Is Evidence Based Linguistics the Solution? Is Voodoo Linguistics the Problem?

By Alexander Gross

The author's most recent invited paper, presented at Dartmouth during the LACUS Conference, August, 2005.  It summarizes the faults of current linguistics and proposes a new overview for future developments.  This session was chaired and introduced by Professor Sydney Lamb, and I was particularly moved by the tribute he paid in his introduction to the decades I have spent pursuing the intricacies of language in many fields.  Three days after presenting this paper, a follow-up two-hour workshop on these themes also took place.  Its text can be found by clicking


ABSTRACT:  A voluntary ten-question true-or-false self-test* will be distributed,  enabling participants to silently experience for themselves to what extent they may have been practicing either of these two forms of Linguistics.  Of these two terms, "evidence based linguistics" springs from evidence based medicine (EBM), ** a movement that has recently made great strides among health-care professionals to combat many arbitrary clinical procedures, unexamined assumptions, allegedly authoritative rules, and institutional shibboleths, along with advertising hyperbole and unproven claims for impending cures or imminent progress, that have begun to clutter the study of medicine.  "Voodoo linguistics"*** is simply an outgrowth from the book title Voodoo Science, a term used by University of Maryland physicist Robert L. Park to describe much contemporary science, including widespread and often government-supported superstitions concerning the laws of thermodynamics, the causes of cancer, and the space program.

Although the applicability of both terms to linguistics may already be clear enough to many LACUS members, the probable results of this test are likely to demonstrate how deeply comparable voodoo elements, unsupported  by any defensible evidence, have crept into the study of language. The first quarter hour will be devoted to explaining the questions in the test, intended mainly as a heuristic exercise which no one needs to sign or hand in.

A crucial section will explain how Guidelines for EBM function in practice and attempt to set out a comparable series of Guidelines for EBL,  springing from the basic principles and procedures of science-method, skepticism, and replicability.   EBL Guidelines will clearly both resemble and differ from those for EBM, requiring a review as to how the former have been derived and are likely to be applied in the future.

A final section will examine whether important evidence about language, whether originated by linguists or rooted in other sciences or springing from related areas, may have been ignored or suppressed during the past because of preconceptions related to these ten questions. The sciences and fields of study discussed will encompass—but not be limited to—cartography, fractal forms in nature, translation studies, creating viable laws and measuring units for language, neurocognitive networks within language, and a complex of physiological issues related to various language processes.  The methodology of medical diagnosis will be invoked in an attempt to describe the various stages and degrees involved in language learning. It is hoped that from these processes there may emerge a better grasp of the full size and scope of language and a clearer notion of what the desiderata might be for creating truly viable and relatively complete theories in our field.


*You may see a copy of this questionnaire by clicking here.

** Those wishing to learn more about EBM may find the following search pages of use:



[back to abstract]

*** Park, Robert L. 2000. Voodoo Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  Professor Park also directs the DC center of the American Physical Society and is a recognized media spokesman for his profession.  He contributes a weekly column on science issues to the APS website at:  http://www.aps.org/WN/
[back to abstract]

The full text of this paper follows:

First of all, I feel truly honored to be here, and I want to thank Sydney Lamb and the conference committee for having invited me.  I'm particularly happy that this is an international conference with participants from many nations and has been jointly sponsored by both Canadian and US linguists. I have always welcomed the presence of Canada as a strong dissenting voice on our continent.  And through Canada it is also a bilingual conference, et c'est la raison pour laquelle je voudrais aussi, pour commencer, rendre hommage à la langue et à la culture françaises.

I'd like to start with a few disclaimers, perhaps even something of an apology, since at least some of what I'll be saying might be perceived as negative about the last five decades of linguistics, though I'm not altogether negative about the future.  If at first I seem to be a desecrator of idols sacred to many in our field, I promise I'll also do my best to suggest a few truly scientific approaches to take the place of so-much misplaced idolatry.  I'm also keenly aware that some of my remarks might be  more appropriate at an LSA conference than here, but I've become concerned that a few viruses from the LSA-MIT Petri dish may have become so widespread that they have to some extent contaminated the study of linguistics everywhere.

During recent decades we have seen concerted and repeated attempts to reformulate linguistics either as a branch of logic, or as a branch of philosophy, or of psychology, or sociology, or socio-psychology, or even of paleontology.  Not to mention several different branches of math and statistics, especially computational mathematics, even to the extent of attributing mathematical precision to grammatical relationships, regardless of the context such relationships might be attempting to represent.

I hope I won't shock anyone too much if I suggest that linguistics can be far better described as an offshoot of yet another science, not the most precise of studies but a science nonetheless, the science of physiology, itself belonging to the study of medicine.  My claim to competence here is grounded in two areas, first some four years spent in the company of American doctors, nurses, and physical therapists in the detailed study of Chinese medicine, which means that I have to some extent acquired not merely medical but bi-medical knowledge and experience. And secondly from my own lifetime of experience with an extremely rare endocrine condition, which has limited my achievements in some respects but greatly enriched them in others and has inspired me to seek out knowledge in a number of nations and cultures and areas of study.  And assuming this all sounds a bit too embedded in biological variables, during my workshop I'll also be defining some more precise linguistic values springing from the cartographical dimension of language, and here too I'll be drawing on my own real-world  experience.

Also, since I'm going to be dealing in some detail today with the nature of evidence, this necessarily means that I'll also be doing my best to present credible evidence for every statement I myself may advance, even about evidence itself.


But even here there are some real limitations involved, which leads to my next disclaimer. Just this year The Edge Foundation challenged 120 of the world's top scientists to spell out what they themselves regarded as true, even though they had no real evidence to prove it.  And not a one of these eminent scientists failed to come up with one or more notions they subscribed to, even where final proof was lacking. (Note 1) So despite the title of this paper, evidence may not always be everything.  Or even invariably easy to gather and verify.  Though it's still also true that it's better to have more evidence backing up one's claims than little evidence or none at all, since the latter case, as most of you know, has come to be something of a norm in our field.

