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To put it another way, how much is there that all linguists would be willing defend as correct knowledge about linguistics?

I have just finished taking an introductory course in linguistics. One thing that struck me was how at every topic there was always a disclaimer along the lines of "this is just one analysis" or even "orthodoxy has it that ... but it's not clear if anyone believes that". For example, the professor disagreed with the textbook's putting adverbs in the specifier position of verb phrases. This being a question at all depends on the validity of the X-bar theory, which I'm told is a theory of Chomsky's. And Chomsky, I'm told, revises his theories every decade or two, and you sometimes overhear the TAs discussing which version they were taught as undergraduates. And then I read that Chomsky's entire approach is questioned by large swaths of the linguistics community. Therefore it would seem that there isn't any consensus at all, which really makes the entire business rather suspicious.

To what extent am I exaggerating the state of affairs?

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Not much, at least as far as syntax is concerned. There are syntacticians who think Chomsky is an Einstein and hang on his every word, syntacticians who more or less agree with his present stance, syntacticians who agreed with earlier avatars but think he's gone wrong, and syntacticians who think he's nuts. See here, here, and here for some satirical takes on the subject, dating back a long time. –  jlawler Jan 3 '13 at 20:59

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Linguistics belongs to humanities. Unlike exact sciences, linguistic phenomenons often have social nature and therefore can't be measured or applied blindly.

There are laws and tendencies, but they may apply differently in different times, locations, and conditions.

Take an example of Jespersen's cycle: the same language may have different tendencies as per how to build a negation, in different times. Other languages may totally skip this phenomenon (e.g., Slavic). Of course, if you read about Jespersen's cycle, you have to keep in mind that "this is just one analysis" which has a nice fit for certain languages and N/A for others.

There's another thought. Linguistics is a young science. Although the earliest linguistic document, Panini is dated about 500 BCE, linguistics as a science became taught in European universities only in 17th century. Compare to Newton's mechanics that was almost fully discovered (and stays unchanged) since the same time.
So it seems to be normal that some discussions yet haven't been settled till today, and a good scientist should be ready to admit their mistakes and accept another theory, if it is proven better.

Historical linguistics has problems similar to common history: there are many artifacts of written language, but they may be contradictory, e.g. the same document may have several spellings of the same word, and it's hard to figure out what is just a typo, and what is a proper spelling.

The bottom line, maybe the most important.
As per linguistics, courses do not teach you what theory is correct. They teach you to read, to argue, and to think by yourself. To make your own mistakes and to fix them.
Don't stick to a certain theory. Learn as many different views as you can and pick which one sounds better for you. Don't be afraid to change your opinion if you find evidences powerful enough.
Be a scientist.

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There are aspects of the humanities in linguistics, but also aspects of social and physical science, not to mention mathematics. Actually linguistics is Phonetics plus updated versions of the medieval Trivium (logic, grammar, rhetoric). Linguistics doesn't fit nicely into modern educational categories, at least in the U.S. –  jlawler Jan 3 '13 at 15:28

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