If you are not a linguist...

A few months ago, a paper came out in PNAS (Dodds et al 2015) that triggered blogger Joe McVeigh to write a post with the title "If you’re not a linguist, don’t do linguistic research". I’d like to take the opportunity here to discuss this attitude.

(In light of full disclosure, I am an originally conventionally trained linguist but started using less conventional phylogenetic methods during my PhD, and now work in an interdisciplinary lab together with biologists and computer scientists. My 2014 dissertation even featured on this blog before!)

This post is not about the PNAS study, and it should be noted that Joe McVeigh did write a later post with a somewhat apologetic title (“If you’re not a linguist, big deal! (We have cooties and are into weird stuff anyways)”). However, I think that this general sentiment is quite alive among linguists, and has been for a while. An earlier example of this sentiment can be found in archeologist Colin Renfrew's 2000 paper "At the Edge of Knowability: Towards a Prehistory of Languages", where he cites two linguists who feel it is necessary to point out Renfrew's 'lacking erudition' in linguistics. I take issue with the idea that "non-linguists shouldn't do linguistics", because I believe this sentiment is harmful and damaging, to others and ourselves, as well as the field as a whole. Hear me out.

My conviction is that this sentiment is based on (at first sight understandable) frustration: "I can't believe the authors got away with publishing study X, I know that assumptions and results in X are wrong, people will now believe Y, look at what the Washington Post wrote about Y... I really wish that people who don't know much about Z would not study Z."

This frustration seems to derive from two main issues within linguistics:

1. knowledge obtained in linguistics is not spread sufficiently to other research fields,
    1a. which leads to frustration if non-linguists don't engage with what linguists know;
2. misrepresentation of linguistic findings in general media.

The first issue is a very important problem. Peter Hagoort wrote in a recent post called "Linguistics quo vadis? An outsider perspective" about the effect of wars between different linguistic schools on the dissemination of linguistic knowledge. (See also this post about grand challenges in linguistics.) Hagoort writes: "The huge walls around the different linguistic schools have prevented the creation of a common body of knowledge that the outside world can recognize as the shared space of problems and insights of the field of linguistics as a whole." This also leads to students of the discipline becoming frustrated or discouraged, as we have written about before here.

This is a problem that linguists need to tackle, because it severely restricts the impact that our research has on both other research disciplines and society. It has been argued before that there is a tendency for the social/human sciences (archaeology, linguistics, psychology, history etc) to have more different (and perhaps also warring) schools of thought compared to the natural sciences - that those who study the natural world have a greater sense of “building the same tower” whereas social scientists are more likely to build several, more diverse and perhaps less tall towers (less encompassing, more specialised). There might be something to this, and there might also be something to the fact that the less positivist your research is capable of being the harder it is to be building the same tower - there is just too much interpretation involved. Now, one can also argue that several towers is better, there is more critical thinking and diversity, perhaps it is for the best that social/human sciences and natural sciences differ in this way.

That being said, linguistics is a discipline that (for the most part) treasures positivism and concrete empirical evidence and that has made great strides in the last century to move away from subjective interpretation and declare what it is that most of the scholars of the field can agree on as common ground.

This difference between the different fields of research also has another, often less discussed implication: where are citations required? In linguistics, because there are many different schools of thought, many towers and a lot of differences between them - it is necessary to cite more often than it is in the natural sciences. This means that when non-linguists write linguistics articles and do not cite appropriately, do not pay the appropriate tribute to previous work, this gives a very rude and uneducated impression to the linguist reader.

I recently met an astronomer in Berlin who was educated in India and had absolutely no idea what linguistics is about (whereas I think I do have at least some idea of what astronomy is about). I wasn't really surprised nor offended, so I do realise that this problem is real. Part of the problem is that in several places around the world there is no or only very limited formal education on language (except language education, obviously) in primary and secondary education, whereas there is at least a little bit on astronomy. At least that is true for the Netherlands where I grew up, in other countries there is a place for linguistics in secondary education (Russia, Sweden).  

