28 January 2005
3:30pm, Greenberg Room (460-126)

A series of unfortunate events: the past 150 years of linguistics

Mark Liberman

University of Pennsylvania

About ten years ago, a publisher's representative told me that introductory linguistics courses in the U.S. enroll 50,000 students per year, while introductory psychology courses enroll about 1,500,000, or 30 times more. The current number of Google hits for "linguistics department" is 60,900, while "psychology department" has 1,010,000, or 14 times more. The Linguistic Society of America has about 4,000 members, while the American Psychological Association has more than 150,000 members, or about 38 times more. Comparisons between linguistics and fields like history or chemistry give similar results.

It's easy to accept this state of affairs as natural, but in fact it's bizarre, both historically and logically. Furthermore, it's part of a larger and much more serious problem. Those who are resigned to the fate of our academic discipline should still be disturbed that contemporary intellectuals are taught almost no skills for analyzing the form and content of speech and text, or that reading instruction is so widely based on false or nonsensical ideas that a quarter of all students have difficulties serious enough to interfere with the rest of their education.

To break the grip of familiarity, it may help to view the past 150 years of intellectual history as a poker game. We began with a bigger stake than almost anyone else at the table, and have been dealt a series of very strong hands. However, our field is now a marginal player, in danger of being busted out of the game entirely.

In this talk, I'll review our unfortunate past, and discuss the prospects for a brighter future.