Blame the linguists!

You may have noticed that I’ve subscribed to Language Log, a blog for linguistics professors (apparently, based on a quick scan through the usual contributors list; there’s no “About” page). It is refreshing and interesting to read the thoughts and analyses of people who are working in the field. Several times, I’ve thought about linking to articles and commenting about how cool they were.

Today, however, I’m actually going to do it, as today’s post “Near? Not Even Close” by Mark Liberman is absolutely delightful. It’s deliciously snarky, well-informed, and comprehensible.

And it ends with a tongue-in-cheek call to action:

Once again, I blame the linguists for failing to educate the public — and the pundits — in the basic techniques of grammatical analysis.

What’s interesting is, that first link goes to an analysis of the study about front and back vowels that I discussed aeons ago. Some great stuff in that piece, including the following:

The nature of the English lexicon of names makes it impossible that Perfors’ list was strictly controlled, phonologically and otherwise. You can’t contrast (say) Beet and Boot, or Bit and Butt, or other “names” that differ only in the front-back dimension of their main-stressed vowel. Even if you could, the names would not be equally common (overall or in a particular age range), or equally associated with famous people, or whatever. Instead, the list of names with front vowels surely differed from the list of names with back vowels in many other ways, phonetically and otherwise. Perfors doesn’t give the complete list that she used, or the raw results, so it’s hard to tell whether there are any other plausible differences. And if she didn’t start the study with the hypothesis that front-back was going to make the difference, but instead considered the 20 or so obvious phonological alternatives — high vs. low vowels, labial vs. non-labial consonants, one syllable vs. two, open syllables versus closed, etc. — then there’s the statistical problem of multiple tests. And what’s the distribution of sexual orientations of the “subjects”? These are the kinds of annoying, picky little questions that reviewers (are supposed to) ask for publication in refereed journals. Perfors may well have answers for such questions, and if she publishes in a well-refereed journal, she’ll have a chance to bring them out.

(This reminds me of the piece I wrote about my problems with the way media writers “analyze” poll results.)

Liberman “blames” the linguists at the end of that piece, too, linking to “No Professor Left Behind“, which is the same piece he linked second in the recent article. In this one, he discusses a lack of scansion ability in modern English professors. Here’s the amusing conclusion:

I blame the linguists. We’ve somehow allowed a generation or two of intellectuals to grow up without elementary skills in the formal analysis of speech and language. Simple phonetic transcription, fundamentals of morphology and syntax, elements of logic, basic verse scansion…

Just in case you don’t get it, that’s a wry joke. There’s been a broader educational trend away from formal analysis and specific skills, in favor of problem-solving and “learning to learn”. In that context, blaming linguists for the fact that English professors can’t scan is like blaming philosophers or religious leaders for the fact that MBAs are unethical.

Still, who else is going to fix the problem?

So maybe it’s time for a new national program: No Professor Left Behind.

As you can see, there’s lots of stuff to learn from Language Log, and lots of fun to be had along the way.