But even disregarding formal education, it seems to be true that engaging with linguistics is 'easier' for non-linguists than engaging with astronomy is for non-astronomers, and maybe this is the case for all humanities disciplines. This is true both for non-academics and academics, we’re all humans and have some basic understanding of that experience. This also has the result that often a linguist’s expertise is not taken seriously, because many people feel that because they speak a language they understand it sufficiently to argue at an equal level with a researcher. (This is a recurring event at dinner parties for many linguists, and might be contributing to a certain amount of grumpiness when general society engages with linguistics scientifically.)

The fact that much knowledge in linguistics might be more accessible is especially relevant to those non-linguists with a background in mathematics, physics, computer science or statistics. They often have a better understanding of some of the new and powerful tools of positivist research, and given enough data can often see opportunities for contributions linguists haven't already made themselves. This phenomenon, albeit frustrating for linguists, is not going to go away in the current age when more and more linguistic datasets are becoming more easily available. The reaction from our research community should not be to shun these contributions and call for a cease of all non-linguists contributions to the field, but rather to work together, review and collaborate to improve our understanding. After all, we are all scientists and if somebody publishes a paper based on bad research there are ways of handling it. We’re among other scientists that know that no paper is the last word on a topic. It is in this process - the reviewing and evaluating of papers published outside of our “traditional venues”, such as Science, Nature, PNAS, and PLOS One - that we need to become more vocal.

Another very important point is that we should train our junior linguists more in the new and powerful methods: maths, statistics and computer science should be mandatory in a linguistics programme. The natural scientists do not have dibs on positivistic research, these methods are not restricted to certain fields only.

Back to the issue of communicating what is known in linguistics to other scientific disciplines (and the public and media as well). The limited unified body of knowledge regarding linguistics available to non-linguists is also at least part of the reason why non-linguists sometimes engage with 'parts' of language (such as written corpora in the PNAS study) and take these to be 'all' of language; or claim to say something about 'all' of language on the basis of just one or a few languages - two of the frustrations identified by Joe McVeigh in his blog post. This is wrong and bad, and it should not be tolerated in peer-reviewed publications. It is just bad science, period, and other non-linguist scientists will also realise this - if we can bring across to them there is more to the science of language than (in the case of the PNAS study) written corpora of a limited set of big languages.

An example of linguists being very negative to non-linguists engaging with linguistic research comes from the opposition of traditional historical linguists to recent applications of phylogenetic methods taken from evolutionary biology, mostly headed by biologists (but in many cases also in collaboration with linguists or headed by linguists). This matter is very dear to my heart as it is the field that I am active in. Traditional historical linguists object to the use of data, or conceptual models, that don't build on what they already know. However, it is the responsibility of linguists to communicate the reliable datasets and conceptual models that they have developed, not just to linguistic colleagues but to academics outside linguistics. The solution is not to shun, but to engage in more cross-disciplinary collaborations.

That being said, there is also something to be said for non-linguist publishing linguistics papers not doing their homework properly. It is not only upon us linguistics to spread knowledge and educate the public and other researchers - they also need to seek the knowledge and read the previous literature. The bar needs to be raised for what is admissible as linguistics papers. This is why more linguists need to engage with these publications and why journals like Science & Nature need more linguists as editors and reviewers.

The second issue, misrepresentations of linguistics in general media, is an equally important problem. Many linguists have objected to the fact that papers like Dodds et al (2015) have titles that make 'big claims', and because they appear in prestigious journals, they get picked up by the media who make these claims even bigger. The use of these kind of titles is due in part to a difference in research traditions - many non-linguistic studies have titles which state a very definite result, such as "Genetic assignment of large seizures of elephant ivory reveals Africa’s major poaching hotspots" in the 3 July issue of Science, very similar to the type of statement evident in the title of Dodds et al (2015), "Human language reveals a universal positivity bias". Linguistic paper titles often are far less definite and claim oriented. It is not entirely clear who should change here, but it is important to recognise that scientists are humans and different disciplines have different traditions in writing and presenting findings.

