A commentary on linguistic racism

In honor of International Blog Against Racism Week, I wrote an entry in my personal journal about racism in language attitudes. It is primarily directed at my American friends, most of whom are white, middle-class, and well-educated, but it might also prove an interesting read for you Danes (most of whom are white, middle-class, and working on becoming well-educated). As I said in the conclusion to that entry, I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments.

(The style for this blog doesn’t seem to insert a color difference on linked text; click on “an entry in my personal journal” for the link. Hans, can we do something about this so links are a bit more obvious? Thanks!)

Hello, my name is Mickey, and I'm a linguist. (Hi, Mickey!)

So, now that I’ve actually made a post, maybe it’s time for me to introduce myself as well. And I’m going to be ornery and write in English, as it’s my mother tongue and preferred means of communication. Det er ikke, at jeg ikke kan dansk, bare at jeg ikke gider. 😉

I’m a bit unusual in comparison to my fellow bloggers here on Lingoland (not least of which because I seem to be the only female thus far): I’m about a decade older than most of them, I’m American, and I have a BS and MS in chemistry from back when I went to university the first time. Suffice it to say, I figured out eventually that I would have made a pretty mediocre chemist, but I’m discovering that I’m a pretty damn good linguist. I don’t regret my training in the “hard” sciences at all; it’s given me a rigorously empiricist background that I wish were more widespread within linguistics.

Right now, I am officially on an internship with The Language Museum, a fledgling organization co-founded by one of our recent alumnae, one of our professors, and a journalist/language-consultant. My official task for this internship is developing exhibits that will comprise the core of the biological/anthropological portion of the museum. While I will be at least partially designing exhibits having to do with articulatory and auditory phonetics (aka, how we produce and understand speech), the subject I’m grappling with the most right now is the question “How did humans evolve the capacity for language?”. This will eventually lead to an exhibit as well , but right now I’ve just barely started and am getting a fix on what I need to learn to do justice to this topic.

What I’ve discovered thus far is that most linguists are woefully underqualified to address the subject. As many have heard, the Linguistic Society of France (or something similar) put out a ban on discussing the subject in the late 1800s, which persisted until about 20 years ago. Mind you, only linguists ever observed this ban; other fields went merrily forwards with the question. In the last 20 years, linguists have been trying to play catch-up, and for the most part, they’ve done a spectacularly bad job of it. Basically, it’s showing itself to be a microcosm of the generativist/nativist debate, with everybody and their brother popping up to say “my particular syntactical theory or variation thereof can account for how language evolved!” Bullshit, says I.

That which is becoming amply clear to me is that this is a highly multidisciplinary topic which requires knowledge of paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, anatomy, neurology, primatology, and probably some other fields as well as linguistics to be able to discuss it intelligently. This is one reason why, with my background in the physical and biological sciences, I feel like I’ve at least got a slight leg up over many linguists, or will, once I’ve gotten through all the reading I’ve laid out for myself.

There does seem to be one aspect of this most multifaceted question that does suit itself well to linguists, namely that the evolution of lexicon and the evolution of syntax seem to be two very different things. Perusal of any of the literature about Nim Chimpsky, Washoe, Kanzi, and other higher primates who were taught “language” makes it quite clear that, while they were able to acquire some small amount of lexicon, they acquired no syntax whatsoever. Any fully fleshed-out hypothesis of the origin of language will need to address both of these topics, not to mention the topics of how the neurological, anatomical, and genetic features necessary for human language evolved. I definitely have my work cut out for me.

If my fellow bloggers are interested, I can periodically post here with what I’ve learned on the subject. I imagine it will be a fascinating next few months.

A silly first post, but what can I say…

…those who know me in person would not be the least surprised, as I am a frequently silly person. I just had to crosspost this amusing quiz result from my personal blog, since it’s so befitting a linguist.

Your Score: Akkadian

You scored

You are Akkadian, a blend of the incomprehensible symbols of the Sumerians with the unwritable sounds of the early Semitic peoples. However, the writing just doesn’t suit the words and doesn’t represent everything needed, so you end up a schizoid mess. Invented in Babylon, you’re probably to blame for that tower story. However, crazy as you are, you’re much loved and appreciated, and remain actively in use by records keepers long after schools have switched to other languages.

Link: The Which Ancient Language Are You Test written by imipak on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test