Author Topic: Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!  (Read 5037 times)

Online Daniel

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Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!
« on: December 18, 2013, 04:23:20 PM »
Historical Linguistics started a revolution in Linguistics (nearly two hundred years before the one Chomsky started). In fact, it was probably the birth of modern Linguistics (many new ideas, and some rediscovery of the relevance of existing ones). With Sir William Jones' discovery of Proto-Indo-European in the late 1700s, there was suddenly a new thing to study about language: where did it come from, and how does it change?
Closely associated with all of this we ended up with ideas about much of phonetics and phonology as well as certain other not-only-diachronically relevant theoretical insights.

But now, perhaps due to less nationalist interest in finding the homeland for the Indo-Europeans and so forth, research and general interest in the field of Historical Linguistics has dropped significantly. My university, for example, only has one required course in Historical Linguistics for graduate students, but about a dozen others for all of synchronic, "theoretical" Linguistics. Yet in a very real sense, Historical Linguistics is at least (maybe more than) half of the subject matter available to us-- there's phonology, syntax, even pragmatics, whatever you're interested in. And it closely ties in with fields like variation and dialectology. More importantly, diachronic change provides data for testing synchronic theories: if they spoke a certain way one thousand years ago, then whatever theories we postulate now must also explain that data-- it's just dimension of data to use, among other things.

Of course those of us who do take an interest in the field do find ways to pursue it-- I took a Spanish department course about the history of the Romance languages (great course), and I'm doing some research in the field, and now I have the opportunity to be teaching an undergraduate course this year. But I get the impression from most of my fellow graduate students and general opinion that Historical Linguistics is far from the most popular. And there are fewer jobs.

So I ask then how can Historical Linguistics be kept relevant?

For one thing, I think integration with other fields is important. Any phonetician or semanticist (or whatever your specialty is) should have some competence at diachronic analysis in that field. Of course the goals are very different from some other theoretical work, but I don't think it's as useless and irrelevant as some mainsream theories might imply.

So what do you think? What are some ideas for the future of Historical Linguistics? Or are you happy to see it go?
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Offline IronMike

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Re: Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!
« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2014, 09:57:43 AM »
Please excuse my ignorance, but I'm simply an amateur (shade-tree linguist, I like to say).  But if we're studying language change through time, isn't that historical linguistics? How can that not be relevant? I imagine someone doing field work with an American Indian speech community, and studying how their language has changed since Boaz & Co studied it. Isn't that still HL?

I can't see that ever stopping, or rather, I don't see the "mission" of Historical Linguistics ever being complete.  But, again, I'm an amateur, so I don't really know.

Cheers,
Mike

Online Daniel

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Re: Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!
« Reply #2 on: February 28, 2014, 11:31:12 AM »
Absolutely. But most active research in Linguistics these days is about the theory of how languages work and much less about where they came from. There are a number of relevant general questions, of course, but it is problematic when one receives little attention.

More specifically, Historical Linguistics involves theories of sound change and reconstructing older languages. So it isn't just anything about languages in time, but that is of course related too.
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Offline zaba

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Re: Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!
« Reply #3 on: March 03, 2014, 11:38:58 PM »
Quote
So I ask then how can Historical Linguistics be kept relevant?
Another important  consideration is that insights from historical linguistics drive current theories about language change, dialect differences, and so on.

A science without a history, an awareness of this kind of thing, cannot progress.

Offline isauk

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Re: Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!
« Reply #4 on: June 12, 2014, 10:17:34 AM »
so, if i understand your question correctly, then you're asking how we can change linguistics departments/programs so that they start focusing more on historical linguistics than they currently do, right?

well, i have a couple ideas. people not like what i have to say, but i'm going to go ahead and say it anyway.

college is a business. and so, programs and classes that don't draw in any customers (i.e. students), get discarded. some programs are just naturally very in demand because they lead to really well-paying jobs (for example, computer programming or different types of engineering, etc). and so, even if students don't enjoy taking all of those math and physics classes that those programs require, they do it anyway. ------- conversely, other degrees are not so valuable in terms of getting a well-paying job (for example, a degree in philosophy). if philosophy classes had high fail-rates then, or focused on things that the students taking them did not find fascinating, then people would simply not take those classes. --- in short, the only way that programs such as philosophy programs have managed to keep themselves in business is by appealing to students on a "passion" level rather than on a "good pay" level.

