kitchen table math, the sequel: what do linguists think?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

what do linguists think?

My copy of The Roots of Phonics: A Historical Introduction A Revised Edition by Miriam Balmuth just arrived, and on page 11 I find this:
The question raised is: Can a marking that conveys a general idea be called writing, or must all writing represent specific units of speech?

To this question, the great linguist Leonard Bloomfield apparently gives his answer when he states, "Writing is merely a device for recording speech." This statement narrows writing down to only those markings that are directly related to spoken language. It reflects the attitude of linguistic theoreticians from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.
How do linguists define 'writing' today?


ElizabethB said...

Most linguists don't speak English. (There are a few exceptions.)

If you get them while they're starting, they're interesting to talk to! If they've taken too many linguistic classes, they can no longer communicate in basic English for the most part.

ElizabethB said...

Have you seen my Leigh print and UPP pages lately?

i have some new documents in my Leigh Print page, he really was an amazing man.

Linda Seebach said...

I don't know what ElizabethB has such a crabbed and unpleasant opinion of linguists, but I hope KTM readers will sample the delights of the linguistics blog Language Log, a treasure for anyone teaching English.

ElizabethB said...


I like the language log, and everyone there speaks English! It looks like very interesting reading.

I have just read too many PhD level phonetics related documents that were incomprehensible. Most PhD level papers are not written in English to some degree, but there seemed to be more than their fair share of them in that area!

Also, the only linguist in that field who answered a question I had in anything resembling English was still getting his degree.

Engineers are worse, ranked only above the people who write manuals for cameras, computers, and DVD players. My husband has a collection of really bad abstracts from Engineers, Physicists, Ops Research, and Math theses. Some of them are so bad they are hysterical!

concernedCTparent said...

As to: really bad abstracts from Engineers, Physicists, Ops Research, and Math theses.

Most often, such issues are the result of a poor translation from the source language into English and not that it was written so poorly or obscurely or incomprehensibly in the first place.

SteveH said...

"My husband has a collection of really bad abstracts from Engineers, Physicists, Ops Research, and Math theses."

This is very interesting. I've seen a lot of bad technical papers, but I have also noticed that it depends on the area of specialty. Some areas seem to draw in the fuzzies and become dominated by them. It's almost like a cabal of professors and their PhD wannabe students.

For example, I can't bring myself to read anything in the publication, "Communications of the ACM" (Association for Computing Machinery). Much of it seems like nonsense. I go to the specialty journals to see work that deals with reality. It's almost as if many live in a theoretical world where anything goes, and there is litte feedback from reality. It's great, I guess, if you can maintain that bubble.

Allison said...

I am not sure what Comm. of the ACM articles are nonsense--you mean the science content, or the language?

Manuals are incomprehensible because they are written in English by people who speak (often) Chinese. It's not a linguistics issue; it's a translation issue.

Theses abstracts that are poorly written are probably written in English by ESL people. Nearly all of the science, engineering, ops and math phds in American schools these days are not native English speakers.

But if the claim is that such tech types don't speak in common English for a non-tech audience, the answer is that their thesis isn't written for a non-tech audience, and there's little reason to write it at a level clear enough for, say, an educated by ignorant 10th grader. The phd writer is writing for his audience: 3 professors on his committee, and there's no reason to bend over backwards to be comprehensible to people outside a narrow narrow subfield.

I am sure linguists and liguistics researchers have that same perception: why try to make the research comprehensible outside the field? Unless you're Steve Pinker, you aren't going to get published for a wide audience anyway.

ElizabethB said...

I don't mind technical terms specific to the field. What I'm talking about is the use of run on sentences and the stringing together of words in a way that makes it hard to read.

And, my husband's collection comes from military members attending the Air Force Institute of Technology, so more than 90% of them have English as their first language!

Linda Seebach said...

I thank ElizabethB for her gracious reply.

I was going to add, though, before Allison chimed in with a similar point, that there's no reason to expect Ph.D.-level papers in the sciences to be written in "basic English" -- for the most part they are about things for which there *are* no words in basic English. Remember Tom Lehrer's concocted title, "analytic and algebraic topology of locally Euclidean parameterization of infinitely differentiable Riemannian manifold"? It isn't a title, but all the words are real, and take at least a semester to understand.

(I have my doubts about the humanities, where it seems a lot of "technical" vocabulary serves no purpose other than to obfuscate perfectly clear ideas that would be dismissed as ludicrous if written intelligibly, but that's a different fight.)

But EB agrees she isn't concerned about technical terms. So it must be that I don't understand what she is referring to. I was a grad student in linguistics (Minnesota, 1988-92) and we read lots of journal articles. I don't recall any, let alone a lot, that would fit her description.

I should add that I commonly read abstracts in other technical fields, such as genetics and economics, and I don't see it as a problem there either.

Perhaps it is merely a matter of her particular interest, late-19th-century phonetics. With all due respect, "late-19th-century phonetics" is about as relevant to the English skills of professional linguists today as late-19th-century pharmacology would be to the prescribing skills of your doctor.

Could she send me some citations to "PhD level phonetics related documents that were incomprehensible"? Recent, and published in peer-reviewed journals. Maybe we can identify common ground. Sorry, I can't make the sign-up feature work right, but I'm at, so as not to bother the rest of the KTM list.

Also, apologies to readers; In the previous post, I meant to type "I don't know why" (not "what"); the preview thingy doesn't work quite right for me either.

le radical galoisien said...

Part of the problem is trying to use pre-existing concepts to use as evidence for an argument ... without sounding like a textbook.

When discussing the phonology of a language, and trying to attack common misconceptions about language (laymen use horrible grammar, children need to be actively taught language, sign language is a proxy of spoken language, Chinese writing is a pictorial system), you have to use examples. And these examples will articulate concepts that are normally referred to with technical terms because they are shorter.

For example, when we say "aspiration", we could say, "that sound you make when you say [h]", but it would get really old really fast. We could say "/m/ is a type of consonant where you vibrate your vocal chords and lower your velum to allow air to pass through the nose and where both your lips are closed", or we could just call it a (voiced) bilabial nasal stop.

Catherine Johnson said...

Most linguists don't speak English.


Catherine Johnson said...

Most often, such issues are the result of a poor translation from the source language into English

oh, that's interesting!

I had no idea.

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, I am going to jump in on Elizabeth's side here.

Most academic writing is damned bad.

Regardless of field.

The bad writing in history - and there is a LOT of bad writing in history - has nothing to do with technical language or expertise.

It's just bad writing.