As my final disclaimer I'd like to take a stab at articulating one of the thorniest problems that faces us whenever we try to talk about anything, including language.  It's simply this: that language, by its very nature, often forces us—even fakes us—into oversimplifying complex issues, often by pretending that there are only two possible views about any subject, or members of only two camps who are qualified to offer opinions, when there may in fact be hundreds of such views and/or informed parties.

Whenever you want to say something/slash/anything and want it to mean close to the same something/slash/anything to others as it does to you, you are all too often forced to oversimplify. And today I too may have been faked out, simply by the nature of language, into something of the same position. It is difficult to emphasize one facet of reality without simultaneously ignoring many other aspects.  Language does this to us all, scholars and laymen alike, perhaps far more often than we are aware.  I've even formulated a linguistic law about this and related phenomena.


And by mentioning that "linguistic law." I've given you a hint about what I'll be covering at the Saturday workshop/tutorial on this topic.  Today I'm doing my very best to be modest with all manner of disclaimers and apologies, but later this week I'm likely to be a good deal bolder.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I can promise you that I may well be able to tell you a good deal you haven't heard about language and linguistics before and from several rather unusual viewpoints

(for text of Saturday workshop, click here)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Let's go straight to the core and look at that little quiz, which you have so far seen only as a set of true-or-false statements.  Here are some copies of the final version, with the scoring apparatus explained at the bottom. (to quiz)  [handing out copies of quiz with  scoring method] I hope I won't be stepping on too many toes here by telling you this, but every single statement in that quiz is not just a little bit false, it is demonstrably and devastatingly false. 

Almost all of them are close to being classical examples of prejudging the results of scientific research before actually carrying out that research.  And to the extent that any of you may have marked any one of these as true, to that extent you are, in your mindset and research goals, practicing not Evidence Based Linguistics at all, but Voodoo Linguistics.

Let's see how I've expressed it: "Score ten points for each question marked as true...From forty to fifty, the infection has now spread and presents as Moderate Voodoo Linguistics, seriously affecting your ability to practice Evidence Based Linguistics." If you believe even as few as three of these statements, your mind may have  already been partially poisoned.  If you believe as many as five or six, your ability to think clearly about language may have been seriously impaired.  If seven or eight or more ring true to you—and I doubt if this is true of anyone here—then there may be no way I can reach you today.

If I were to explain in detail as to why each of these ten statements is  false, it would take me at least twenty hours to do so, that's how false they are.  So what I'm going to do right now is summarize why I believe they are false and then go through two or three of the most important ones more thoroughly.  But I don't think I'll be cheating you by this approach, because I'll be here for not just the next twenty hours but for the next three days, which if we count our waking hours makes closer to thirty, and I'm perfectly willing to expand informally on my summary during that time.  I don't want anyone's feelings to be hurt if I have trampled on any ideas you happened to regard as sacred or even as merely acceptable.  But during this session my time is limited, and I want to get past the answers to this quiz to more positive sections about Evidence Based Linguistics and possible insights we can gain into language from a variety of disciplines.

So let's summarize.  Of the ten statements I've asked you to mark as true or false, only two, Numbers 5 and 6 about Whorfian theories, qualify as well-formed statements about linguistic ideas, and they are both blatantly false.  All of the other eight statements are nothing but more or less idle and more or less ignorant boasts about the nature of language, a kind of superstitious whistling past the cemetery at night by some three generations of linguists because they have been afraid or unwilling or unable to look at the terrain  around them.

I'll deal with the first two statements in a few minutes, but let me start now with number 3.  The claim that math and computational math may be more complex than language does not mean they can necessarily solve linguistics problems, to do so they would require  not greater complexity but the correct degree of complexity.  And even then they would need to be applied correctly.  As some of you know far better than I, there are vast numbers of math solutions and formulations in existence for which no real-world problem has yet been found.

Statement 4 about breaking the genomic code and nanotechnology is perhaps the emptiest boast in the list, since there is no certainty that either achievement will have any bearing on language, which may well stand on its own as a unique network located outside the bounds of either, owing its composition to roughly equal portions of human sense and human slime.  I'll be discussing this a bit later on, especially the slime factor.


I'll also come back to the two about Whorf's theories, which brings us to number 7 about machine translation.  I've written so often about MT that I don't want to become too embroiled here.  Let me allude to only three possible problems.  A detailed report recently published in Translation Journal (Note 2) carefully reexamines the entire technical and historical MT background and concludes  that even at its best MT will probably never serve as anything more than a translation tool for those translators willing to use it.

Just to remind you, it was claimed as recently as 1990, among other ludicrous boasts, that by using MT systems unaided  monolingual workers will perform "truly automatic translation .....without assistance from bilinguals, polyglots or post-editors.....but meeting the quality standards of professional translators—no less."  (Note 3)  But I don't think I need to tell you that this prediction never came true. The man who wrote it now runs a company specializing in Translation Memory systems, about which he makes no such extravagant boasts.

The second and far deeper problem is that at present no MT or TM system (TM standing for Translation Memory) can provide reliable translations even for set phrases without the editorial participation of professional translators, those very people whom Geoffrey Pullum (Note 4) and others predicted MT would soon be supplanting, 4 besides which relatively few professional translators are willing to work with either MT or TM. In any case, MT now accounts for only about one percent of the roughly 450 millions of pages being translated each year.  The third problem is that the main parties who foresee any increase in this percentage are, as I have written elsewhere, "market analysts," individuals with no knowledge of translation or language worth mentioning who nonetheless cannot control their imagination whenever they contemplate the multi-billion dollar translation market. And this is why, as I have written elsewhere, claims like the one I have cited keep cropping up and why funding continues to flow to those making them.

