SOME DEEP BACKGROUND FOR THE BOOK ARTS:
PHILOLOGY AND/OR LINGUISTICS
Philology is the study of how languages perform the various functions of language, how they work as systems, how they are related to one another, and how they develop and adapt.
Philology has been conducted on a largely scientific basis for about the past 140 years, though those who practice it as a rigorous discipline do not claim that it is one of the “harder” sciences on a level with, say, mathematics, physics, or chemistry. The study of each smallest point in question is generally based on an advanced knowledge of each relevant language, and the minute analysis of hundreds or thousands of bits of data (words, word-forms, and the ways in which they are used) for each language in question.
This methodology is necessary because languages, unlike mathematical entities or chemical elements, are messy and indistinct agglomerations of huge numbers of items that are often of very different kinds, unified only at a relatively superficial level by the fact that humans find them useful elements from which to build jerry-rigged systems for oral or written communication.
From studies of these masses of data, conclusions are made about the system of each language. In comparative studies, these conclusions are made the basis for conclusions about the larger systems that constitute the language families in question, for example, Germanic, Romance, or the entire Indo-European family of languages. These conclusions are tested by the work of other scholars, based on different sets of thousands of bits of data, and sometimes on different languages.
In drawing its inferences, philology of course relies on knowledge from other fields, notably history, archeology, and anthropology, to help it correlate and evaluate its data, especially from the points of view of chronology and the social factors that bear on linguistic practice.
A critical and independent reading of philological literature requires at least some scholarly knowledge of multiple languages.
Trigger alert: The remainder of this article may be suspected of being tainted with satire.
There is a certain degree of confusion in the names adopted by various currents or sects engaged in the study of language. The two oldest and most frequently seen names are Philology and Linguistics.
“Linguistics” is sometimes a synonym for “philology” and sometimes a travesty of it. Many studies that go under the name of linguistics are indistinguishable in method, merit, and terminology from the finest and most important work that has gone under the name of philology. However, there are some newer currents in linguistics.
“The term “linguistics,” proffered as a substitute for “philology,” has a prior history in French and German, but in English, at least, many who call themselves linguists are also playing off of the common use of the term “linguist” to refer to someone who has a practically useful knowledge of multiple languages, often at a more than colloquial level. “Philology” (the term, and the discipline) has always taken such knowledge for granted, reflecting the commonsense view that a profound knowledge of languages is required before one can talk about Language in general.
Linguistics, seen as a new practice distinct from philology, needs a term that suggests in-depth practical knowledge of multiple languages precisely because the new practice isn’t based on such a knowledge of languages, but still wants to look like it is. “Linguistics” suggests “linguist” as the obvious term for “practitioner of linguistics,” while inviting confusion with the older and more general sense of “linguist.” 1
Without imputing deceptive intent to practitioners of the new linguistics, one might ascribe to them a position that some of them might express in terms like the following: “The term ‘linguistics’ enriches the reference of ‘linguist’ by inscribing a displacement of reference within the word ‘linguist’—the displacement between a vulgar knowledge of languages and the higher theoretical knowledge of the new science of linguistics. This displacement signifies that the science of linguistics has transcended outdated notions of evidence as regards language.”
I myself would suggest that we need two terms for two distinct things. ‘Linguist’ should be reserved for its original meaning, which designates a person who has some useful practical knowledge of multiple languages, without necessarily implying advanced study or advanced specialization. I propose the term ‘linguistician’2 as an occupational term designating anyone with a degree in linguistics, or anyone else who claims to practice what he calls linguistics. However, such a proposal will meet with opposition from linguisticians.
Many highly-credentialed linguisticians, when faced, in awkward situations, with the assertion that distinct things are best designated by distinct terms, are apt to maintain that having different possible meanings for the same word in the same context, far from being a fault, is evidence of linguistic “richness.”