That these 'big claims' appear in the first place and subsequently get ripped out of context by media outlets annoys linguists. And this is only natural, we understand where these studies fall short and we don’t see that criticism present. We understand both the power and the intricacies of language, we understand that big claims regarding linguistic result will only further warp misconceptions that non-linguists and non-academics have about language. We also understand that it is not the big claims, but rather the intricacies of studies and their details are often more interesting than the big claims - or at least we need to know all the details before making up our mind about the big claims.

But in the end, misrepresentation of linguistic results in the general media is a consequence of the first problem, i.e. the field's communication outwards of what linguistics is about, in this case not to fellow academics but to non-academics. This could be addressed in much the same way as the first issue, i.e. to communicate linguistics results to a much wider general public. The general public is intrigued by language, otherwise these media claims wouldn't be made, so why not engage with them?

Scholars of academic research have three duties: to do research, do educate and to communicate their findings to other scientists and to the general public. Very often this third duty is neglected and not valued - this is a terrible mistake. The reason for this neglect is often lack of funding and support from universities. If we at this blog may be so bold, we’d like to suggest that universities spend less money on glossy brochures and advertisement and more money on getting researchers to visit schools, give public lectures, appear in media etc. Do not only push and say that they should, actually pay for their time to do so.

There is a third, more emotional notion connected to the sentiment "If you’re not a linguist, don’t do linguistic research", that deals with the question: who is the right person for the job? Obviously, linguists think that they are the best persons to do linguistic research - that is what they are trained for and have demonstrated through their careers. But is this always the case? Linguistics is a terrible vast discipline, we’re trying to understand languages from all angles - cognitively and theoretically by models and experiments, empirically by studying natural language production and acquisition, building huge corpora, trying to describe variation in the world's languages, etc. We’re basically inherently cross-disciplinary, our research questions overlap with those of anthropology, biology, computer science, sociology, neurology, cognitive science, psychology, etc.

I am a trained linguist, but that doesn't mean I am always the right person to answer a linguistics question. Currently I am trying to reconstruct noun classes (gender) in Atlantic languages (a sub-branch of the Niger-Congo languages). But, I have no training in African languages. Still, I want to know (more about) how Niger-Congo noun class systems have evolved, and there are only so many experts to collaborate with - their time and expertise is limited as well.

Some linguists seem to think that non-linguists are infringing on territory rightfully occupied by linguists based on some kind of misguided agenda: be it academic ("I need to convince linguists X is true") or otherwise ("I need to publish X papers a year and I found this random dataset so I used it"). Rather than giving in to this sentiment, I choose to believe that non-linguists engaging with linguistics do so from a genuine impetus to contribute an answer to a research question. Maybe that is naive, but I feel that in many cases, non-linguists do have something to contribute. In many cases they are the right people for the job, because they possess skills that are very hard to find among linguists, or because they conceived ideas that linguists haven't come up with, yet.

At least part of the frustration linguists feel at non-linguistic involvement is due to our own lack of communication, both to academics and non-academics, of what linguistics is about. This is detrimental for
  • ourselves (if linguists come across as not making a contribution, why should our work be funded?)
  • non-linguists (who cannot benefit from what we know),
  • the field as a whole (if linguistics doesn't come across as not making a contribution, why should our departments be funded?).

Ignoring or refuting what fellow academics can contribute to linguistics is harmful only for ourselves and the field - we should be benefiting from the skill sets and concepts they can bring to answering the questions we want answered.

We need to be relevant, not only in our own circles, but outside of those as well. Linguistics is a science (or perhaps several) and we need to interact with other scientists that are interested in the same research questions. Science is a part of society, if we refuse to communicate with other academics or the public and share our knowledge we do not deserve funding.