As for Number 8, that words and morphemes have "core meanings" whose study can help create "universal conceptual glossaries," this claim is totally ludicrous and can only be advanced by utter amateurs at the language game.  It may well turn out that even the most common of words are not core distillations of anything but rather highly variable artifacts, constantly under pressure from the cultures surrounding them.

Number 9, that the 180 worldwide linguistic organizations now in existence somehow provide assurance of progress in our field, is once again close to being pure whistling in the dark past the cemetery.

As for Number 10, basically nothing more than an assertion that we as humans are better than "all them dumb animals," I'll leave it to you to decide how much scientific value it possesses.  Last I noticed animals were doing just fine communicating with each other about whatever it is they need to communicate about.

Now let's take a quick look at Numbers 1, 2, 5, and 6.  No, I'm sorry, linguistics is not the science of language, and it cannot possibly be.  Linguistics is simply not a branch of science, it is in fact situated, along with language itself, on a far higher plane.  Language is prior to science, both historically and logically, and to assert otherwise is to commit both a historical error and the classic Bayesian error of overlooking one's priors.

It's six decades since Louis Hjelmslev, the principal founder of Glossematics, made this matter amply clear. The primary science is in fact linguistics, including language itself and even the allegedly lowly acts of translation and interpreting between languages. All other sciences have evolved from this original source.  In other words, language is the science of all the other sciences, which in fact came to be derived from language as what can variously be seen as offshoots, as branching paths, as sequels and results, perhaps even as plug-ins, almost as afterthoughts.

Or in Giordano Bruno's words in 1603 at Oxford:  (Note 5)

From Translation all science 
had its offspring. 

Pick up a math book, and you'll discover that many of its seemingly abstract statements come described in carefully structured language modules, a point I have made in my work in progress and a point also made, I am happy to say, by Scott Montgomery in his recent Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge Through Cultures and Time. (Note 6)  And language is of course historically prior to mathematics as well, as far as we know language has existed as long as our species, but most of what we term mathematics, far from being eternal, has come into use only over the last few hundred years, at best the last few thousand, and even then only by a small minority among us.

In other words, all the sciences have in fact sprung out of language.  So how do you use language or linguistics as an investigative tool, as a so-called science, when it is already the primary creating, defining, and describing tool?  Perhaps this was what that remarkable German Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who somehow managed to be both a physicist and a noted satirist, meant when he said back in 1799:

Language originated before philosophy, 
and that is what is the matter with philosophy.  (Note 7)

Perhaps this is also what the father of chemistry, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, meant when he observed in his Traité Élémentaire de Chimie:

    It is impossible to disassociate language from science or science from language, because every natural science always involves three things:

      the sequence of phenomena on which the science is based;

      the abstract concepts which call these phenomena to mind;

      and the words in which the concepts are expressed.

    To call forth a concept a word is needed; to portray a phenomenon a concept is needed. All three mirror one and the same reality. (Note 8)

And yet there are those in our field who suppose linguistics must become a subclass of philosophy, when it is so obviously the reverse that is true.

As for Number 2, that the study of grammar has anything important to tell us about how language truly functions, this notion too is completely false.  I realize of course that I may come across as extremely rash to make this point at any conference of linguists, and I also want to apologize to those of you who may have devoted  large parts of your lives to the study of grammar.  But just give me till Saturday, when I'll be explaining this in great detail, since I believe I may have identified the true organizing principle of language—and can present evidence supporting its status—and I will even attempt to show how this principle can be equipped with a viable quantitative measuring device usable for making at least some meaningful comparisons.  I am happy to report that my findings in this matter have been confirmed and to some extent duplicated by another scholar.

Statements number 5 and 6 about Benjamin Lee Whorf contain so many false elements that it is difficult to know where to begin.  No, we won't settle the question of free will versus determinism today, but trained linguists and anthropologists have long observed that most people in most cultures have never encountered problems living within the bounds of painfully narrow linguistic and social structures while rarely questioning the limits they impose.  In fact, it happens all the time.  And to state as in Number 6 that in all cases "translation is in fact perfectly possible" is a totally absurd claim.

Translation is frequently less than perfectly possible, not merely in the domain of high poetic visions but even while translating from one allegedly precise technical vocabulary to another.  Remarkably few translations can be totally faithful to their originals, just as remarkably few paraphrases within a single language can be completely faithful to the text being paraphrased.  Conscientious technical translators are continually adding footnotes, introductions, and technical addenda to their work or may even request to discuss the meaning of the text with the authors or editors of the original.  Those who continue to spread this misconception have obviously never bothered to consult with a translator or translation editor, or they would know better.  In the words of Miguel de Unamuno: 

An idea does not pass from one language 
to another without change.  (Note 9)

I believe he would have been equally correct if he had added that ideas have frequently been known to change shape when transmitted even within a single language.

Let me summarize this section about the quiz by pointing out three major errors made by professional linguists over at least the past five decades:

First, they have attempted to reify language, to turn it into a thing, an object of study, when it is in fact a complex process that develops within each of us over time with a slightly different learning curve for each individual.  And language is not just any  process but the primary process through which almost all knowledge, including knowledge of its own workings, can be gained.

Second, they have attempted to impose the quite erroneous observation that language is generic, homogenized, even universal, when language in fact varies from people to people and culture to culture and even within a single people or culture and can far better be described as sui generis, multifaceted, rooted in particular circumstances and limited contexts.

