Author Topic: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"  (Read 220 times)

Offline Matt Longhorn

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 17
"A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« on: December 02, 2018, 05:00:58 AM »
A question about acquisition of linguistics, specifically: is it possible to progress in linguistics when doing it in your spare time... and how do you know when you know enough linguistics to not be dangerous?
The question is based on my self-study of Greek. When I first completed a first year grammar (yup, had to do it twice as I didn't do any after that for a year or so) I thought I had it cracked. I "read" (aka funbled) my way through the gospel of John with the help of an aid and thought that I was pretty good. I then cracked open some reference grammars and found page after page after page on even just one small construction or sometimes even word.
Of course, I didn't learn from my mistakes and finished the reference grammars and thought I had it cracked and then the real work began... reading books on some of those small areas, from more than one side. Reading my way through the new testament and still finding myself stumped every so often.

So, I now know that I don't know everything, and I know that there are huge amounts more books to read, as well as continuing to immerse myself in the language and now working through linguistics books. The point is, at many times I knew just enough to be stupid out loud. So my question is this... how do you know when you have learned enough to not be dangerous in a subject like linguistics? You can't just pick up a book and see if your reading is progressing like with a foreign language; I would say that you possibly can't even judge just by finding it easier to read text books and journal articles.
Any thoughts? Sorry for the long-winded post

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1795
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #1 on: December 02, 2018, 12:47:44 PM »
You're ready. You just asked the question that shows you are.

At first you learn a bit and think you know a lot, then you learn more and realize you don't know much at all. Then you can approach topics (and especially conclusions) cautiously, and work it out from there. At some point you might become an expert and think you know a lot again, but that's dangerous too.

Sorry I don't have any more specific advice, but we're all trying to figure out how to navigate the diverse and long traditions of research in the field and find our own contributions. One bit of practical advice I would have is to try to stay close to previous research: find a paper, a book, whatever, and think about your contributions as the logical next step from there, rather than a leap to something new and unexplored.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline Matt Longhorn

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 17
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #2 on: December 02, 2018, 05:54:24 AM »
Thanks for the response Daniel.
Some sort of workbook would be a dream, although as you have pointed out on my other post - what flavour would the workbook take!
Re. stay close to previous research, could you clarify?
Re. contributions - I think I will leave that to the big players other than starting to work it into my teaching of first year Greek

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1795
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #3 on: December 02, 2018, 03:07:45 PM »
Quote
Some sort of workbook would be a dream, although as you have pointed out on my other post - what flavour would the workbook take!
There are many textbooks out there (a few intro-to-linguistics textbooks may have accompanying workbooks, although more advanced/specialized textbooks do often include some exercises at the end of chapters, but you might not get an answer key either way).
But you're right that textbooks tend to pick a certain theoretical approach and go with it (as if it is fact), so you'll need to somehow, before deciding to work through it, get a sense of whether it's the right approach for you. There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer to this, although you could look around on university websites to see which books are used where, so that if, for example, you want to follow a Chomskyan approach you'd get the books used at MIT, and so forth. So if you have a favorite linguist you could see what textbook they teach with. At least that's somewhere to start. Note that some areas are more theoretically polarized than others (syntax is the most).

Quote
Re. stay close to previous research, could you clarify?
The easiest way to make a contribution or just come up with ideas on your own, is to find the one-step advance from existing work. If you come up with your own research agenda disconnected from existing research you'll have a much harder time integrating it and also making much progress on your own. For example, for a term paper or thesis, it's much easier to find an existing methodology and apply it to something slightly new, rather than coming up with something all on your own. (I say this as someone who has explored new ideas maybe more than I should have in terms of making more work for myself.)

Another way to approach all of this is to just try to understand what's going on in different approaches. A good starting point is empirical: start with typology for example, and then work your way into theories.
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline panini

  • Linguist
  • ***
  • Posts: 141
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #4 on: December 03, 2018, 11:00:53 AM »
My Doktovater said that in his intro phonology class they read all of phonology the first semester, and started writing theory papers the second semester. I read most of phonology over the first year and a half of student life, then started writing those papers. I tried to teach my first grad students at least a summary of all of phonology over the course of a PhD program, and found that that meant eliminating anything older than 1969 (i.e. SPE and before). Nowadays, you cannot even hope to cover the OT literature on assimilation. The moral of the story is, you have to gain both depth and breadth, and when the field approaches the infinite in both directions, something has to give.

