By Andreea Calude 09/11/2017

I wrote a recent post which touched on adopting approaches from other disciplines, specifically biology, and applying them to language data. It started a long time ago, that we realised language, as abstract and elusive as it might seem, can be thought of (and even more, modelled) in a similar vein to biological phenomena – people credit Darwin with this idea but given what we know about the attribution of scientific discoveries, the idea likely floated around in the air much before him. The realisation, once upon a time, was surely just a nice metaphor, a mere comment thrown to the wind, but today, it has had some unexpected consequences.

The sparks of war

It is not unusual to see research articles that ask linguistics questions and provide answers to these using methods borrowed from population genetics and evolutionary theory, or phylogenetics. Often these articles are published in high-profile journals, the likes of Nature, Science and PNAS. Just this week a paper has appeared in Nature testing whether different mechanisms for change observed in genetic data (drift and selection) can also be used to explain observed language change (you might be pleased to know they both play a role). Articles like this often bring up a host of backlashes from certain (not all, for example, a notable exception that comes to mind is Bill Croft but there will be others that escape me right now) linguistics communities. Some of these objections are justified, others are not.

My bias is that I have my name on one or two of these types of articles myself. But having been in the middle of it myself, I wear both hats: I own the classical-linguist hat and publish in traditional linguistics journals, and from time to time, I also wear the black-sheep-linguist hat too publishing in non-linguistics outlets. I can thus appreciate what it is really like from the “other” side. Being a co-author on this kind of article has shown me that the refereeing process can throw up some nasty comments: “but there is not even a linguist on this team” (yes, there is, so does this instantly make the paper better? Please engage with my idea not my affiliation) or “the only supposed linguist on this team does not even seem to have a historical linguistics background” (I did not know I had to purchase rights to the sub-field first).

Why such backlashes?

Get off my territory!

An obvious answer is the assumption that language is for linguists to study. After all, we linguists have been doing it for much longer. But if we have been doing it for longer, surely these “new-comers” won’t actually have much insight. And granted, sometimes they do not (but as a caveat, see also we already knew that). On the other hand, someone who is deeply immersed in a different field will likely come to the table with different questions, different perspectives and different methods. This can be a breath of fresh air which can inject a new perspective to an old question or an old data-set.

Image result for science journalsAnother objection is that work published in non-linguistics sources is not subjected to the same rigorous refereeing process as that which is published in (the supposed legit) linguistics outlets. In some cases, maybe. But in many cases, we could easily have the same argument about the validity and rigour of the refereeing of any linguistics journal itself (just to throw some water in the refereeing fire, if you read the fine print, Language will prioritise articles by members of LSA over those of non-members). I had an article rejected once from a journal which claims to be theory-neutral, for invoking frequency effects as an explanatory mechanism in my data. The refereeing process is imperfect everywhere you look, and the academic community as a whole needs to work to make it better, this is not a science problem alone. I can also confirm that science publications can and do involve linguists in the refereeing process wherever they can (but do note the “culture clashing and writer bashing” issues).


We already knew that

Another common objection in assessing articles written by non-linguists is the old “but we already knew that…”. And sometimes, we did know that and there is a reference to prove it, the authors just need to read it (who has not overlooked some literature some time or another? It does not make it a sin but it does not make it a paper either – and yes, the authors need to go back to the drawing board). But there are times when “knowing” is simply someone musing and conjecturing a nice story with no evidence or data, or “knowing” could be accepted wisdom in the linguistics community based on intuition or a hunch – this is very different to a paper that brings numbers to show that the conjecture or wisdom was indeed correct. The numbers are important and should not be overlooked, their importance also needs to be credited.

Cultures clashing and writer bashing

Then there are the inevitable ‘culture’ (aka discipline) specific issues bubbling under the surface. As linguists, we know only too well that scientists write and structure their articles differently. Nature and Science have ridiculous limits on their references (that is the most likely reason why X has not cited Y, W and Z, because of reference limits). And yes, I did write ridiculous – whatever practical purposes such restrictions might serve, there are surely ways around it (supplementary materials?), so they are in my view ridiculous. Maybe that’s an old hang-up from my own discipline. Such limits simply do not exist in linguistics journals and the linguistics ‘culture’ embraces a good-size literature review as a nod to those giants whose shoulders help bolster the current bit of progress outlined. The literature review also serves as a confirmation that indeed, the author has adequate knowledge of the field. These literature reviews tend to take up about as much room as whole articles do in Science and Nature.

On the other hand, supplementary materials are not a ‘thing’ in linguistics journals. An unassuming linguist can be forgiven for completely overlooking these sections because they feature in the periphery of the actual paper. The irony is that supplementary materials are where all the ‘real’ action is at if you know how to read them: they contain important details of what the study actually involves. But here too, the material is strangely organised to linguists-eyes; more like bullet-point lists than like well-written coherent prose.

These two problems alone make articles in publications like Nature and Science near unintelligible for most linguists.

To make matters worse, the popular media does not seem to care one iota about linguistics journals, while they flock to these science outlets.

And then there is grant-writing, but let’s not even go there.

What now?

Is it really any wonder that there are clashes, resentment, and anger? Probably not. But as a linguist (yes my PhD is in linguistics, so yes, I have the bought the license to language-study rights), I would like to make the following suggestions.

  • Non-linguists working on language phenomena: let’s work together rather than against each other, why not invite a linguist on your team, you might actually enjoy it. Some of the nicest people I know are linguists. As a bonus, they will have already done the background reading.
  • Linguists: let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and open our minds to a different perspective. Cooperating in mixed teams is much more productive than fighting it out (the current Nature paper is a great example of such a cooperation). I personally loved my time in the evolutionary lab in Reading and I applaud Mark Pagel for taking the gamble on me. Through my time there, I learnt so much, it was one of the best experiences I have ever had. It might also be a good way to learn how to sell our own discipline – the scientists seem to already know how apparently!
  • Journalists and media people: linguistics journals are cool too, you folk should try them sometime, and if you don’t know where to start, feel free to email me, it is clear that the public has an appetite for language research.

After all, language is by the people and for the people, be they linguists or non-linguists alike!