Deep Roots for a Big Linguistics

By August 4, 2012News

Six blind men set out to discover the nature of an elephant

The next seminar of the 2012 series of Applied Linguistics seminars at Macquarie University will be held on Tuesday, August 14:

Deep Roots for a Big Linguistics

When: Tue 14/08, 1:00-2:00pm; Where: W5C 221

Presenter: Professor Bob Hodge, University of Western Sydney

Abstract: This talk is motivated by a sense that linguistics today, in Macquarie, in Australia, in the world, is weaker and less influential than it ought to be because it is too divided. There are too many barriers, internal and external, separating people and groups as well as ideas. As specific instances of these barriers, I include the sometime ill-tempered war between Hallidayans and Systemic-Functional Linguistics and Chomskyans and TG, and disconnects between social and psychological approaches, and between ‘theoretical’ and ‘applied’ linguistics. Against this situation for linguistics I propose the collaborative development of a larger conceptual space in which supposed differences and commonalities can be discussed, explored and experimented with by linguists from different backgrounds and traditions, drawing on what they share as well as their differences.

I begin with a model of disciplinarity from the Buddha, circa 500 BC, his myth of 9 blind sages who tried to describe an elephant from the one part they touched. Buddha’s story needs little modification to be a metaphor for modern disciplinary behaviour, in linguistics as other fields of humanities and sciences. I overlay on Buddha’s model four broad strands of intellectual inquiry relevant to understanding language, social, psychological, biological and linguistic/semiotic, all of which need to be part of the foundations of a Big Linguistics.

I then propose a long history for modern linguistics, in place of the current dominant history which begins in the mid-1950s with Chomsky’s revolution. My history expands the gene pool of ideas in linguistics by going back to Sir William Jones and the tradition known as Comparative Philology, and including the structuralism which grew out of it. I connect this history with the parallel history of ideas in biology.

I focus on three powerful ideas which run throughout this long tradition. One is universalism, most associated with Chomsky and supposedly rejected by Halliday, but present in some form in all major linguists, including Halliday. Another is the emphasis on systems, associated mostly with Halliday but again a theme for all linguists. Finally there is the concept of transformations, definitionally associated with Chomsky but again present in some form in all major linguists, including Halliday.

This version of Big Linguistics is not reductive, removing differences in a homogenizing synthesis. On the contrary, it creates an open dynamic explanatory space in which to better understand important differences and produce genuinely new analyses and solutions. Nor does it remain abstract. The talk will try to illustrate the explanatory power and collaborative potential of Big Linguistics by examining work by current Macquarie linguists, from applied/social and cognitivist strands, to suggest complementary and collaborative lines of analysis and research that could be interesting and productive for everyone.

Bob Hodge is Professor of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. He has many active research interests: in analytic and conceptual toolkits for social and cultural research (critical linguistics, discourse analysis, social semiotics); in major theoretical traditions in humanities and social sciences (Marxism, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism, post-modernism, critical management studies, chaos theory); in radical transdisciplinarity (including science in the mix) and engaged research; and in specific areas of study (globalisation, cyberculture, Australian Studies, Indigenous Studies, Mexico and Latin America, Chinese language and culture, education, popular culture, literature (classical, early modern, contemporary).

Bob recently met with Ingrid and they blogged about their conversation here (Bob, The pardoxes of differences) and here (Ingrid, The promise of interdisciplinarity).

Author Lg_on_the_move

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  • Rosemary Kuwahata

    The myth of the blind sages who tried to describe an elephant from the one part they touched has always intrigued me, not from the disciplinary aspect but from the perspective of people having different perspectives on, or different understandings of the same thing. I like the idea of Big Linguistics in the sense that you have depicted.

  • Donna Butorac

    Thank you for this wonderful posting. I have enjoyed reading both accounts of the discussion you had with Ingrid and am very supportive of the call for a spirit of better inclusiveness among linguists. As you suggest, there is so much to be gained. Reading your text also makes me realise the sense of nervous inferiority that I hold when thinking about how my work on language learning and identity might be viewed by a theoretical linguist. How silly, really.

  • Khan

    Thanks for sharing the abstract. Very exciting and true picture of the field. Wondering if the talk by Professor Bob Hodge will be broadcasted live?

    If the live broadcast is difficult, may I request to make it available in some form after the event.


  • Thanks, Khan! We are working on both options 🙂