Thursday, July 3, 2008

Say what? Or, the tiresome tussle of linguistics vs. literature

So. About that blog post that annoyed me...

Way back in the ancient time of June 17, Mark Liberman at Language Log wrote a post in which he said the following:

In fact, in my (admittedly limited) experience, English departments are among the last places on campus where you're likely to find any indication of interest in any form of linguistic analysis whatever.

I'd be very happy to find that I'm wrong about this.

Mark Liberman, you are wrong about this. There, happy?

The problem with Liberman's broad generalization (aside from being a broad generalization -- not usually a persuasive move in argumentative writing), is that he then proceeds to back up his claim with the example of the Yale English department and what he could find on their web site.

OK, before I go further, can I just announce to the world at large that using Yale (or Harvard, or Stanford, or Oberlin, or any other elite school) as a stand-in for academia at large is poor evidence, no matter what the subject of your argument is. American higher education has a plethora of institutional types with an equally diverse set of missions, funding sources, student bodies, faculties, curricula, and organizational structures. And we do not all even aspire to be or model ourselves on the elite private universities and colleges. Heck, institutions like Yale aren't even in the majority of types of institutions in the country, let alone anything like an average model.

But back to the people-in-English-don't-care-about-linguistics thing. I'd reckon that in the majority of 4 year colleges and universities in the country, the linguists are actually IN the English department. Again, Yale is a poor example, because it's elite and wealthy enough to support an entire linguistics department. Oh, and look, Prof. Roberta Frank, renowned Anglo-Saxonist has a dual appointment in Linguistics and in English at Yale. Liberman didn't mention that, for some reason (although a lone medievalist commenter did). But I'll come back to the medieval angle in a minute.

Most places, however, aren't as lucky as Yale to have a well-staffed and independent linguistics department. At my own university, most of the linguists are in my department -- including people who don't necessarily work on specifically *English*-related issues -- and some are in the foreign language department (yes, we just have one -- they're all lumped together). So actually, our English department is either the first or the second place on campus where you'd find people interested in linguistic analysis, depending on where you decided to start your search.

And it's not just the people who are identified as "linguists" and specialists in linguistic fields who are interested in linguistic analysis. Hello! {Raises hand} Medievalist here! I teach Old English and Middle English, both of which are cross-listed with Linguistics, and the students in there are a mix of English majors, linguistics majors, various foreign language majors, and English graduate students. We use the IPA and talk about all sorts of heady linguistic goodness like phonology, morphology, syntax, and the like. And I bet this year's crop in particular will never forget the genitive of time in part because it was a recurring obsession of mine across Old and Middle English, and at the end of the latter, I came into class one day and triumphantly announced that the final scene of No Country For Old Men featured an American example of it. (You should've seen how giddy I was about it.) See, medievalists have always needed a knowledge of and interest in linguistic analysis, and always will, including those of us who are interested in all sorts of other theoretical developments in the field. Are we not part of the English department?

What's more, our English major here at RBU requires an intro to linguistics class. Why is that? Aside from all the good, sound reasons that the study of literature may have something to do with the study of language, many of our English majors are also Education majors, and the state requires language arts and English teachers in the public schools to have had an intro to linguistics class. I bet that's true in a lot of states. Our MA then requires history of the English language, again because we feel that a knowledge of language enhances the study of literature. Cuz, you know, literature is made of language. (I know! Whoda thunk it?!)

But where Liberman's post really, really gets my goat -- or rather, the writing teacher goat in me -- is the way he uses Yale as his example. After noting that "transformational grammar" doesn't appear on their web page, he adds:

also among the missing are phoneme, vowel, consonant, Lakoff, Whorf, "noun phrase", transitive, adverb, iamb, trochee, dactyl, pentameter, hexameter, and metrical.

(To make it clear that Google has actually indexed some text there, post-colonial occurs 22 times.)

Oh for goodness sake. Why would most of those terms appear on the freakin' web page of the department? Take out "Lakoff" and "Whorf" and the remaining words are all terms that have come up in my classes -- including many of my "purely" literature classes -- but they don't appear in any of my course descriptions because they're all too specific. I even have one forthcoming article on historical linguistics issues that involves both prosody and phonology, but none of Liberman's words are in its title.

But the parenthetical claim makes it clear what the real subject of Liberman's complaint is: you English lit people pay too much attention to the post-colonial. Oy. Are we really still fighting the culture wars? Really? Look, you can care about *both* the political forces that shape literature *and* the linguistic ones that do. They are not mutually exclusive. And in terms of the logic, Liberman's complaint is problematic: "post-colonial" is a much bigger category than "adverb." It's also a theoretical approach that would apply to a multitude of literature courses in a way that "hexameter" wouldn't. I bet the verse writing courses that Yale offers (intro and advanced) include discussion of iambs, trochees, etc. And the description of the "Renaissance Lyric" course says it will focus on "poetic forms." I bet meter has something to do with that course, too. (Oh, and if you search "verse" on the site, it comes up 19 times.)

In the comments to Liberman's post, only one medievalist speaks up, as I recall. And one person from a regional comprehensive points out that linguistics is within their English department. And I don't think Liberman responded to either of them.

So as an English department medievalist at a regional comprehensive, who teaches linguistics courses and linguistic issues, I felt I had to pipe up on behalf of my many identities: Hey, what about us?


k8 said...


And I would add that there are those in comp/rhet who also work with linguistics and socio-linguistics. While I don't work in this area, I know a lot of people who use discourse analysis as a method. And then there are those who specialize in World Englishes and TESL, both of which tend to involve some form of linguistics. Additionally, you won't find what we do listed on English Department web pages among the Ivies. They aren't at all representative of our field.

Dr. Virago said...

Yes! We have TESL specialists in our linguistics program -- IN the English department -- and I know our comp people teach discourse analysis, even if it's not their preferred method. Thanks for reminding me of that!

Flavia said...

Just weighing in to support your point, and to say that in MY state, too, undergraduates who are going for teaching certification in English (we don't have an education major) are required to take a linguistics class--usually HEL--so such courses are offered regularly.