Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Historians get Materialistic

I was hoping there would be some big controversy to report about some of the big disciplinary conventions that meet around now, other than MLA -- the American Historical Association, the Linguistic Society of America, etc.

Well, the LSA did get a little media, mainly because of their goofy annual contests for interesting new words. I was pleased to see that "crunk" was nominated, and sad that it lost out to "red state/blue state" as "most likely to succeed." Then again, it's not as if "crunk" is likely to be a word anyone is still using a year from now!

Tim Burke did have some interesting insights on Historians' discipline-wide neglect of Africa at Cliopatria, but it's hardly on the order of "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl." (The scandal of Eve Sedgwick's title never gets old.)

Well, the Boston Globe at least has something to report about Historians: they've got a tendency to be materialistic.

Ouch, bad joke; sorry. But I've been desperate to see some metacommentary on a discipline other than literature for once.


k. said...

I was at the LSA; George Lakoff had an interesting address on Directions in Cognitive Linguistics, which eventually led into his schpiel on framing and politics (whose arguments can be found in "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives" ( and George's later book "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think" (

Also, there was a sort of post-conference workshop on Typology in American Linguistics, which was more like an arranged clash and discussion between the formalists and the functionalists, aimed at discussing why there's such a division in linguistics, and whether it's amendable or not. I suppose it might not be as important to folks outside the field, but I'll at least describe the division as being along the same lines of division as that between Bush- and Kerry-voters this past election. There's a bit of a power struggle; the divide effects who gets hired, who gets published and where, etc, etc. There were even appropriate parallels drawn between the liberals and typologists: that typology is primarily antagonistic/ in opposition to formalism, without a real solid theoretical basis of its own, and the conservatives and the formalists: they seem to dominate, however irrational or even incomprehensible they may seem to the functionalists. (Which was actually the sort of thing George was discussing in his talk.)

There was actually a lot of positive discussion about how typologists/functionalists and formalists could meet in the center with methodological approaches, and how the two sides could benefit each other. There were speakers from both sides of the divide on syntax (Mark Baker and Robert Van Valin, Jr.), the subfield where the divide seems the greatest, and then a speaker from phonology (Larry Hyman), who said, appropriately, "Phonology is not where the battles take place!"

Of course the discussions were led by those willing to compromise, but all in all things are looking very hopeful, and the future looks exciting for linguistics as the two sides remeet. Masha Polinsky commented that there actually looked to be more hope for us linguists than the rest of the country. (Maybe the rest of the country could take a cue?)

12:01 PM  
k. said...

p.s., for more on Lakoff's DToaE and framing, check out M E-L's interpretation on ishbadiddle (

2:05 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for these -- I'm glad to find that something else goes on at the LSA besides debates over the significance of "crunk." Your account of the politics behind the competing factions of linguists makes it seem very much alive.

3:04 PM  

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