Is linguistics a science?

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What area does linguistics primarily belong to in your opinion?

Science (general)
20
50%
Art/humanity (classics, literature etc.)
2
5%
Social science (sociology, anthropology etc.)
15
38%
Formal science (computer science, math etc.)
3
8%
Engineering is the only real science. Women are just bad at math
0
No votes
 
Total votes: 40

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Is linguistics a science?

Postby mōdgethanc » 2016-07-14, 14:37

This is partly inspired by a conversation I had with vijayjohn: do you think linguistics should be called an art or a science? Traditionally it seems like it's considered a humanity (stemming as it does from philology) but it could also be considered a social science (since it studies humans), and some areas could be considered part of formal science (the area of study that looks at subjects like mathematics, logic and theoretical computer science) or even natural science (like biology). My introductory linguistics professor called it both a science and humanity. Since nobody seems to agree on how to classify linguistics as a subject, who better to ask than a bunch of linguistics nerds?

It's worth pointing out here that a lot of people in the natural or "hard" sciences and related subjects like engineering look down on wimpy "soft" social sciences and don't consider them to be real science (and in some sub-areas of these disciplines I think they would be right) but for the sake of argument let's assume that social sciences are science, not arts.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby vijayjohn » 2016-07-14, 14:49

Oh boy, I don't know what my answer for this is, either! :lol:

EDIT: I'm tempted to go with "social science," but maybe that's because I'm not entirely sure what that term means, or what implications it would have for linguistics. :hmm: I kind of sympathize with the view that "science" normally refers to the hard sciences, but that's not to say that nothing else is a science, either...idk.
Last edited by vijayjohn on 2016-07-14, 14:53, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby mōdgethanc » 2016-07-14, 14:53

vijayjohn wrote:Oh boy, I don't know what my answer for this is, either! :lol:
Isn't it just baffling shit? I'm probably going to do with social science overall, even though there is enough formal science (if you stick to things like syntax) that it practically looks like computer science sometimes. Or, dare I say ... computational linguistics.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby vijayjohn » 2016-07-14, 14:56

mōdgethanc wrote:Isn't it just baffling shit?

Yeah. Labels kind of are in general.
I'm probably going to do with social science overall, even though there is enough formal science (if you stick to things like syntax) that it practically looks like computer science sometimes. Or, dare I say ... computational linguistics.

Eh, syntax is way messier than it looks at first glance. I mean, most of the prominent approaches to it may look like computer science (and have a lot to do with it), but that's not necessarily an accurate assessment of how we process it in our brains IRL at all. It's just a convenient model that comp. sci. people (and computational linguists) like. :P

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby mōdgethanc » 2016-07-14, 15:26

vijayjohn wrote:Eh, syntax is way messier than it looks at first glance. I mean, most of the prominent approaches to it may look like computer science (and have a lot to do with it), but that's not necessarily an accurate assessment of how we process it in our brains IRL at all. It's just a convenient model that comp. sci. people (and computational linguists) like. :P
FUCK computational linguistics.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby IpseDixit » 2016-07-14, 16:23

Disclaimer: my knowledge of linguistics is quite limited (only recently have I begun studying it as an amateur in my free time).

My impression is that some fields of linguistics can be considered a formal science, e.g: phonology, morphology, syntax, maybe semantics and pragmatics as well but I know nothing about those two so I can't be sure about that; I wouldn't say those are as rigorous as other formal sciences but nonetheless they're still worthy of the title IMO.

Things get more complicated when we consider all those interdisciplinary subjects like cognitive linguistics, neuro-linguistics, forensic linguistics and so forth, and because of that I don't think we can call linguistics as a whole a formal science. However defining it as a social science is also quite unsatisfactory, I mean, sure, there's a social dimension to the discipline (especially in the field of sociolinguistics), but a lot of branches have nothing to do with society, like the ones aforementioned.

And finally, considering linguistics a humanity seems nonsensical to me honestly, because linguists do use the scientific method.

So I simply selected "science (general)".
Last edited by IpseDixit on 2016-07-14, 16:33, edited 3 times in total.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby linguoboy » 2016-07-14, 16:24

One of my linguistic professors called it "The most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences."

