Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Farewell to Linguistics?

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Farewell to Linguistics?

Article excerpt

"The End of Linguistics by Mark Halpern, in The American Scholar (Winter 2001), 1785 Massachusetts Aye, N. W., 4th fl., Washington, D.C. 20036.

In today's wars over English usage, strict constructionists battle a growing corps of linguistic freethinkers, who take an "anything goes" approach to language. After all, these anti-authority folk say, language is a living, growing thing. Why fetter it with artificial rules and regulations?

Rubbish, says Halpern. "Language is not living, not growing, and not a thing; it is a vast system of social habits and conventions, inherited from our forebears, and showing every sign of being an artifact rather than an organic growth." It changes--but it does so "when we [emphasis added] change it, and the metaphor that makes it autonomous only obscures our real task, which is to consider just how and why we change it."

What has given that metaphor of language as a natural and autonomous creature such influence? In large part, Halpern believes, the culprit is the failed science of linguistics. The modern discipline began with much fanfare in the 18th century. Sir William Jones's recognition in 1786 of the relationships among Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit led to the idea of an Indo-European family of languages. And linguistic scholars' subsequent efforts to identify other such relationships and families were so successful that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, linguistics seemed well on its way to becoming "a science--a discipline dedicated to elucidating the laws that govern an order of nature. …

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