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?

  • 7
    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, 2013 at 20:59

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 4
    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, 2013 at 15:28
  • @jlawler, excellent comment. and due to background knowledge of some researchers, aspects of social and physical science and mathematics is not understandable. Chomsky theory has not changed so much as PO says, in fact, fundamental part of the theory has not been changed, and I think there are continued enrichment of the theory but revision. Nov 10, 2014 at 10:40

Actually, there's no more disagreement among linguists than among experts in other disciplines, if you compare like with like (in as much as this can be quantified). You just have to look at exactly what about language linguists disagree.

A huge body of knowledge about individual languages, families of languages and language in general has been accumulated by linguists over the last two hundred years or so. We can describe the basic structure of any language, we can make good predictions about language acquisition, language learning, language change and language death. Sociolinguistics, dialectology, areal linguistics, comparitive linguistics, etc. have all gathered as much knowledge about language and languages as biology has about the natural world (taking into account the relative sizes of the disciplines and their subjects).

We even have some fairly uncontroversial universals like, all languages have something like nouns, verbs and most likely adjectives. All languages are acquired over a certain period of time. All languages change. All languages can be used to express any human purpose (with some limitations of vocabulary and conceptual apparatus of speakers - e.g. can't speak about computers if you don't have a word for them or if you don't know what they are even if you have a word). We know massive amounts of the different orthographies used to express various languages today and through history.

There's no more disagreement among linguists about many of these things than there's among biologists studying the classification of finches. You can read almost any introduction to linguistics and get most of the key basics covered in a similar way. In fact, you can even read de Saussure or Jespersen (from about 100 years ago) and still get a good sense about what language is about.

Of course, there are huge areas of disagreement but they mostly have to do with how to model these different findings. There are formal and functional approaches to interpreting the data. There's focus on corpus linguistics, etc. But again these differences are no more than those between different ways of looking at quantum theory or the different approaches to taxonomy in biology.

Now, the elephant in the room is Chomsky, who wields completely outsize reputation relative to his actual contribution to the study of language mostly due to his reputation in political circles (btw: most people don't know that he chose linguistics because of the political leanings of his teacher Zelig Harris). That is not to say, that his contribution is not significant. It is just not nearly as revolutionary in retrospect, as the story goes. Sure, it completely transformed the field for about 30 years, but if you look at linguistics in general, you'll find that it's much more like it was in the days of Bloomfield, than in the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately, linguistics seems much more divided as a result because of the Chomskean tradition largely ignored other findings and reduced the scientific nature of linguistics to those that can be captured through rather constrained algorithms.

Therefore, there are many people who call themselves linguists who are unaware of the richness of our knowledge about language. But I don't think as a discipline, linguistics is in trouble. A good example is Pinker's Language Instinct. I completely disagree with the 'instinct' part of the book, but yet, I have no hesitation in recommending it to students as a basic introduction to the study of language. Simply because even with what I believe to be a completely wrong model of language, the underlying knowledge is solid enough that students learn something useful.

I've addressed different aspects of this issue here (about Chomsky), here (about language in general), here (about language knowledge) and here (about models of language).


According to Chomsky(see what Chomsky says in: What is minimalist about the minimalist program?), linguistics is science. Yes, essentially it is, since it is part of biology, and the intelligent part of biology,or part of the psychology. Both biology and psychology are full with controversy, letting lone linguistics, because, say, the phonomenon Both biology and psychology are too complex to be tested today or near future.

the following does not belong to evidence supporting linguistics is part of biology.But the analysis of genome involves heavily formal language theory or natural language theory.A lots of practical models for language are adopted in study of genome.

One function of language is communication, it involves society. But it can be studied in the way by which we study mass behavior and communication, say,by graph theory. So it is mainly relevant to science, relevant to humanity to small extension. For example, Zipf's law is originated from linguistics, and generalized Zipf's law is found to be valid over economics,and physics.

BTW, the mainstream of linguistics would be study by ways of science of nature. But it is a pity that a lot of linguists are trained in way of humanity.


Linguists may do their best to work in a scientific way, but Linguistics is not a science in the sense of "the study and knowledge of the physical world and its behavior that is based on experiments and facts that can be proved, and is organized into a system" (http://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/american/science).

That water freezes at zero degrees Celsius at a certain atmospheric pressure is something that can be verified. The very subject-matter investigated by linguists, language, is not so verifiable. With modern scientific sound analysis devices, phonetics is that branch of linguistics that comes closest to justifying the description of descriptive science - the phonetic symbols are as precisely defined as the International System of Units for scientists, and a claim such as "x per cent of speakers of language M will aspirate plosive a when it begins an utterance, but not aspirate it when it follows consonant b" can be checked repeatedly and confirmed - or rejected.

In the field of syntax, however, the tools of the linguist are vague. The scientist knows what oxygen is, but there is no such thing as a 'noun'. 'Noun' is simply a label for word that shows certain properties and is used in certain ways. Few linguists agree completely on what these properties and ways are. If there is no agreement on terminology, there can be no truly scientific discussion of syntax.

Even the Linguistic Society of America, in its The Science of Linguistics site says that Linguistics is a 'human science' like others such as psychology, neurology, anthropology, and sociology.

  • What Oxygen "is" is by no means clearer than what a noun is. We just know that you can apparently get some kind of substance out of other substances that shows certain properties and can be used in certain ways. The question what a thing "is" is ontological (by definition), and while I hold it to be a valid and sensible question, it isn't a scientific question and science doesn't try to answer it. The exact definition of noun is in most cases either quite clear or irrelevant to the definition. If linguists don't treat linguistics as a science, they are doing it wrong.
    – user9315
    Mar 14, 2015 at 21:17

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