarship with fine-grained philological and dialectological research on the Greek language.

Meanwhile, the article is thick with thanks to all sorts of people, a characteristic that is not just personal niceness — though in some cases it is certainly that — but reflects a view about the nature of intellectual community.

— The abstract:

What is time (and why should linguists care about it)?

An indisputable fact of life and of nature is that humans and human institutions necessarily both exist in and live through time. The importance of this fact and the conscious recognition of it is reflected in the concern for the passage of time and for humans’ place vis-à-vis time observable in various sorts of artistic expression, from the visual arts such as sculpture and painting to various reflections in literary and even musical sources. Taking the arts as my point of departure, I first outline here and then contrast different views of time from within different domains and disciplines and from different vantage points, discussing in turn the artist’s, the physicist’s, the linguist’s, and, ultimately, the ordinary speaker’s view of time. I then contrast continuity across time with change across time, and illustrate continuity amidst change through an extended case study of the past-tense marker in Indo-European languages known as the ‘augment’, examining its stability and change throughout all of attested Greek, from Mycenaean Greek of the second millennium BC up through Modern Greek of the present day, with particular focus on its realization in certain regional dialects of the modern language. The augment thus provides an important object lesson in linguistic continuity and change, as it proves to be a remarkably durable but at the same time intriguingly elastic morpheme, at least as far as Greek is concerned. Since the view of time that I ultimately dwell on leads me to a consideration of time and history, I end with some observations on both the history of the field and my own personal history.

— Intellectual community. (At this point I will begin referring to BJ as Brian; we are old friends, and for many years were colleagues in Linguistics at Ohio State.)

(What I write in this section is the product of e-mail exchanges between Brian and me, clarifying a subsidiary aim of his Language paper.)

I was struck that Brian repeatedly goes out of his way to thank people for their contributions, to this particular paper and to the development of his ideas in general; and for supplying parts of an intellectual framework for his work (even from some time back).  The total number of thanks (of various kinds) is just enormous.

My understanding of this was not that Brian was just being a nice guy (though he is in fact a famously nice guy), but was instead recognizing that the intellectual life of our field is the product of a complex community of scholarship and theorizing stretching far afield and far back in time.

As it turned out, my impression accorded exactly with Brian’s ideas: the intent was his equivalent of “it takes a village”, applied to our general intellectual endeavor and to the more specific enterprise of doing linguistics.

It’s lovely to see this point made at such length and in such detail. (Yes, I get a couple of shout-outs myself.)



2 Responses to “Time, and intellectual community”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    Grumble. I am also a former LSA president, and I was Brian’s teacher at Harvard. I wasn’t on his committee, of course (my folding chair having folded), but still. I am selfishly annoyed that I didn’t get a shout-out. But as we fade into the sunset, we (or at least I) tend to get grumpy about it.

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