Thursday, January 03, 2008

Why everyone should study linguistics

Over on the Log yesterday, I discovered a link I should have known about … an article in the Minnesota Review called "Why everyone should study linguistics".

Stop in mid-yawn: It's by a literary scholar, Robin Sowards, a young English prof who is working on a book on Chomsky and literary theory, among other things. The piece opens with this shocking line:
All literary critics already do some kind of linguistics.
And he goes on to illustrate the point with basic grammatical analysis and interpretation of historical change in language, leading him to assert:
Linguistics is our inevitable hidden premise.
The piece really argues exactly what the title says, that literary studies needs especially 'theoretical linguistics' — generative linguistics in particular — and he illustrates it with things like processing difficulties with center-embedding.

It's a nice piece and it's impossible to disagree with the basic line of argument, although syntax folks and others may have quibbles on some points of his discussion. Certainly having every student of literature take some real linguistics would be valuable. (Many do already.) But in an undertaking like this, where full command of two fields is ultimately needed — you shouldn't trust my reading of Blake and I'll be mightily impressed to see rank-and-file lit scholars doing high-quality minimalist analyses of Shakespeare.

Regular readers know the punchline: The right way to handle this is to collaborate, start a discussion group including linguists and lit people. Over the years, I've had and heard of many discussions between linguists and lit folks about co-authoring, but have seen basically none of them come to fruition, for various reasons. Somebody like Sowards, apparently a card-carrying English lit guy who's invested a good bit in learning some linguistics, might be able to do it with some success, but for most folks, it's better to start that process of sitting down and talking to people who have the real background you need to learn.

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