Bad linguistics is bad science. Is it also bad politics?

You might think that the subject that we call linguistics is purely academic—in both senses of the word.

But of course linguistics is also political, as is seen in all the controversies about pronouns, Ebonics, and PC language.

This post, however, is not about any of those. It’s a reflection on some recently published remarks by Grant Barrett, a responsible and respectable public linguist whose podcast, A Way with Words (co-hosted by Martha Barnette) is always entertaining and informative. On that show, which is aimed at a popular audience, Barrett is always kind and supportive, no matter how much ignorance a caller might display. In his blog, however, he is straightforwardly honest, not holding his punches at all. I refer to his recent post, Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar, which begins as follows:

It is quite incredible that Corey Kilgannon would write in the New York Times about Daniel Cassidy’s book How the Irish Invented Slang without talking to historical lexicographers, historical linguists, or experts in Irish Gaelic linguistics. 

They would tell him that Cassidy’s theories are insubstantial, his evidence inconclusive, his conclusions unlikely, his Gaelic atrocious and even factitious, and his scholarship little better than speculation. In short, his book is preposterous.

This is where we say “Now tell us what you really think.” Anyway, read the rest of Barrett’s post, which is illuminating and useful—not because you might care about Irish linguistics (you probably don’t) but because you care about evidence. Etymology is a science in which evidence is important, just as it is in every other science. We can’t have people making things up for political reasons, as we have seen far too often in the last few years in a very different arena. It’s worth pondering the connections here.

Categories: Linguistics