Later I heard that bon mot is also applied to anthropology/sociology.
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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby ZON » 2016-07-14, 18:15

Social science of course.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby razlem » 2016-07-14, 18:46

If you consider "science" to be distinguished by it's lack of the subjective human element, then yeah Linguistics is not a science. But in terms of using the scientific method, it's just as complex a science as any other.
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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby vijayjohn » 2016-07-14, 20:30

You know, I honestly still don't get what exactly the heck the scientific method is. I swear, I've seen at least three very different definitions for what it is. The definition that I remember from high school goes roughly like this:

Step One: Formulate a problem, question, or purpose.
Step Two: Gather data regarding said problem/question/purpose.
Step Three: Make a hypothesis regarding the answer.
Step Four: Conduct a controlled experiment to test the hypothesis.
Step Five: Record and analyze the results.
Step Six: Form a conclusion.
Step Seven: Repeat from the beginning.

A second definition is what you have in IpseDixit's link.

A third definition is this one from Andrew Carnie's Syntax: A Generative Introduction (in case it wasn't obvious, he's a syntactician. I've used his exact words for each of the first three steps):

Step One: Gather and observe data.
Step Two: Make generalizations.
Step Three: Develop hypotheses.
Step Four: Repeat from the beginning.

So which of them is right? Are they all right? Are none of them right? And what implications does that have for linguistics or, like, anything else?

I also wonder how accurate it is to say linguistics uses the scientific method, especially compared to other sciences. There are people in some branches who do conduct controlled experiments (or maybe they aren't really controlled?? I think I might've had doubts about that before, but I forget. I can think of phoneticians and semanticists off the top of my head, for example, who've done this. I can also think of documentary linguists who've done this, although I see that much less often) but not in others. In practice, these experiments are pretty much never repeated (even though they're supposed to be replicable anyway), although that seems to be an issue with other sciences, too. But also, is that really true of all branches of linguistics, when taken in isolation, and is that comparable to other sciences as well? Documentary linguists mostly just elicit, collect, and report on data. Historical linguists analyze data from different points in time and hypothesize about it or formulate conclusions from it. Syntacticians work with their favorite model of syntax, try to find problems with it, and then suggest ways of resolving them (and occasionally conduct experiments)...

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby linguoboy » 2016-07-14, 21:11

vijayjohn wrote:Documentary linguists mostly just elicit, collect, and report on data.

Isn't that like 90+% of any established science, though? How many meteorologists or geologists are really making and testing new hypotheses as opposed to just collecting and reporting data which may or may not be useful for scientific research down the line?
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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby vijayjohn » 2016-07-14, 21:19

linguoboy wrote:
vijayjohn wrote:Documentary linguists mostly just elicit, collect, and report on data.

Isn't that like 90+% of any established science, though? How many meteorologists or geologists are really making and testing new hypotheses as opposed to just collecting and reporting data which may or may not be useful for scientific research down the line?

Idk, you tell me! But if all that is true, then that suggests it's comparable to meteorology or geology at least.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby md0 » 2016-07-14, 21:38

It's a very specialised (and very immature) field of neurology, if you ask me.
So yes.

Also
Image

Plus, recently I started thinking about different levels of analysis as a legitimate thing. I was often getting disinterested in discussions on sociolinguistics because I began finding the neuroling aspect far more interesting. But then I realised socioling is ok as well. They are doing their thing, in the same way xkcd teases in the comic. It's all math deep down, and it's all politics on top.
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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby mōdgethanc » 2016-07-15, 1:24

