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Why is linguistics so rarefied?

I think a lot about language. I often have questions about language that are very difficult to find answers to. That’s not true of most sciences. If I have a question about physics (insofar as there are answers to questions about physics), I can find an answer in no time. (As a science fiction writer, I often have questions about physics.) In Oratorio in Ursa Major, I have a character who is a linguist. The research for her character, and for some of the things she needed to say, was damnably difficult.

For an example of a pretty trivial linguistics question, I had been wondering why so many personal pronouns and possessive adjectives rhyme, at least in the three languages that I know something about:

English: Me, thee, he, she, we • mine, thine

French: Me, te, se • nous, vous • mon, ton, son • ma, ta, sa • notre, votre

Spanish: Nosotros, vosotros • nuestra, vuestra • tu, su

My first question would be, is this accidental? It doesn’t seem to be accidental. If it’s not accidental, why should this be?

In this particular case, I was able to find a pretty good answer by Googling. Googling led me to a book that contains a collection of papers from the 14th International Conference on Historical Linguistics in Vancouver in 1999. Google Books, as usual, provides only part of the book. The complete book can be bought for $156 (!). But a paper by Johanna Nichols from the University of California at Berkeley titled “Why ‘Me’ and ‘Thee’?” provided a pretty good answer. The answer is that, no, it’s not accidental. It’s also a feature of 152 languages that she compared.

The paper refers to these kinds of words as “lexical sets.” In lexical sets, rhyming, alliteration, and other sorts of vocal patterns (collectively called phonosymbolism) are repeated: Mama, papa.

As I understand her academic explanation for why this might be, it boils down to this: Lexical sets that rhyme or that are otherwise phonosymbolic appeal to people of all languages. Because it’s appealing, it spreads and becomes entrenched.

That makes sense to me, and I’ll consider the question answered.

But it’s also interesting to note that, compared with other fields (such as, say, anthropology) far fewer people get Ph.D.’s in linguistics. In my life, I have met only one Ph.D. in linguistics. That was someone in New York, the friend of a friend who is an anthropologist. (Do they all know each other so they can ask either other questions?) Also, most smaller liberal arts schools don’t even have linguistics programs. The list of universities with stellar linguistics programs is very short.

The downside of this for us lay folks and non-scholars is that linguistics is very nearly out of our reach. You’ll find almost nothing in your public library. Googling won’t get you very far. And though the books are out there, they are very, very expensive. One book I’d like to have, for example, is The English Language: A Linguistic History, from the Oxford University Press. It costs $110, and it takes Amazon two to four weeks to get it, which probably means that it has to be shipped from the U.K.

I’d kill for a friend who is a linguist. Unless I move to Amherst or Oxford or Palo Alto, that probably is not going to happen.


  1. DCS wrote:

    That book — The English Language: A Linguistic History — is sitting on a shelf in our library right now. Would you like me to get it for you? It would be a good excuse to make a road trip to the mountains. You can keep it for a month if I check it out.

    Never hesitate to ask if I can tap the university’s resources for you. If we don’t have it physically on hand, I can get it through inter-library load. I have a book coming to me right now from UPenn. It’s easy and fast.

    I also can show you how to get free journal articles and the best database for linguistics related stuff. It’s a shame that all of this great material is cloistered away behind pay walls — one of the reasons linguistics material is so hard for you to come by.

    This was, in fact, why the brilliant computer scientist-inventor-hacker Aaron Swartz killed himself. He was against the idea of knowledge being held hostage by commercial interests, so he hacked JSTOR, one of the largest academic journal repositories, and released its contents to the public. After being charged with wire fraud and hounded by the government and threatened with permanent financial ruin, he killed himself. See here:

    The upshot of his activism and hacking, JSTOR shifted to a free model. All you have to do is register, here:

    If you run into any blocks or pay walls, just let me know. I can send you articles as free PDFs.

    By the way, I got the grant money to bring Jonathan Rauch. I will be e-mailing him later today to pin down a date. It will be in mid-March.



    Sunday, September 3, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink
  2. DCS wrote:

    Also, do you already have this:

    The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, Bernhard Maier

    That’s available, too.


    Sunday, September 3, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  3. daltoni wrote:

    I have not seen Maier’s book. I believe that, in addition to the Notre Dame edition, the book was published simultaneously by the University of Edinburgh Press. Interesting, Maier is German, and his main field is religion. It certainly appears to be a book that I need to have a look at.

    Sunday, September 3, 2017 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Dan wrote:

    In my first trip through undergrad for my bachelor’s degree, I took intro to linguistics and sociolinguistics. I excelled at the intro course, but I felt socio forced some ideas. Socio was taught by the program chair and only Ph.D in linguistics on campus while intro was taught by an MA in writing.

    My alma mater now offers an undergraduate major in linguistics and merged it with foreign languages instead of housing it under speech, communication, and writing. I think they’ve all grown and splintered into distinct programs. Or they’re at least appropriately designated with like disciplines.

    Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  5. daltoni wrote:

    DCS: Great news about Jonathan. He’s the perfect speaker for your First Amendment event. After a couple of sloshes of wine I might even exercise my First Amendment liberties to remind him how often he has been wrong. 🙂 To his great credit, though, he has come around on the issue of false equivalence and truth vs. “balance.” And I like his new book, which I read in proof and which will be released in March, around the time of your event.

    I signed up for the free JSTOR account. Thanks for the reminder on that…

    Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 7:02 pm | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Dan: Sounds like there may be two of us who have only ever met one Ph.D. in linguistics. 🙂

    DCS: If there are any linguists at your institution, which I doubt, I want to throw a dinner. Another question is driving me crazy. It has to do with how linguists represent the Southern “i” monophthong in IPA notation. I hear the sound as an “i” vowel, but as far as I can tell, linguists represent it as an “a,” which angers my ear. I occasionally hear the same “i” monophthong in BBC accents. I would love to know something about the New World / Old World connections.

    Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 7:06 pm | Permalink
  7. DCS wrote:

    As Dan’s comment reflects, linguistics is typically incidental to language/communication studies. At our school, as at most, it comes up as part of English or foreign language studies. The only Ph.D. linguist I know at our school who identifies as such is French and teaches French, but he’s retiring this year after 30 years at the school.

    Meanwhile, there is the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics. See the following information for resources.

    SECOL 2018 @ Virginia Tech
    “Crossing Borders”

    (the 85th meeting of the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics)

    April 19-21, 2018
    Blacksburg, Virginia
    Virginia Tech

    For more information and Call for Papers:


    Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  8. daltoni wrote:

    Oh wow. Blacksburg in the spring. Could I slip in undetected? Road trip!

    Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  9. DCS wrote:

    It’s an easy and pretty drive up there from here. You probably could participate as a non-member of the organization, though they would expect you to pay the conference registration fee. Our national organization always has a non-member option at our annual convention. It’s probably a pretty small organization, I would think, so you might as well just contact them and ask. Never know whom you might meet at a conference like that. Could be useful.


    Thursday, September 7, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

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