People Hate Linguistics

And the depth of their hatred is amazing. And this seems to be related to their growing dislike of science itself. However, let me begin with Linguistics.

I sent a friend of mine a link to my posting The Apparent and the Real in Language. She didn’t like it, and nothing I could say, in the course of several email exchanges would make her like it. I had to ask myself: “What is she upset about? What is bothering her?”

She keeps insisting that human language is instinctual, just as it is for the other animals, the social insects in particular. And any attempt to analyze it is irrelevant and a waste of time. A science trap, she says. This is her surface argument, which is not substantial. Scientists has deciphered the dance of bees to indicate the distance and direction to new sources of nectar. I doubt if she has any objections to that.

As her friend, I am left asking myself the question “What are her deeper objections?” Fortunately, I don’t have to rely on guesswork here: I can recall my own initial reactions to the subject, when I started watching the course – something about it was deeply disturbing, and it took a conscious effort to continue the course. Human language is a very emotional subject, because it is such an important part of what makes us human.

I suspect people’s resistance to linguistics is similar to their resistance to evolution at one time. I can remember my mother saying with great vehemence “I’m not an animal!” Why people have such a strong reaction to linguistics is not clear, perhaps it should be studied too.

Classical educations always included serious training in the use of language: how to speak and how to use speech to influence others. In contemporary education, it is merely an elective at the college level. To update this training, students would have to be taught how to write and perform television commercials – and of course political speeches. And, in my opinion, linguistics should be taught at the elementary level. Understanding our language is a necessary part of understanding ourselves.

Here, I think, is the nub of the problem: people are no longer encouraged to understand themselves. Quit the opposite: they are forbidden to do so, because knowledge is power. If they understood their society they would not like it – and would want to change it. My friend is an instinctive part of that power structure, who does not want people to have the power of their language. She is not unusual, she is like the vast majority of Americans – and she doesn’t want things changed.

I think the career of Noam Chomsky illustrates this. He is undoubtedly the the most important linguist of the 20th Century. But he is also a flaming social activist. Linguists keep apologizing for his activist behavior, and claim he is two different people. He is clearly one person, just as Newton the physicist was also the religious zealot. To understand the whole man – in the case of Newtonian physics or Chomsky’s syntax – you have to put them together.

Chomsky’s understanding of human language made him understand much else about human nature. Our language is us – and we don’t want to know what that is. That would be too disturbing.


A historic process in which resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason


Noam Chomsky is not everybody’s hero. There are plenty who despise him – because he is too liberal – but probably because he is too honest – something we are no longer interested in – but don’t want to admit.

This is a long article, really more than I have time for. But I used the quote from the German historian Fritz Stern, referring to Nazi era, as the heading for this posting.