the study of languages, unfortunately, is not something that big businesses like google are interest in paying good money for (despite what people might try to claim). and so,,, like philosophy programs, i think that linguistics programs have had to appeal to students on a "passion" level in order to stay in business. (and i think that accounts for a lot of the drive behind why all of this modern chomskyan nonsense has essentially hijacked what otherwise used to be a respectable science,,, although i'll refine from going down that particular rant-path.)

so,, i think the answer to your question lies in two potential solutions:

1. figure out a way to make historical linguistics the sort of thing that enough students can be passionate about.

or

2. (and this one is more ideal, imo) figure out a way to make historical linguistics useful in such a way that corporations might want their employees to have some sort of understanding of it (even if only for very indirect reasons).

now,, i don't know how to go about changing the way academic departments operate, and i'd imagine that such changes don't happen overnight, but i think i could offer reasonable arguments for why historical linguistics might be relevant to both of the above strategies.

as for appealing to people on a passion level,,,, lots of linguistics students that i've interacted with (not so much on forums like this one or lingforum, but rather at my college) don't really seem particularly interested in different languages. instead, they seem more philosophically motivated, and are really into ideas like "all people basically the same" (and this is one reason why i think chomskyan ideas have gone over so well with them). --- and so,, the question becomes, can historical linguistics support this philosophy? and i think the answer is quite obviously "yes". in fact, if someone could show that /all/ of the world's languages belong to a single family, then a lot of people would eat that right up, because it's a way of saying that all humans are pretty much the same. (unfortunately, if that's even true, then we're nowhere close to having any methods for linking up languages much further than ten thousands years back or so. although,,, one really wonders then if departments wouldn't simply embrace such ideas by stooping to adopt greenbergian/ruhlenian teachings.)

as for appealing to people on a business level,,,, it seems like there could be real value to understanding how languages work (maybe for neuroscience, maybe for computer science, or who knows what,,, maybe for some "communication science" that hasn't been invented yet). in any case,,, anyone who's concerned with universals and stuff like that should really be concerned with historical/comparative linguistics too (so that they can have some idea of the level of statistical independence in their sample). currently, most linguists seem have zero understanding of such concepts, and lots of the "studies" i've seen regarding universals, etc, will treat (for example) a whole bunch of indo-european languages as all being statistically independent, which of course not the case. even a study that tries to confirm a universal based on similarities throughout the entire world are subject to this sort of thinking? (after all, what if turns out that all of the languages throughout the amazon, for example, are actually related to indo-european languages at a time depth of 20,000 years? conversely, what if different language families just within new guinea can be shown to be divided by at least /50,000/ years? such a finding would mean then that there's more value in a cross-linguistic study just of papuan languages, than of "world languages" that only go after some of the more well-known families.)

so,, historical linguistics could potentially be very important. of course, there's still the problem of how far it can be pushed. the recently discovered dene-yeniseian connection that was made in 2008 might be the oldest connection we've found so far, and it makes sense then that it would have only so recently been discovered. the connections people were noticing back in the 1700's were the easy ones, and so they tend to point to some pretty shallow time-depths. edward vajda (the guy who was able to show that na-dene is related to yeniseian) was able to make this connection by looking at the structure of the verb templates in these languages and checking for sound correspondences based on the positions of the morphemes. even then though, he had to first figure out what the proto verbs were like before he knew what to look for. (at least, this is my understanding of his process.) and something he's said is that all of the easy connections have already been snatched up, and that we might have to start getting really creative in our methods. (there are enough highly polysynthetic languages out there though that that might be a lot of really good connections just waiting to pop out for anyone who tries approaching things from this angle.) of course,, i guess we shouldn't expect too much of that to happen before we start coming up with new methods and teaching them., but,,, then we're back at the problem where we started.



Offline pljames

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Re: Keeping Historical Linguistics relevant!
« Reply #5 on: October 21, 2014, 03:13:47 AM »
Absolutely. But most active research in Linguistics these days is about the theory of how languages work and much less about where they came from. There are a number of relevant general questions, of course, but it is problematic when one receives little attention.

More specifically, Historical Linguistics involves theories of sound change and reconstructing older languages. So it isn't just anything about languages in time, but that is of course related too.

Excellent post. Change does not come to those who want change, for I was one of these. When one knows the history of a language, they create  their own style of writing as to what is their understanding of todays way of using language. Tommorrows language might be "Houston or Houseton". Paul