Thirdly, they have tried to impose the even more dubious proposition that human cognition is generic, united, relatively unvarying between and among individuals, and/or at the very least subject to a bell-shaped curve with a predictable range of variations.  But the growing evidence about cognition favors an markedly different outlook.  The recent discovery of the Asperger's/Autism Spectrum,  along with accumulating evidence that a comparable Bipolar Spectrum may also exist, suggests that the totality of human cognition may not fit neatly into a bell-shaped curve at all but occupies a far broader spectrum of conditions, including even so-called normal cognition.  If true, this could well transform the results of much recent research into so-called cognitive branches of learning.  It also may mean that the 350 million dollars granted to MIT a few years ago by the McGovern Foundation for research into neurolinguistics could end up being wasted.

But it's time to say something about Evidence Based Medicine and whether it can serve as a model for building truly Evidence Based Linguistics.  If you've been to those two websites I provided in my abstract, you already know that Evidence Based Medicine, while it may not be perfect, is the runaway success story in today's medical arena.  Which means, to me at least, that if we could evolve an equivalent version of Evidence Based Linguistics, we might indeed  have prepared the groundwork for some real advances in our field.  But before we reach out for any such conclusion, let's make sure we have some under-standing of what Evidence Based Medicine is all about.

There can be no doubt that EBM is the major medical paradigm of the last few decades.  Although it began in England in 1972 with the work of Doctor Archie Cochrane, its major impact in this country has been during the last ten years.  If you go to amazon.com, you'll find that some 325 books about EBM are listed, almost all of them published since 1995.  If on the other hand you go to the NYU-Bobst Library, which is attached to a major medical teaching college, you'll find that they have bothered to collect only about eighty of these volumes, about a quarter of the total, which actually turns out to be a fairly respectable percentage, especially when compared to linguistics.

Parenthetically, let me explain what these figures mean.  About fifteen years ago university librarians publicly announced that they could no longer go on collecting the many repetitious, ponderously terminological, self-serving volumes that were being published as a form of career advancement in several of the so-called social sciences, psychology, sociology, and linguistics among them.  For instance, if you go to amazon and search out books under the heading "constraints linguistics," you'll find 94 volumes listed.  But if you go to either Bobst-NYU or the New York Public Library, you'll discover that they have both bothered  to collect only two or three of these, in my opinion a wise policy decision.

That's why 80 out of 325 books on EBM is actually a rather good score, and all criticisms aside there can be no doubt that EBM is the wave of the present and the future in most medical fields, though if you look at the web sources I mentioned in my abstract, you will find that it too has critics.  They make the point that EBM methods have sometimes been used to short-change patients in the medical care they receive.  It's also probable that recent reports that quite a few well-known medications and therapies are less effective than previously believed may spring from EBM-based research projects, leaving it somewhat problematic, despite the excellence of the theory, as to whether we truly know enough in all cases to set up valid testing procedures for this new approach.  But the question remains as to whether and how something like EBM can be best applied to the study of linguistics.

This topic could quickly become so complex as to convert my presentation into a highly technical medical discussion, so I will limit this section to a consideration of EBM as presented by  wikipedia.org and the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine and then move on to how EBM principles might best be converted into a set of Guidelines for Evidence Based Linguistics.

Here in the following extended quote is how wikipedia.org and the Centre for EBM sum up this field:

"Evidence-based medicine is a medical movement based upon the application of the scientific method to medical practice, including long-established existing medical traditions not yet subjected to adequate scientific scrutiny. According to the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine `Evidence-based medicine is the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.'


"Using techniques from science, engineering and statistics, such as meta-analysis of the existing literature, risk-benefit analysis and randomized controlled trials, it aims for the ideal that all doctors should make `conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence' in making decisions about the care of individual patients.

"Evidence-based medicine holds that testimonials, hearsay and mystical arguments have little value as proof because the placebo effect, random events and observer bias distort perceptions.

"Practicing evidence-based medicine implies not only clinical expertise, but expertise in retrieving, interpreting, and applying the results of scientific studies, and in communicating the risks and benefit of different courses of action to patients.

"For all its problems, evidence-based medicine has very successfully demoted the ex cathedra statement of the "medical expert" to the least valid form of evidence and all "experts" are now expected to be able to reference their pronouncements to the relevant literature."  The preceding extended quotation ends here.

Based on these criteria for EBM, I will now attempt to derive a set of comparable Guidelines for Evidence Based Linguistics, springing from a set of questions about linguistics today and their probable answers, which I believe will prove acceptable to most of us in this room.  Here are those questions:

Is scientific observation truly being applied in our field?   Here I believe the only answer arising from the results of our quiz—and much else going on in our field—is clearly No.

Do we find that aesthetic considerations have been imposed over thoughtful investigation?  Here I believe the answer is clearly Yes.

Have the opinions of alleged "experts" been favored over careful investigation & the testing of hypotheses?  Yes, in so-called mainstream linguistics this is indeed the case to a remarkable extent.

Precisely how qualified have these "experts" been in dealing with multiple aspects of language?  The answer here would need to be "not very qualified at all."

Have mentalistic, formalistic criteria taken precedence over physiological realities?  The answer here is an emphatic yes.

Are the views of alleged authorities—even ancient authorities long abandoned by other sciences—held to be more important than actual observation of how language works?  Once again, clearly yes.

Have data and other sources of information been actively solicited from all groups working professionally within the language field?  No, not in the slightest.

Have specific inputs or types of information and/or data been explicitly excluded?  Yes again, they certainly have been, and in what follows I will be able to describe only a few of these excluded resources.

Here my evidence springs from the questions I have just asked and the answers they have evoked, which I trust you will agree are reasonable ones.  I believe that certain conclusions spring from these questions and answers, and provided most of you find some justice, at least in general terms, in the preceding set of questions and their answers, then I would like to suggest that the following may prove workable as our Guidelines in shaping Evidence Based Linguistics.

