Friday, August 17, 2007

In defense of Linguistics

As I write this I realize that once again the fate of Linguistics at SIUC is probably in the hands of people who may not appreciate the finer points of the science. And it is true that, with the influence of Chomsky and the obfuscating character of the science of the mind's psychology clouding the issue, very few people do have a clear understanding about what linguistics is about, or why anyone should save it. So that's the purpose of this post.

My grandfather was a fan of college wrestling, which, at Iowa State University, was a grand sport; it turns out that in my lifetime, it also has gone by the wayside, although it is probably still alive in the four major universities in Iowa and Oklahoma, and a few other places. He used to say that it was a pure sport- just two athletes and a mat- no tools, no balls, no bats or gloves, just the energy and the force of the bodies, along with the control of them, determining who won. Of course, that was in an era when competition itself had a better name- it didn't always lead to wars, or guns, or ruthless domination. One could argue that in the modern world we know way too much about competition- and now need to learn and practice more in the field of cooperation and understanding. And this is where I make my point: linguistics is to understanding what wrestling is to competing. Nothing but two minds, and the physical properties they control- the use of the mouth, the tongue, the lips, and the voice- and humans not only understand each other, they understand huge ranges of meaning, with inflection, passion, nuance, sarcasm and humor all woven in. And, like wrestling, one could argue that there's an inborn component- we are naturally given some gifts- the natural ability to do this sets us apart from animals, for example- in the same way that some people are born to wrestle or play any other sport.

But careful study of each science shows that the inborn component is far less important than the other elements. It's like watching a wrestling match. Sure, each person is given a certain gift, athleticism, that allows them to be there on that mat in the first place. A certain build, or ability with the muscles, that some of us will never have. But as the match goes on, that becomes much less important, because really, there's so much else that matter so much more...

In communicating there is a delicate balance, an interrelationship, between the written word and the spoken word. This post is delivered entirely in the written format, obviously, but it could just as easily be spoken. If it were, it would sound different, and would be received differently. But the nuanced differences between the paths we choose to take, in reaching across to each other, offer us a look at the human mind and the way it works, that is available in no other field. People have spent centuries studying the nerve endings and pathways that carry messages in the human body. At the same time, they've had very little luck really reconstructing what the science of Linguistics should really be looking for. Linguistics programs nationwide are suffering in the same way ours is- not only because people within the field communicate poorly- but also because they are unable sometimes to represent what Linguistics' role is, in the survival of man and the future of the planet.
Why should we care? It's the same defense people offer for endangered species- and I'm not convinced, by the way, that animals don't have complex language: we shouldn't be destroying something we don't understand; we can guarantee that, if we allow or perpetuate the dismantling and/or destruction of a single science, in a particular place, with the knowledge and history that go with it, we will all be much worse off.

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