The Linguists: Reprise

October 17, 2009

Wednesday evening I attended a screening of “The Linguists” at Stanford, which was followed by a panel discussion involving Penny Eckert, Jim Fox, Alex Jaker, and myself. There were probably about 50 people there for the screening, which was nice to see, and most of the audience stayed for the subsequent discussion. (If you haven’t seen it yet, you can view it free online here).

The organizer and emcee for the event, Alistair Isaac, began by asking the panel members to give their general impressions of the movie. The tone was set by the first panelist, who was dismayed at what he termed the “driveby linguistics” depicted in the movie. Another panelist wondered aloud if David Harrison and Greg Anderson were actually linguists, and not some reality show adventurers who dabbled in linguistics. The other members of the panel quickly assured him that they were in fact real linguists, and a member of the audience who had worked with David and Greg also assured the audience that they did real language documentation, and that the film was not an accurate representation of their normal methodology.

Quite a lot more criticism of the movie followed, which I will omit here, since much of it was along the lines of my comments in this post. Moving on from there, we had an interesting discussion about the generational locus of language shift, prompted by a question from an audience member regarding a comment David Harrison made in the movie that gave the impression that it was children who were the key players in language shift, since it was they who chose not to speak the minority language spoken by their parents. In the language shift situations familiar to the panelists, however, it is parents’ choices to ensure that their children learn the regionally or nationally dominant language at the expense of the minority language they speak that drives language shift and loss. Nevertheless, I’ve heard observations similar to those of Harrison’s from other linguists, which makes me wonder if there are two distinct but important routes to language shift.

We also had an interesting discussion, spurred by the portion of the film devoted to Callahuaya, regarding to what degree it is reasonable to treat the lexicon of a language as a repository of cultural knowledge, and to what degree the lexicon, and hence the knowledge associated with the notional distinctions made by the lexicon, are practically, if not literally, untranslatable. In When Languages Die, David Harrison argues that specialized lexicons are uniquely well-adapted to expressing the knowledge they encode, and that consequently, language loss entails the loss of cultural knowledge. Harrison’s perspective certainly influenced the film, but my own experience suggests that the loss of cultural knowledge in contexts of language shift has much to do with the perceived or actual utility to the community of the conceptual distinctions encoded by the lexicon. In other words, it seems to me that there are grounds for arguing that in many cases it is the knowledge as such that is not being reproduced, and not that knowledge is a casualty of lexical contraction due to language loss. The important thing to realize, I think, is that language loss normally occurs in contexts of the broad erosion of indigenous lifespheres, and that cultural knowledge and language can each suffer from this erosion independently.

In any event, it was an interesting evening. One thing that I was left wondering, however, given the criticism that ‘the linguists’ leveled at “the Linguists”, is what the broader reaction of linguists has been to the movie. Any insights, dear readers?

4 Responses to “The Linguists: Reprise”

  1. Jangari Says:

    I found it amazing that while the two apparently speak 20 languages between them, Spanish is not one of them.


  2. I’ve appreciated these reviews of the film. You give me a lot to consider, particularly as I like to talk about endangered languages with my anthropology students. They seem to become animated at the topic.

    I had the opportunity to see The Linguists screened at the 2009 Canadian Anthropology Society meetings in Vancouver. David Harrison was in the audience and fielded questions afterward. The one comment of his that struck me was that the much of the film’s presentation – its narrative thread, for example – is that of the filmmaker(s) and not of David Harrison and Greg Anderson. He added that they didn’t have anything to do with the direction or production of the film. I’m not (necessarily) trying to defend them; rather, I wonder if a full discussion of the film’s presentation needs to consider the motivations of others in the production.

    Another question that comes out of this discussion for me is the role of popularizers of academic disciplines like linguistics and anthropology. Some of the comments made after your screening of The Linguists make me think of criticisms I’ve heard leveled at anthropologists like Wade Davis. Davis, Anderson, and Harrison make issues like language and cultural endangerment available to audiences who might not ever consider or encounter such ideas. And, it might be argued that they bring academic topics of real social importance to audiences more effectively than most academics. While I’d hate to be labeled a ‘driveby ethnographer,’ I think could do a better job at making my research available, understandable and engaging – even if it’s only for my students.

    How do you navigate the line between academic scholarship and popularization?

    • Lev Michael Says:

      Thanks for your comments. Please see my responses below…

      >The one comment of his that struck me was that the much of the film’s presentation – its narrative thread, for example – is that of the filmmaker(s) and not of David Harrison and Greg Anderson. He added that they didn’t have anything to do with the direction or production of the film. I’m not (necessarily) trying to defend them; rather, I wonder if a full discussion of the film’s presentation needs to consider the motivations of others in the production.

      Given the way the film turned out, I had assumed that Harrison and Anderson had very little to do with the production, and it’s nice to hear you confirm that. A couple of years ago I had a close call with a journalist who wanted to write some of my work as a Manichean struggle between evil missionaries and enlightened secular linguistic anthropologists (the reality is much more complicated), so I’ve had visceral personal experience of how certain media formats and their creators can exert a powerful force on the ways in which stories are ultimately told.

      >Another question that comes out of this discussion for me is the role of popularizers of academic disciplines like linguistics and anthropology. Some of the comments made after your screening of The Linguists make me think of criticisms I’ve heard leveled at anthropologists like Wade Davis. Davis, Anderson, and Harrison make issues like language and cultural endangerment available to audiences who might not ever consider or encounter such ideas. And, it might be argued that they bring academic topics of real social importance to audiences more effectively than most academics. How do you navigate the line between academic scholarship and popularization?

      This is the real issue behind much of this discussion, isn’t it? I wonder if makes sense to look at popularizations of the hard sciences. Some, to be sure, are awful, but many of them really do a good job of explaining the ideas and issues in the field to an interested lay audience (e.g. Nova, In Search of Schrödingers Cat). For that matter, think about the popularity of Pinker’s pop linguistics books. I think that one of the things that makes works like these successful is that they evince intellectual respect for the subject matter, the audience, and the practitioners of the science in question.


  3. Yes, Pinker is a good example. You’d have to through Jared Diamond into that discussion too. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. -Tad


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