1.  In all our work we must make sure that scientific observation is being followed as rigorously as possible.

2.  We must take great care to ensure that esthetic preferences do not take precedence over scientific conclusions based on genuine observation.

3.  We would do best to favor measurable physiological data, where it is available, over formalistic, mentalistic suppositions.

4.  We must make sure that no relevant information is excluded from our investigations, even if it comes from hitherto untapped  sources.

5.  Towards this aim we need to actively seek out the input of professional language users, translators, interpreters, bilingual editors, writers, and language teachers among them, even if their testimony goes against previously accepted conventional wisdom.

6. Above all, we must carefully weigh the views of all experts and authorities in our field, whether ancient or modern, and be prepared to reject their views if they do not satisfy the conditions of science.

I have a fair amount more I want to say about applying these principles in practice, especially concerning how to detect the differences between esthetic preferences and scientific conclusions, and I'll start doing so at my workshop session later this  week.

At this point I believe I have covered the first two sections of this presentation as summarized in my abstract.  I have explained at least in part the ten questions of my quiz, and I have also presented what the principles of evidence based linguistics are likely to be, with more still to come.  As for the third section of the abstract, time limitations will permit me to introduce today only one of the many directions that linguistics might have followed if these superstitions had not obstructed it for so long a period from doing so.


For now I'd like to sum up those other directions as follows.  One important insight into linguistics springing from translation studies—I believe many others are likely to arise—is discussed in my paper published in print and soon online, Translation as the Prototype of all Communi-cation. (Note 10)  Here I describe a Gedanken-experiment demonstrating that there is essentially no difference between the problems of translating from one language to another and those involved in paraphrasing the text of a single one.   My description presents credible evidence proving the truth of this thesis.  To the extent that these results are correct—and I believe it is a great extent—there is no way that we as scientists can discuss language unless we also discuss translation, and vice versa.

And a dialogue between translators and linguists could be helpful for another reason as well: so many experts in so many of the sciences so often seem to believe that they are always and unconditionally right in their opinions. Many translators I have known, by contrast, dwell in a realm where they continually believe they may be mistaken.  It seems to me that the latter attitude is a more appropriate one for the study of linguistics.

It was none other than Georges Mounin, (whose reputation and prolific output made him the French equivalent of David Crystal) who observed that there can be no valid theory of linguistics that does not also provide a workable theory of translation, and since Mounin is the only linguist who has  written both a history of linguistics and one of translation, surely his opinions and works ought to better known among  Anglophone linguists.  I'll try to tell you something more about that Gedanken-experiment on Saturday.

In my book in progress I have also shown how a form of differential diagnosis can be used to identify and distinguish between a far wider range of common language processes and disorders than the field of medical linguistics has thus far recognized.  I'll also be able to show you some of that material on Saturday.  The viable laws and measuring units for language, as well as its possible fractal dimension, will all spring forth quite spontaneously, though unfortunately not today, from what I will soon be telling you about linguistic cartography.

I want to emphasize that while much of what I have so far described springs from my own work in progress, I do not for an instant exclude work by others that bases its findings in human physiology and demonstrable workings of the mind.  In other words, the system I am attempting to build is not a reductionist, exclusionary one, like a certain one I am sure you can all readily identify, but an expandable, welcoming one, so that there is plenty of room, say, for Sydney Lamb's Neurocognitive Linguistics (Note 11) as well as a theory being developed by Price Caldwell, an American professor currently working in Japan. And as time goes on, probably many others as well.   (Note 12)

But let me start by describing in some detail the physiological side of language.  I'm aware that many linguists working today cherish the belief that the properties of language are necessarily exalted, deeply intellectual, and sublimely metalinguistic ones, so I hope it won't come as too great a shock to anyone if I state that language can also be seen on its most basic level as primarily a physiological function, even (dare I say it?) a bodily function.

I could probably get away with simply being a bit poetic here and stating that language is the musical instrument that uses the air from the lungs to project the sounds of the stomach through the amplifier of the larynx as modified by the keyboard of the uvula, palate, tongue, and lips.  I could become a bit coarser by adding that language is a lot closer to the sounds of belching and burping from the stomach and gasping and wheezing from the lungs than it is to Aristotelian logic, Boolean logic, or synthetic syntactic restructuring.  But that's still not coarse enough for me.

Let me explain quite clearly—perhaps a bit too clearly for some—what I mean when I call language a bodily funtion.  Not just human beings, not just all animals, but even plants as well—in other words, all of life itself—relies on one (and truly just one) clever trick to maintain itself: the exchange of gases and fluids, sometimes with the odd bit of so-called solid matter thrown in.  This is true of breathing in and out, of ingestion and excretion, even of the exchange of sexual fluids. If we start from this primitive level and work our way forward from there, not only will we be able to see how language fits into this process, but we may also gain some unexpected insights into the field of evolutionary linguistics, a rapidly expanding growth industry among us that has encouraged specialists from many fields but almost no professional language users to hold forth on a great variety of theories.  The rule encapsulated by a German proverb still holds true:

Jeder Mensch glaubt, weil er spricht, über die Sprache sprechen zu dürfen.

Which translates as:  Every human being believes that because he speaks he is also entitled to speak about language.

One step upward from the stage of merely exchanging gases and fluids between organisms would be to add a distinctive chemical that other organisms of the same type might recognize while at the same time repelling certain different organisms. Already a form of message is being conveyed.  One step beyond that would be to employ a chemical that other life forms could recognize, so as to attract or antagonize them.  The message has become a bit more complex. The next step, well-known among biologists, would be to make this exchange even more noticeable by adding a chemical  aroma.  This process is of course well-known as scent markings.  A parallel step, taken by many species, eventually including our own, would be to add what I call sound markings.

