Archive for neo-empiricism

Linguists on the lam

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on 2011 March 10 by Asad Sayeed

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.