Linguists on the lam

So, the reason why I decided to start writing again as per the previous post is that I was inspired by this post by Melody Dye which was intended, I guess, to stir up an old debate, and kind of also succeeded.  I didn’t participate on the thread due to time constraints, but I vehemently disagree with the argument she presents, and I eventually got into a “tweetflooding” argument with old friend Jeremy Kahn and new virtual friend Zoltan Varju on the matter. I will eventually get to responding to it, I hope, even though I really shouldn’t as I have something called a “dissertation” to write.  (Ugh.)  I’m going to write something related but just slightly tangential here.

In a nutshell: Melody’s thread is yet another rehash of the old methodological arguments against linguistic (particularly syntactic) theory that are destined to be visited on every generation. Multiple times. Forever and ever—it is simply a fact one must accept that people are going to believe that Google is a sort of linguistic counterexample engine.  I am in the peculiar position of someone who works with Big Corpora as his bread-and-butter and dissertation topic and so on—but remains quite skeptical of the ability of this work to provide us with particularly interesting insights as to the human capacity for language in itself.

But the main point I want to make, briefly, is on the linguistics blogosphere itself.  Is it just me, or is it wildly unrepresentative of the linguistics field as a whole?  Maybe it’s because I live very near to/participate in the Maryland hothouse of unreconstructed generative grammarians (Philip Resnik excepted, heh), but, um, it doesn’t seem to reflect the other “hothouses” (Carleton U and U of Ottawa) to which I’ve belonged as well, nor does it reflect my brushes past other real-life linguists and other departments.  On the occasions that I have read Language Log, it and its commentariat have tended to take positions a lot closer to Melody’s than the part of mainstream syntactic theory.

Aside from an obvious accusation of “anecdote” and “sample bias”, let me throw out another possible explanation that might actually tie together a number of issues: the fact that a lot of syntactic theorists, both faculty and students, tend to come from humanities (lit. and philosophy) backgrounds, and that it is not really surprising that the linguistic blogosphere is pretty saturated by Big Corpus and neo-empiricists and so on—and why a Google (heh) search for “minimalist linguistics blog” and various terms like that don’t tend to turn up much.

Again, perhaps I missed the Big Syntax Blog out there, but I’m pretty connected and well-read *cough* online, and I’d be surprised if I had truly missed it.

Now as to why syntacticians tend to have this background, why the technically-oriented ones might drift to the Big Corpus side of things, and what this all means for the field, well, those are interesting questions indeed.  It seems to be the case, for example, that a lot of syntactic theorists are getting jobs in English departments rather than, say, applied math or logic positions.  (More anecdotal experience.)

And as to what it all means, well, it means that syntactic theory is susceptible to criticism from the camp on the opposite side, the “European-style” logicians and formal grammarians—a criticism to which I am much more sympathetic than the claims of post-Chomskyans/neo-empiricists. (And about which I intend to write a post in the not-to-distant future!) But it also means that, regardless of who is right about these matters, syntax is not growing its base in places that it needs to grow its base, insofar as academic blogs are potential incubators of future collaborators and grad students.  And I believe that they are these days to a goodly extent.

And unfortunately it kind of also means that a lot of syntacticians will only be dimly aware that these issues are being revisited, even if the arguments aren’t really all that different from the ones that have been made in the past.  I am definitely sympathetic to people who might think we’ve been here and done that, like, 50 years ago.  So it goes.


6 Responses to “Linguists on the lam”

  1. Me, the linguist Says:

    google can provide evidence about what is possible in a certain language – is can also provide information about frequent errors, too. What google or any corpus for that matter will tell is you what is not possible. And that is a crucial piece of information. If something is not attested, is it just a coincidence or is it because it is not possible. Corpus are useful, but they are not enough. 🙂

  2. Mostly agreed.

    I would suggest that even when it points you to an attested sentence, it is not necessarily the case that you can claim that the “*” in a linguistics paper is “wrong”. It can merely suggest that there are conditions under which that sentence can be uttered. Very little about what those conditions are.