On my website you will find three and soon four different pieces describing the relationship between scent markings and sound markings. (Note 13)  In a very real sense all of human language is nothing more or less than a highly elaborated form of sound markings.  Where other animals spray the scent markings on their environment, we spray sound markings on or in the direction of almost everything around us.  I am spraying sound markings at you right now, and soon you will have a chance to spray a few of your own sound markings back at me and at everyone else. And we carry out this process just as insistently and just as unstoppably as any pussy cat hard at work marking our carpets, our armchairs, and our trouser legs as its own.

From at least one aspect, human language can be viewed as merely an advanced form of spray, sometimes even spewing or sputtering.  If we have failed to notice this process before now, one reason is likely to be pretty obvious: our abiding cultural reluctance bequeathed to us by Puritanism cum Victorianism to look at—much less discuss—how our bodies really work.  Or perhaps it's merely squeamishness—well, I can assure you that you can't learn anything useful about medicine or human physiology without finally abandoning almost every last vestige of squeamishness. 

(a free copy of this program can also be obtained on this site by clicking here)

Just as marine life has been observed repeating evolutionary phases in the seas around us, so we can observe various life forms continually recapitulating various forms of communication around us.  What further evidence do we need that human language and sound markings come close to being synonymous?  Can anyone state with absolute certainty that what we do with our sound markings is all that different from what sea lions do with their barks, crickets with their chirps, or bees with their cute little dances?  (Though bees are also known to employ scent markings to convey their messages.)


At some point, possibly among higher primates, an evolutionary step was clearly taken to favor sound markings and gradually phase out scent markings.  I've been in contact with Jane Goodall about this topic, and she tells me that even chimpanzees rarely use odor as a major form of communication, though male chimps do give off a strong scent at mating time.  (Note 14)   Which could also provide an explanation for the near simultaneous surging of our language skills along with the gradual atrophy of our sense of smell as compared with other animals.


If this finding holds up for other hominid apes, it means that both humans and their closest relatives began to give up scent markings  at a fairly early stage in their evolution. This would mean that the period when higher primates began to lose the vast animal sensorium of aromas coincided with the period when humans first began to develop language.  But vast numbers of other animals still use scent markings, and the precise evolutionary—much less historical—events involved, assuming they occurred as described, are of course still unknown.  For instance, Frans de Waal has recorded instances of Bonobo chimps recognizing each other through their scent after long absences.  (Note 15)

Why do I keep insisting on this connection between scent markings and sound markings, why have I stressed the common thread of an exchange of gases and fluids through a whole phylogeny of plant  and animal species?  Because these gases and fluids unavoidably furnish the basic substance of all human communication, the carrier wave so to speak.  I've been told that the following point is so obvious that perhaps I shouldn't be making it at all, but I still believe it needs spelling out.  So if you want to flinch at what follows, you can start flinching now. 

If anyone truly requires compelling evidence for the gaseous content of language, let them simply hold their hand in front of their mouths while they speak.  If they need evidence for the fluid content of language, let them keep that hand in place a bit longer, say for about two minutes, while they count in a whisper from 1 to 200, after which they will discover a small damp patch in the very center of the palms of their hands.  Quod erat demon-strandum.  You can prove it to yourselves right now while I am talking, provided you keep it to a whisper.  On its most basic level language is composed of gas and fluids.  With sometimes a further embrocation of thought matter.

And as soon as we grant language recognition as a physical process, we also open the door to the possibility that language in itself, like all other physical processes, may be open to various irregularities in growth and development and even various pathologies not normally studied under language handicaps.

Here I believe a further disclaimer is definitely in order, since I have now further opened the door to a number of topics not currently covered under linguistics.  As I have written elsewhere, I do not mean for an instant to debase human speech to nothing more than animal sprayings nor to suggest that language does not also possess other more abstract properties.  But would not such an evolution explain much about how human beings still use language today? Do we really require "scientific" evidence for such an assertion, when so many proofs lie self-evidently all around us? One proof is that normally human beings do not use their nether glands to spray a fine scent on their environment. They do, however, undeniably talk at and about everything, real or imagined. Sometimes the volume of spray can be so pronounced that it becomes inadvisable to stand too close to the person speaking.

And as I have also written elsewhere, would not such an evolution also aptly explain the attitudes of many "literal-minded" people, who insist on a single interpretation of specific words, even when it is carefully explained to them that this is mistaken?  Does it not suggest at least one possible reason why many misunderstandings fester into outright conflicts, even physical confrontations?  Assuming the roots of language lie at least partially in territoriality, would this not also go some distance towards clarifying some of the causes of border disputes, even of wars? Perhaps most important of all, does such a development not provide a physiological basis for some of the differences between languages, which themselves have become secondary causes in separating peoples? Would it not also permit us to see different languages as exclusive and proprietary techniques of spraying, according to different "nozzle apertures," "colors," or viscosity of spray? Could it conceivably shed some light on the fanaticism of various forms of religious, political, or social fundamentalisms? Might it even explain the bitterness of some scholarly feuding?

Perhaps most important, at a time when the majority of Americans has apparently decided that evolution is no more than a theory, does this discovery that human language is clearly allied to animal scent markings not present important new evidence that evolution must in fact be true?  In addition to offending today's puritan attitudes, does it not at least for some evoke much the same sense of shock that our ancestors felt a century ago when told that humans might have at least something in common with monkeys?  It was the hope of linguists like Whorf, Sapir, and the younger Hayakawa that our field of study could provide a continual flow of insights for our citizens about the values we live by.  Wouldn't it make a great deal more sense if leaders of our profession, instead of wasting their time on warmed-over cold war causes, were sharing this important truth about evolution with the general public?