md0 wrote:It's a very specialised (and very immature) field of neurology, if you ask me.
That doesn't make much sense to me. Some fields of it are closely related to neuroscience (which isn't the same thing as neurology - that's a medical specialty) but others are only related to it in the sense that biology is related to math. Going back to that xkcd comic (which I like a lot and frequently show to others), all sciences are related to each other, but at each level you find phenomena which can theoretically but shouldn't be reduced to the ones below it. I don't see what's productive about trying to reduce sociolinguistics to brain function (unless that's the specific topic you want to study).
vijayjohn wrote:You know, I honestly still don't get what exactly the heck the scientific method is. I swear, I've seen at least three very different definitions for what it is.
You will see a lot of variations on it, but the core of it is simple: observe > hypothesize > predict > test > analyze. You see something, you come up with an idea about how it works, you come up with a plan for testing it and predict what you might find, then you run the test and see how the results compare to your prediction. Doesn't linguistics do this at least some of the time?
linguoboy wrote:Isn't that like 90+% of any established science, though? How many meteorologists or geologists are really making and testing new hypotheses as opposed to just collecting and reporting data which may or may not be useful for scientific research down the line?
Which is something a lot of people forget, especially when "hard science" people get into the aforementioned dick-waving. You can't do an experiment without first knowing something about what you're doing an experiment on. Without taxonomy and periodicity, biology and chemistry wouldn't be very coherent fields.
razlem wrote:If you consider "science" to be distinguished by it's lack of the subjective human element, then yeah Linguistics is not a science. But in terms of using the scientific method, it's just as complex a science as any other.
According to that definition, there are only like five fields that can be called science. I don't see any reason why humans can't be studied in an objective way (whence my disclaimer about how I think social sciences are real sciences) so my definition of science is based on method, not subject.
linguoboy wrote:One of my linguistic professors called it "The most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences."

Later I heard that bon mot is also applied to anthropology/sociology.
That's exactly what mine said!

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby vijayjohn » 2016-07-15, 2:00

mōdgethanc wrote:
vijayjohn wrote:You know, I honestly still don't get what exactly the heck the scientific method is. I swear, I've seen at least three very different definitions for what it is.
You will see a lot of variations on it, but the core of it is simple: observe > hypothesize > predict > test > analyze. You see something, you come up with an idea about how it works, you come up with a plan for testing it and predict what you might find, then you run the test and see how the results compare to your prediction. Doesn't linguistics do this at least some of the time?

Yes. :D

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby mōdgethanc » 2016-07-15, 4:36

It always struck me how similar linguistics is to biology in some ways. Both involve a kind of genetics, including evolution, speciation, mutation, etc. (It might be a stretch to get more specific though, eg. saying a synonym is like an allele, or say saying an allophone is like a single-nucleotide polymorphism.) It also always struck me how much phonemes are like chemical elements, complete with "isotopes". Why should it matter that language is produced by humans? Humans are part of nature, aren't we? I think the arbitrary divide between the natural and social sciences is pointless sometimes and even harmful.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby vijayjohn » 2016-07-15, 5:01

I never really saw the connection between linguistics and science, but I think in my case, that's really just because unfortunately, the word "science" carries a lot of weird (and of course undeserved) emotional baggage in my life. "Science" for me is all this shit I could never seem to do when I was younger - math, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, genetics, whatever - that my parents kept trying to encourage me to get into. Languages were another matter entirely (and I could easily see the connection between them and linguistics; between linguistics and science, I was of course much less certain).

I might have mentioned this somewhere before, but the reason why I got into languages so much in the first place was because it was the one thing that I could do where no one could tell me everything I was doing wrong as I was trying to learn it. Nothing else was like this. If I was trying to learn addition, oh I was totally going about it the wrong way because I should do this, not that (as of course my beloved dad, the mathematician, knew). If I was trying to learn biology, same thing. If I was trying to learn chemistry, same thing. If I was trying to learn anything (even sports, even playing on swings!), it was like that, except with languages. My parents only really speak two languages anyway, so of course they couldn't know if I was going about learning something like French the right way, and so learning languages was the only thing where they didn't try to steer me in what they thought was the right direction. And because they finally left me the fuck alone, I got to learn it however I wanted, and it basically spiraled from there.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby mōdgethanc » 2016-07-15, 5:34

vijayjohn wrote:I never really saw the connection between linguistics and science, but I think in my case, that's really just because unfortunately, the word "science" carries a lot of weird (and of course undeserved) emotional baggage in my life. "Science" for me is all this shit I could never seem to do when I was younger - math, biology, chemistry, physics, medicine, genetics, whatever - that my parents kept trying to encourage me to get into. Languages were another matter entirely (and I could easily see the connection between them and linguistics; between linguistics and science, I was of course much less certain).

