In Defense of an Endangered Species: Historical Romance Linguistics

By Tornatore, Matthew G. C. | Romance Notes, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

In Defense of an Endangered Species: Historical Romance Linguistics


Tornatore, Matthew G. C., Romance Notes


MUCH to my dismay it seems that the concern expressed in the academy for the survival of historical Romance linguistics is a legitimate one (cfr. Greenia, Posner, Klausenburger, Green). This field is no longer thriving as it did some years back and there are few programs in the USA these days that offer a traditional preparation. Many linguistics and Romance literature degrees have reduced the requirements for course work in historical linguistics and concomitantly positions in academe for historical Romance linguistics have declined. Indeed, over the past two decades as Romance philologists and historical Romance linguists have retired, their lines have either been left vacant or converted to theoretical or applied linguistics or, most commonly, to a literature track. It would appear that a similar displacement has occurred in panels allotted at conferences for this once vital discipline. Currently in the United States there are a scant five programs at most offering doctorates in Romance linguistics1 and few takers among graduate students.2 Similarly for Romance philology, which has as its foundational science Romance linguistics: only two universities in the US confer Ph.D.s in Romance philology. (3) There are approximately eight other programs that offer doctorates in Romance languages, most of which appear to include little or no traditional philological training (Peterson's 2003: 544-47; Doughty).

There is irony in the political arena as well. As more and more intellectuals advocate diversity, this same community has nationalistic language tendencies. Take for example the fact that even while the European Economic Community is gaining influence, linguistic exclusivity still prevails within national borders. Years ago many academic journals in our field published articles in various languages and it was supposed that a humanities scholar would have at least a reading knowledge of several major European languages. Now how many journals are there that are multilingual? (4) Only a few, and merely a handful are bilingual. The same goes for scholarly presses. In the US almost all presses publish strictly in English to secure the largest possible market. The same fiscal exigencies seem to be applicable for most other countries, although some may also publish in English as well for the same reasons. One understands, of course, that there are economic pressures, to which even university presses have succumbed (marketability being a greater factor than erudition for publication). This leads us to the larger problem in the university setting, the fact that in the US these bastions of higher learning have in part assumed a business model, dictating at times not only what gets published, but also what gets taught.

Some scholars have pointed to the amount of research yet to be done in historical Romance linguistics as proof that the discipline is alive and will survive (Pellen; Craddock). While underscoring the enticing work that remains is a crucial point, the discipline's well-being, and indeed survival, are not necessarily secured. Simply because a wine-maker still has fruit-laden vines to be harvested, grapes to be pressed and the best wine yet to be bottled does not mean that his demise will be staved off until its completion. Perhaps what would be most efficacious is a reaffirmation of the significance of this enterprise, which, along with all of the Humanities, has come under attack (Regents 1980; Graber 1995; or for a contemporary example cfr. current deliberations at Harvard regarding "restructuring" of its linguistics program). Maybe this field is more susceptible to such assaults since the ability of historical linguistics to interact with the "useful" branches of linguistics (like TSL, language acquisition, etc.) is not always obvious to others. Historical linguistics, while actually more related to these specializations than meets the eye, is perceived by the outsider, including specialists in literature and general linguistics, as esoteric, passe or lexical trivia. …

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