I want to make it clear that even before today, one or two of you have taken pains to inform me that this truth is simply too obvious to bear such repeated emphasis as I have given it.  I don't want to sound stubborn, but I can't help wondering if such a criticism may not be prompted by a barely concealed form of theism holding that we as humans can occupy only a sublimely elevated station, just one degree below the angels, or at least something intellectually quite comparable, and that our form of communication must also be equally exalted in character.  I find no evidence for this view at all, and I wonder if the seemingly perpetual debate carried on since 1984 first by the Language Origins Society and now by Evolang may be a prolonged attempt to avoid the obvious connection between language and evolution, simply that human language IS evolution in action, through its transformation from scent markings to sound markings.

In other words, language is both wet and soft, just as we ourselves as human beings can also be best described as wet and soft, as what is sometimes called wetware. And being as we are both wet and soft, since I'm hearing this term "hard science linguistics" at this conference, I'm not entirely sure how well something relatively hard and presumably dry is going to is going to solve very many linguistic problems. I agree completely with Prof. Yngve's basic premises that grammar has been a false start, leading us into centuries and even millenia of failed linguistics, and obliging us to find a new direction.  But I doubt if that direction can emerge from ever more rigorous logic-chopping and sentence-diagramming, rather I see its origins in the many new insights we may gain by leaving logic, mathematics, and philosophy behind and returning language to its birthplace as a branch of human physiology.

In other words, we can turn linguistics into a hard-ER science, but never a fully hard one, or at least no harder than physiology and biology themselves.  Which is where language ultimately belongs, and not in all those other domains of knowledge where so many in our field are trying to enshrine it.  And in the totality of its diachronic and social development, I believe language belongs under the general heading of natural history. I once tried to design a museum exhibit about translation for a natural history museum—parts of it are up on my website (Note 16)—and I'm sure I could design an appropriate natural history exhibit for language and linguistics as well.

Well, I'm at least headed in the direction of an ending now.  I hope at least some of what I've presented has made more than a fleeting impression on you, since I'm afraid the best I've been able to do today is to provide you with a few glances at the rather large number of aspects of language I've been trying to examine.  With more to come soon.  Quite simply, I've been trying to cover more bases than a system that deals mainly with networks or phrase parsing or syntactic juggling.  This is crucial since language lies so squarely at the foundation of so many of our sciences.  In fact I'm fairly sure that there must be a number of bases I've left out entirely or that supplement my own objectives, and since I'm not building a reductionist, exclusionary system I more than welcome their introduction and inclusion.

Perhaps the main point I've been trying to get across is how extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted language truly is, and one further way I'd like to stress this is through a slightly adapted version of a famous nineteenth century American poem, which you may have encountered before.  I've only needed to change about four words to make it fit rather aptly into today's world of linguistics.  Here it is:

The Blind Linguists and the Elephant 

Six gurus wise of Linguastan 
To learning much inclined, 
Went forth to see the Elephant                            (Though all of them were blind),                             That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant, 
And happening to fall 
Against his broad and sturdy side,                             At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant                             Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,                             Cried, "Ho! what have we here?                             So very round and smooth and sharp?                      To me 'tis mighty clear 
This wonder of an Elephant 
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,                             And happening to take 
The squirming trunk within his hands, 
Thus boldly up and spake:  
I see," quoth he, "the Elephant 
Is very like a snake!"         

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,                   And felt about the knee. 
"What most this wondrous beast is like                 Is mighty plain," quoth he; 
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant                             Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,                   Said: "E'en the blindest man 
Can tell what this resembles most;                            Deny the fact who can, 
This marvel of an Elephant  
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun                             About the beast to grope, 
Than, seizing on the swinging tail                             That fell within his scope, 
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant                             Is very like a rope!

These hoary seers of Linguastan                             Disputed loud and long, 
Each in his own opinion 
Exceeding stiff and strong,                             Though each was partly in the right 
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in wild linguistics wars,                             Most disputants we have seen,                              Rail on in utter ignorance 
Of what each other mean, 
And prate about an Elephant 
Not one of them has seen! 

This version is close to the text by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe, which was itself based on a Han Dynasty Chinese poem.  A century ago it was believed that these verses shed light on the various claims of conflicting religious faiths.  But it requires only the slight degree of adaptation found above for the poem to work equally well for the so-called science of linguistics.

I'll be quite pleased if I've succeeded today in merely suggesting to you how many sides to the elephant there just might be.  Today I'm afraid I've only been able to concentrate on the bodily fluids of the elephant as an exercise in physiology, which I hope no one has found too upsetting.  On Saturday I hope to get around to the elephant's skin surface as seen through cartography, to the  differential diagnosis of the elephant in health and disease, its various fractal extensions, what elephants look like in other languages, and a few other aspects, including what I call the Six Laws of Language and Linguistics in Draft Form, the basic laws that keep the elephant going.  And I'll give all of you who attend that session a copy of those laws to take home, treasure, and criticize.  And in all those cases I will do my best to present the evidence that stands behind each one of these various aspects.  The one aspect I will definitely not be addressing is the syntactic structure of the elephant, simply because syntactic structure is almost totally useless in understanding either elephants or languages. 

One question of course piques my curiosity: Is there any hope that such complexity can ever be integrated into existing departments of linguistics at our universities?  I'm a bit skeptical that this can ever become possible, at least not without substantial reorganization of the university.  More to the point, one delightful citation, which I first found attributed to Freud but is more likely to be an urban folk saying among college administrators, makes the following observation:

Reorganizing the university is like rearranging 
the graves in a cemetery.  (Note 17)

In any case, I cannot stand still waiting for such a reorganization to happen or not happen.  In the meantime I'm pleased to tell you that I have been invited by an international group to speak on the topic Practical Linguistics for Translators (And for the General Public) some time later this year or early next year.  So however many schools of linguistics we may now have—or perhaps how few—this just might be a new one.