So, if you are a linguist (especially a junior one)...
- why not write to Science, Nature, PNAS, as well as the linguistics journals, and volunteer as a reviewer for linguistic papers submitted to them?
- why not contact a journalist and ask them to write an article about your work, or engage with other outreach activities?
- if you encounter a paper by 'non-linguists' that you take issue with, why not write to the authors with some constructive criticism? Or publish a response?

*Thanks to Hedvig for contributing to this post!*

Dodds, Peter Sheridan, Eric M. Clark, Suma Desu, Morgan R. Frank,  Andrew J. Reagan, Jake Ryland Williams, Lewis Mitchell, Kameron Decker Harris, Isabel M. Kloumann,  James P. Bagrow, Karine Megerdoomian, Matthew T. McMahon, Brian F. Tivnan, and Christopher M. Danforth (2015) Human language reveals a universal positivity bias. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America 112 (8). Pages 2389-2394; published ahead of print February 9, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1411678112 (free PDF here)

Renfrew, Colin (2000) At the Edge of Knowability: Towards a Prehistory of Languages. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:1, 7–34 (free PDF here)


  1. Here is my response -- too long to be posted in its entirety as a comment:

  2. Hi, I had a few thoughts of my own reading this.

    I think you failed to include a related post by McVeigh: http://andreadallover.com/2015/04/12/my-corpus-brings-all-the-boys-to-the-yard/.

    And while I do think you make a valid point: don't discard other disciplines for they may have useful ideas, I also think this should ONLY happen in collaboration with linguists, so as to avoid the trap these quantitative statisticians fell into in their article. I am sincerely stupefied by the title of the first article: to say something about language in general while only using a sample of some 10 (mostly Indo-European) languages, that's just bad research, no matter how much statistics you invoke. And as statisticians, they should have realized this way before calling their article the way they did.

  3. Thanks for your comments Asya and Simazhi. Simazhi, thanks for posting that link, you are right that McVeigh has more posts on this topic. You both comment that non-linguists should work together with linguists, if they are to be involved at all. I would just like to point out that two out of three of the studies listed by Asya as excluding linguists, Dodds et al. (2015) and Bouckaert et al. (2012), actually include a linguist among the authors, and the third study (Chen 2013) has just been overhauled last month by a collaboration between Chen and two linguists (Roberts et al. 2015).

    (This of course leaving aside the question what actually constitutes a 'linguist', see here for some ideas: http://specgram.com/CLXXIII.4/08.slater.real.html )

    I think we can all agree that linguists as well as any other scientists may disagree about what is the correct approach regarding a particular question (see responses to Edge's annual question of 2014, 'What scientific idea is ready for retirement?', especially the contributions by Nick Enfield, John McWorther, and Dan Everett https://edge.org/contributors/what-scientific-idea-is-ready-for-retirement ). So, while I agree with Asya's recommended course of action for non-linguists, I don't believe that the authors of papers such as the three mentioned by Asya haven't followed these recommendations. After all, educating oneself doesn't necessary discourage one to investigate contested topics such as the link between tense marking and saving (Chen 2013). Just taking that last example, there is a well-established tradition in linguistics that investigates the link between language and cognition, and although there are many spurious correlations to be found (Roberts and Winters 2013), this shouldn't stop anybody trying to investigate potential interactions. Both linguists and non-linguists will have different approaches and I stand by my point that we should embrace this diversity rather than actively try to bar outsiders from the discipline (as if we could!).

    Bouckaert et al. (2012), "Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family" (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6097/957.full)

    Chen (2013), "The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets" (https://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/aer.103.2.690)

    Dodds et al. (2015), "Human language reveals a universal positivity bias" (http://www.pnas.org/content/112/8/2389)

    Roberts et al. (2015), "Future Tense and Economic Decisions: Controlling for Cultural Evolution" (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0132145)

    Roberts and Winters (2013), "Linguistic Diversity and Traffic Accidents: Lessons from Statistical Studies of Cultural Traits"


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