Obviously, reading an intro textbook could be a good idea, if you get the right intro. By analogy, suppose, as a linguist, I wanted to learn some statistics, then I might ask "what's a good intro stats textbook", and my interlocutor would tell me something that is really not useful to me. That's because my interlocutor is a sociologist, and I'm not into that kind of stuff. My interlocutor should have pointed me to a textbook that makes sense in terms of my interests (e.g. "do these vowels have the same formant values?"). Why do you want to know anything about linguistics? Comparative Indo-European was the hook for me; some people approach it from the perspective of philosophy and logic, etc. To the extent that you can articulate what aspect of language and linguistics interests you, some textbooks might be better than others.

Suppose for instance that you are fascinated by the idea that there are simple mental rules that apply to abstract stored representations and result in actual pronunciations; and if you combine A+B you may get a different result than if you combine A+D or Z+A. You might also be supremely bored by the fact that in such-and-such culture, it is considered to be a sign of refinement to speak with a high-pitched voice. That would tell you that you're interested in phonology, and not sociolinguistics. Reading a sociolinguistics-heavy textbook would be counterproductive.

In the old days, self-study of linguistics could sometimes yield a good output (there was a Transylvanian linguist who did it in the 60's, forgot his name), and more often yields craziness. The problem is that in the old days, there was little or no way to externally (in)validate your craziness. Nowadays, however, the interwebs might be useful. Let's say you decide that you want to discover the system of phonological rules for Moroccan Arabic. You make up some crazy idea like "I'm gonna listen to Youtube videos that mention Morocco". You could try assailing your own theory to see why that would be ill-spent effort, and if you come up with nothing bad, you could Ask The Internet. Caution: there are a lot of nuts out there on the internet. But I imagine Daniel would be happy to explain why that would not be the best plan  ;) in case you had such a thought.

I am suggesting that you start with some fact about the real world, which is your primary interest, and your secondary interest is "how does one account for that fact". Political theories of language sociology have virtually nothing to say about Moroccan Arabic phonology, but potentially a lot to say about the use of Arabic in Morocco.

Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1795
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #5 on: December 03, 2018, 11:13:54 AM »
Following panini's reply, I think I should respond to this as well:
Quote
Re. contributions - I think I will leave that to the big players other than starting to work it into my teaching of first year Greek
The important question then is what you want-- what are your goals in studying linguistics? Panini's points are helpful there. As for a "contribution", I just meant whatever you plan to do-- even if that's just feeling like you understand the material (what material?). Even if you don't plan to publish, most people who study something want to understand it well enough to synthesize and probably repeat ideas, maybe even consider some of their own. So picking the right textbook (etc.) will depend on what you plan to understand, etc. You don't need to be committed to writing a book though!

--

Amusingly, picking up on something panini said, I wonder if browsing the internet for ridiculous linguistics "theories" (nonsense) would be a good way to start in a way: learning by example of what not to do. There are a few examples on this forum, but hundreds elsewhere if you look for them. I'm not sure that would really be productive, but maybe it would be entertaining along the way. The biggest error, I think, is in (half?) understanding a theory/method/etc., and then misapplying it to the wrong questions by assuming that it's either "all or none" in the analysis, not considering alternatives, as a logical fallacy. Watch out for that, among other things. And I also think that often starts when someone doesn't ever get to the question you asked here, Matt, and instead thinks they're ready to solve everything with a few ideas from an intro textbook (or just Wikipedia).
(There's also at least one book called "Strange Linguistics" that covers some of the bizarre theories that have been proposed over the years. Lots of amusing anecdotes in it, but actually quite long and a little dry at times, oddly technical, not just light reading, but still might be interesting.)
« Last Edit: December 03, 2018, 11:19:02 AM by Daniel »
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.

Offline Matt Longhorn

  • Jr. Linguist
  • **
  • Posts: 17
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #6 on: December 03, 2018, 05:23:41 AM »
Quote
The important question then is what you want-- what are your goals in studying linguistics?
I had originally taken up an interest in linguistics as I want to be able to better understand the new testament in its original language. That might sound kind of hokey to many people, but a lot of claims are made about what the Greek says and there isn't always much basis for the assertions. Linguistic analyses of the NT are now a lot more common, but I wanted to get a better theoretical basis for understanding the text and analysing claims made about it.
Honestly though, now I seem to have caught the bug and find it fascinating in its own right.


Offline Daniel

  • Administrator
  • Experienced Linguist
  • *****
  • Posts: 1795
  • Country: us
    • English
Re: "A little Greek (and linguistics?) is a dangerous thing"
« Reply #7 on: December 03, 2018, 12:34:06 PM »
From that, I'd think that comparative/historical linguistics would be most interesting for you-- either a typological approach like I suggested above, or historical/Indo-European as panini suggested (or both).
Welcome to Linguist Forum! If you have any questions, please ask.