Very briefly: Guide to Life in Linguistics

On the Language Typology mailing list this morning, a note from Grev Corbett:

A sobering question is “In ten years time, how many people in this linguistics class are going to care about the definition of phoneme, clitic or right node raising?” If the proportion is small, then a linguistics class can be invaluable in getting over messages which will matter in ten years time, such as:

– beware of arguments from authority
– respect the data
– don’t guess when you can measure
– beyond what we think we know there’s a seething mass of uncertainly and ignorance out there
– when we hit the ‘in-between’ cases, we don’t throw our toys out of the pram, but we try to understand the apparently clear cases better
– “…  the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.” (Peter Medawar: Advice to a Young Scientist 1979 p. 39)

(You will note that these pieces of advice have a wider applicability than to linguistics.)

I then proposed that this list should be printed up as a poster, engraved on plaques, maybe even stitched up on needlepoint samplers. For linguists to reflect on and take to heart.

Thanks to Grev.


3 Responses to “Very briefly: Guide to Life in Linguistics”

  1. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    Sorry, I can’t really agree. Most of these things are rather anodyne, motherhood maxims that no one could seriously question. But one in particular stands out in its relevance to our field: “don’t guess what you can measure.” That seems to line up with the current fashion for quantitative over qualitative methodologies. The idea that counting things is somehow superior to seeking an intuitive understanding of the structure and relations governing linguistic regularities is not one that I, at least, can sign on to. Statistics and the closely akin “data mining” are so often a substitute for thought, rather than a serious step toward understanding.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, maxims are extremely brief distillations of ideas, serving to remind you of some substantive content. The value of Grev’s maxims is in what they can call up about doing linguistics and teaching (and learning) about it. In this spirit, the injunction not to guess what you can measure is an excellent one, especially in the study of language variation and change.

      Students in classes, and even many linguists and lexicographers, are inclined to come at the topic with a gigantic burden of guesses: beliefs, opinions, and highly biased recollections of their own linguistic experiences. They’re ready to tell you who uses what variants in what contexts, but they’re not even very good at telling you about their own usages, now and at earlier times.

      They have to be faced with the harsh reality that none of what they believe about these things can be trusted (worse, that the strength of their beliefs is also deeply unreliable as a gauge of truth), and that the only way to understand such linguistic and sociocultural phenomena is to measure them, to discover the facts of actual usage (of which variants, in which contexts, by which speakers, at which times), and that this is a difficult enterprise requiring special tools.

      (And I haven’t even mentioned the task of clarifying what those variants are — a major task in the application of concepts from all branches of theoretical linguistics — and what the relevant contexts are, and what the culturally relevant social groupings are — requiring systems of still further concepts, having to do with the organization of linguistic interactions and with the structuring of social groups. If you’re going to measure, you need to know what to measure, and that’s far from intuitively obvious.)

      You know all this stuff. But maybe you didn’t appreciate how it all tumbles out when you venture to unpack the injunction not to guess at what you can measure.

  2. Stephen R. Anderson Says:

    Sorry, Arnold. I can agree with much of what you say, but you have not alleviated my concern that an injunction not to “guess what you can measure” will be interpreted as saying that once you’ve counted stuff and done appropriately sophisticated statistics, you’re done. I have to say that lots of students’ guesses, frequently unencumbered by strict adherence to some currently trendy orthodoxy, uncover really interesting aspects of the phenomena they’re looking at. Obviously they have to learn to be scientific about them, and the good ones will. I am not a big fan of “measuring” to understand linguistic structure, at least not in any central lexical sense of the word.

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