I might have mentioned this somewhere before, but the reason why I got into languages so much in the first place was because it was the one thing that I could do where no one could tell me everything I was doing wrong as I was trying to learn it. Nothing else was like this. If I was trying to learn addition, oh I was totally going about it the wrong way because I should do this, not that (as of course my beloved dad, the mathematician, knew). If I was trying to learn biology, same thing. If I was trying to learn chemistry, same thing. If I was trying to learn anything (even sports, even playing on swings!), it was like that, except with languages. My parents only really speak two languages anyway, so of course they couldn't know if I was going about learning something like French the right way, and so learning languages was the only thing where they didn't try to steer me in what they thought was the right direction. And because they finally left me the fuck alone, I got to learn it however I wanted, and it basically spiraled from there.
That's a terrible way to try to get a child to succeed at something. (But of course, the evidence for that is based on a wimp science, psychology.) You're yet another victim of scientism, the belief that hard sciences are better than everything else.
vijayjohn wrote:EDIT: I'm tempted to go with "social science," but maybe that's because I'm not entirely sure what that term means, or what implications it would have for linguistics. :hmm: I kind of sympathize with the view that "science" normally refers to the hard sciences, but that's not to say that nothing else is a science, either...idk.
Science, broadly speaking, is any field that tries to study things in an objective way. Humanities are fields that are by definition subjective, and based on opinion (which is not to say they aren't rigorous; philosophy is a good example of a field that's highly rigorous and logical while also being highly subjective). Science tries to explain what something is and how it works, and humanities try to explain what it means. That's basically how I would describe it.

Social sciences are just fields that study society in a scientific way. Depending on how you define it, you could limit this to only the study of whole societies (in which case only anthropology, sociology and economics count) or broaden it to anything that studies human beings (in which case psychology and even human biology count).

I already mentioned I don't like the usage of "science" to refer to only natural sciences, but you do see this usage a lot, which leads to a weird dichotomy where the former are just called "science" and social sciences aren't, which has the implication that they're less legitimate fields of study, and I could have started a whole thread on that topic but it would lead to too much flamebait so let's just stick to linguistics for now.

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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby md0 » 2016-07-15, 7:17

mōdgethanc wrote:That doesn't make much sense to me. Some fields of it are closely related to neuroscience (which isn't the same thing as neurology - that's a medical specialty) but others are only related to it in the sense that biology is related to math. Going back to that xkcd comic (which I like a lot and frequently show to others), all sciences are related to each other, but at each level you find phenomena which can theoretically but shouldn't be reduced to the ones below it. I don't see what's productive about trying to reduce sociolinguistics to brain function (unless that's the specific topic you want to study).


There were even guys who spend years tracking the neural implementation of consonants (phonetics and acoustics). That's sort of my point. A lot of things are under the domain on neurology (basically anything that has humans perceiving or thinking), but there's varying degrees of usefulness in analysing everything at that level. So I think we actually agree.
I do think that sociolinguistics are, inevitably, explained by stuff that happens in individual brains, but I finally accepted that we do not the sociolinguists and their theoretical tools, otherwise we would either be able say nothing about sociolinguistics because it requires nearly-impossible brain imaging resolution to find anything useful, or we would stick to computational representations.
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Re: Is linguistics a science?

Postby razlem » 2016-07-15, 8:19

Well "science" is such a nebulous term in itself, and is mainly used classificationally for funding or award purposes. If something is a "science" in terms of money, it's something naturally objective like math or physics.

I've been to conferences and seen linguists who will sit and talk about how to convince boards that it's a "science", because "sciences" get more funding. They'll come up with some abstract theory in syntax to present, probably in conjunction with computational applications, and it's kind of ridiculous.

I almost covered this in my conlang documentary, one of the interviewers was super passionate about linguistics NOT being a "science", needing the associated culture and human elements to be able to see the whole picture (and I tend to agree). At the core, we are trying to figure out how language works, sometimes with a solid scientific method, other times by recording the subjective. It is a "science" insofar as it is a search for truth and knowledge.
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