  3. I was curious about this comment: “…a lot of syntactic theorists, both faculty and students, tend to come from humanities (lit. and philosophy) backgrounds, and…it is not really surprising that the linguistic blogosphere is pretty saturated by Big Corpus and neo-empiricists and so on.”

    I guess there are two hypotheses here –
    1) Syntactic theorists are primarily from the humanities.
    2) The linguistic blogosphere (e.g., LL, RT, my blog) is dominated by ‘neo-empiricists.’

    I’m not sure I followed the connection between these two points (the ‘it’s not surprising…’) – are you implying that phil/lit trained theorists are less likely to be empiricists? Or less likely to blog? Or both? (I might have misread this.)

    For what it’s worth, both myself and my primary adviser come from philosophy backgrounds, and have been heavily influenced by, for example, Wittgenstein and Quine. It was my dissatisfaction with much of modern analytic philosophy (e.g., truth conditional semantics) that led me toward what you’re calling “neo-empiricism.”

  4. I guess my “being clear on blogs” skills are a bit rusty considering the time I’ve spent away from it 🙂

    The hypothesis is that syntactic theorists have a tendency to come from the humanities and that has a number of reflections in the way that they write and think both about their own subject matter and about how to relate to other disciplines and the world. I would of course need some kind of survey to “prove” these claims, but I don’t have one at the moment.

    In terms of relating to the world, I have largely found theoretical linguists not particularly interested in engaging with the blogosphere and with technology in general. It’s not activity that is rewarded (true for all academia, of course) and it doesn’t at all fit with the style of argumentation and discussion that they’re used to. This I found from having attempted collaborations on blogging on internet projects with theoretical linguists.

    Those that do go online have a tendency to be the people who have already migrated to other conceptions of what linguistics should be—such as, they have adopted the use of corpora and machine learning and so on.

    In terms of the subject matter itself, that was going to be my next post, but I’ll give you the gist of it. There are two directions from which criticism of the field emanate; one is from your direction, and the other is from formal grammarians. The criticism unite at a particular point: the accusation of “handwaving”. I partly agree with the accusation, particularly as it is leveled by the mathematical/formal grammarians. But the “handwavy” style of argument is, in my experience, much less so than at first glance, and really emanates from an education that is not focused on producing people who can write consistent formulae.

    Did that make more sense to you? I was intending in this post to focus on “cultural” deficiencies within syntactic theory that I believe are one of the instigators of the kinds of critiques I don’t agree with—as a corpus AND a formal grammarian.

  5. Yes! Very well clarified – thanks for the reply. I should be clear that I’m not an unquestioning proponent of all “empiricist” work either. One of the best papers I read last year was Roberts & Pashler (2000): “How persuasive is a good fit? A comment on theory testing,” which takes to task many connectionist models for (as you say) handwaving. I think what’s unfortunate is that the kinds of critiques that (rightly) get made about some of those models are then thought to apply to all such models indiscriminately, and as with anything in science, models can be set up well, and they can be set up quite badly.

    I like writing provocative posts because it’s good to get discussion going, where otherwise it might not occur, but I’m not as dogmatic as my blog might suggest. I am (almost) positive that there’s more to syntactic theory than the caricatures I read, and in some sense, that’s why I try to provoke a response: I want to read a good defense of what’s being done there, and I want to make sure that if I’m disagreeing with something, I know precisely what I’m disagreeing with. Of course, that precision isn’t always expressed in my blog, because it’s a test space – but hopefully that sort of testing will make me a better scientist. Isn’t that (one reason) why we all write blogs?


  6. I’m a big fan of provocative posts, of course. 🙂 And I hope you aren’t put off by my tone: I reach very quickly for the snark hammer, which is a habit I developed sparring on other rowdier parts of the blogosphere, but I know that it does put people off particularly on “serious” matters.

    I plan to write 2-3 more posts on this, including describing what I think syntacticians *should* do, and the problems getting there. I’m going to try to do this over the next couple of weeks but I have deadlines and things, heh.

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