The phrase “language is a living thing” is also apt to be uttered by the linguistician, to imply that every linguistic novelty is equally valid, whether it arise from unconscious error, ignorant pretentiousness, deliberate obfuscation, gradual refinement through casual trial and error, or neologism diffidently presented by an experienced language mechanic for a specific purpose. Thus, the linguistician will maintain, one may not object if the term ‘linguist’ has two possible meanings in linguistic contexts.
I still maintain that having different possible meanings for the same word in the same context is nothing but a recipe for confusion. It is my observation that such confusion is endorsed only by those who benefit in some concrete fashion from the particular confusion in question.
Other linguisticians will raise the point, often valid in itself, that their own work, whether it be called linguistics or something else, is the same in method, merit, and importance as the work done by people who have degrees in philology, classical studies, or modern languages. To them, it must be sadly pointed out that the credibility of a formally recognized academic discipline is dependent on the merit of the general run of its practitioners: society, when it grants prestige and prerequisites to formally recognized academic disciplines, demands in return that the disciplines police themselves so as to continue to deserve their prestige and prerequisites. When a discipline’s name on a diploma ceases to be a reasonable guarantee of minimal competence, and then ceases to be a reasonable guarantee that its practitioners will not make themselves obnoxious to better-conducted disciplines or to society in general, it cannot be expected that those outside the failed discipline will not attempt to remedy the problem. Since the remedies will then come from outside the discipline, and perhaps from outside the learned world, those remedies will inevitably be rather coarse.
If a linguistician has done work that is respected by practitioners of another formally recognized discipline, he may hope to receive some shelter from them if worst comes to worst. But if he does, he will no longer have the option of employing, in his grantsmanship, the pretense that their discipline is outmoded or unsophisticated, while his represents the wave of the future.
Use of the term “linguistics” is often a cue that the writer believes, at least in practice, that authoritative conclusions about language can be made without advanced knowledge of any language, and without paying attention to large sets of concrete data. The place of these is taken, in practice, by some speculative theory or collection of dogmas. This theory or dogma, though it may be regarded as a joke by students of language outside the academic sect that places faith in it, is believed by members of a given sect to embody or supersede all the concrete knowledge obtained in earlier periods. It thus enables the linguistician to maintain, at least before a sympathetic audience, that his conclusions can be true even if apparently contradicted by concrete data—as they often are, in the case of this sort of linguistics.
If the linguistician thus succeeds in sustaining his point before a sympathetic (or ignorant) audience, he will have an excellent chance of getting his statements in print in a peer-reviewed journal. In the less rigorous academic fields, there are innumerable peer-reviewed journals conducted by cliques for the purpose of publishing each other’s papers. In such fields it is understood that, with enough persistence, and if necessary a little organizing and logrolling, you will get your paper published somewhere. (The present writer spent three years in grad school in one such field.)
Once he appears in a peer-reviewed journal, academics in other fields, who know even less about his subject than he does, are at liberty to quote him as an authority. This is the essence of many “multi-disciplinary” studies.
If enough academics in other fields do this, the practitioner can maintain the appearance of competence, for purposes of grantsmanship, even without the general respect of specialists in his own field. Of course, another way for an academic sect to avoid the criticism that it is not respected within its own field is to get itself defined, within the academic bureaucracy, as a separate field.
Voodoo linguistics requires of its practitioner little in the way of concrete knowledge. Even less knowledge is required of the uncritical reader. Still less is required of the non-reader who merely quotes tags that he has heard because they appear to lend scientific support to what he finds it convenient to believe about language.
1. In the Oxford English Dictionary, for “linguist” with the sense of “one who is skilled in the use of languages; one who is master of other tongues besides his own,” the earliest citation is from Shakespeare. For “linguist” with the sense “a student of language; a philologist” the citations range from 1641 to 1817; this sense of the word is actually stated to be obsolete. Nonetheless, “linguistics” is given, as meaning “the science of languages; philology”; there is no mention of obsolescence.
2. The OED actually does list “linguistician” with the sense “one who is versed in the study of linguistics”. The word is labelled as rare, and only one citation is given, from the Classical Review, dated 1897. At that time, many readers of the Classical Review would have referred to themselves as philologists.
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