28 July 2006

Scholarship versus clarity

I haven’t written in a while, but it’s because I spend all my time writing other things rather than blogging. This is too bad, since I could really be a prodigious blogger if I tried. Anyway, today’s topic is linguistics (surprise surprise), in particular linguistic writing.

The primary source of information on Tlingit grammar is Jeff Leer’s 1991 magnum opus The Schetic Categories of the Tlingit Verb, his PhD dissertation on the tense-mood-aspect (TMA) system. Since there is so little documentation of Tlingit grammar, Leer was forced to write a great deal about the language outside of his thesis, and as such it forms a fairly useful reference for us Tlingit scholars. This means that we spend quite a bit of time poring over it, like it or not. Unfortunately, “like it” is far less common than “not”.

Leer is an exemplar of the secret tragedy of the discipline, a linguist who can’t write. I’m not judging this solely on his dissertation, even his papers as recent as 2000 are tough to dissect and digest. Leer is unfortunately not alone in the field as there are a remarkable number of extremely bad writers working on studies of language. Take Chomsky. (Please!) His books Government and Binding and The Minimalist Program are really execrable pieces of writing. His logic may be clear, but he clouds it in such a dense academic style that it’s almost impenetrable even to the initiated.

Why are so many linguists such horrible writers? I’ve had experience reading mathematics and computation books which were fantastically well written despite their density, so I know that technical content is not a sufficient explanation. I’ve seen some wonderful writing in linguistics as well, for example Marianne Mithun’s The Languages of Native North America. This book is partly a catalog of interesting linguistic features found in native North American languages, and partly a catalog of language families extant on the continent. That sounds like a pretty dull topic, and in a lot of ways it really is even to someone like me who cares deeply about the subject. Nonetheless, her writing is clear, precise, and lucid, and even page-turning in places.

My suspicion is that most linguists are verbally skillful, but speech competence does not correlate perfectly with writing competence. Since most linguists are good speakers in their native tongues, they find it easy to communicate ideas with one another in person. Since they feel skilled in this form of communication they neglect other forms of communication, perversely the essential skill of writing in particular. It’s only natural for a linguist to not bother practicing nonlinguistic communication systems, but it’s a shameful travesty for one to lack skills in writing.

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