While I was in college and over several decades before and after, the back cover of the journal The American Scholar in all its issues always featured prominently Ralph Waldo Emerson's five-word definition of what a scholar is, of which only two words comprise the actual definition: "The Scholar Is Man Thinking."  Yes, I know, sexist as hell, but if we just change one word and say "The Scholar Is Humanity Thinking," I believe it still works admirably well.  In other words, the scholar is someone thinking for and on behalf of all humanity.

Today I fear that we might need to revise that definition, and not merely in linguistics, and place the following text on the back covers of our journals: "The Scholar is only interested in communicating with other Scholars for the purpose of advancing his own theories and/or discussing other similar theories of little interest outside his profession and in enhancing his own status within that profession."

I suppose this could change, and I'd truly like to believe that it can change, and that your having invited me here today might be one small sign of such a change.  But I'm not the least bit sanguine that this can happen, at best I'm guardedly optimistic.  The gargantuan pressure from the sheer dead weight of false ideas blocking such a change, both in linguistics and probably other areas as well, was perhaps best summed up almost two thousand years ago by the neo-Platonist philosopher Epictetus when he said:


Or roughly:

Real things don't cause people trouble,                   Only ideas about real things.   (Note 18)

The only factor that makes me even guardedly optimistic are eight characters by Lao Tse, composed some six hundred years earlier than the works of Epictetus:


Although these verses have been translated several hundred times, out of many imperfect versions the one that makes most sense to me in our current context is the following, which I encountered several decades ago.  It goes:

Real words are not vain,  
Vain words are not real.    (Note 19)

I hope these have not been vain words.  Please come to the session on Saturday. Thank you for your attention.


NOTE: This bibliography covers both the Wednesday paper and the Saturday workshop session, which explains why some of the references do not apply to the preceding text.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York:  (reprinted in great part in 1984, University of Chicago).

Caldwell, Price  http://www.hinocatv.ne.jp/~price/

Chomsky,  Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

———1988a. Interview. In: The Chomsky Reader. Edited by J. Peck. London: Serpent's Tail, pp. 1—55.

Craciunescu, Olivia; Gerding-Salas, Constanza; Stringer-O'Keeffe, Susan: Machine Translation and Computer Translation: a New Way of Translating? In Translation Journal, Volume 8, No. 3 July 2004, accessible at:

De Beaugrande, Robert. 2002. Linguistic Theory: Louis Hjelmslev, part of The Discourse of  Fundamental Works, accessible at:

Dreifus, Claudia.  June 26, 2001. A Conversation with Frans de Waal: Observing the Behavior of Apes From Up Close. In The New York Times.

Gould, Stephen Jay.  1977. Ontogeny and phylogeny.  Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Gross, Alexander. 1993a. MT and Language: Conflicting Technologies?—Ariadne's Endless Thread. In Sci-Tech Translation Journal.  Poughkeepsie, NY: American Translators Association.  Accessible from:

———1993b. Selected Elements from a Theory of Fractal Linguistics. In Scientific and Technical Translation, ATA Scholarly Monograph Series, Volume VI.  Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

———1994. Translators and Interpreters: The Binding Force Of World Civilization. Proposal for a museum exhibit. Sponsored by the American Translators Association. Viewable in part at:          http://language.home.sprynet.com/trandex/smithson.htm

———1995. Perfect MT:  Logical Certainty or Recurrent Self-Delusion? In: ATA Proceedings, 1995. Downloadable from:

———1995/6.  Spray It Again, Sam: The Real Story of Language And Translation, A Semi-Humorous Account  Part III of Truth About Translation. Washington, DC: American Translators Association.  Program downloadable without charge from:

———2000a. Hermes—God of Translators and Interpreters: The Origins of Language and the Prehistory of Interpreting, invited paper at NYU Translation2000 Conference. New York: NYU Translation Studies Program. Presented later that year at Jornadas Jeronimianas Conference, Mexico City. Downloadable from:        http://language.home.sprynet.com/trandex/hermes.htm

———2000b. Hermes—God of Translators and Interpreters, The Antiquity of Interpreting:  Distinguishing Fact from Speculation. Paper commissioned by NYU Translation Studies Department as part of a departmental book project which was later abandoned by the chair. Downloadable from:

———2003.  Teaching translation as a form of writing.  In Beyond the Ivory Tower: Rethinking translation pedagogy, edited by Brian James Baer and Geoffrey S. Koby. Vol. XII, ATA Scholarly Volume Series. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.  Downloadable from:

 Hjelmslev, Louis. 1961. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Translated by  Francis Whitfield. University of Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. (Danish title: Omkring sprogteoriens grundlaeggelse, Copenhagen, 1943)

Knight, Chris. 2003. Noam Chomsky:Politics or Science? In What Next: Marxist Discussion Journal.  Downloadable from:

Lamb. Sydney. 1999.  Pathways of the brain : the neurocognitive basis of language.  Amsterdam; Philadelphia, PA : J. Benjamins.

Language Technology. 1988—90. Periodical, later renamed Electric Word.   Amsterdam: INK Taalservice.

Lao Tze. ca. 600 B.C.E. dao de jing.  Hundreds of translations available, including the one cited, see footnote 19 for clarification.

Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent.  1789. Traité Elémentaire de Chimie. Third paragraph. Paris: Chez Cuchet, libraire. Online in French at:

Lichtenberg, Georg Christoph. 1908. The Reflections of Lichtenberg. Selected and translated by Norman Alliston.  London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Lim.

Mandelbrot, Benoit. 1967. How long is the coast of Britain? Statistical self-similarity and fractional dimension. In Science: 156, 636—638.

Montgomery, Scott. 2000. Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Mounin, Georges. 1963. Les problèmes théoriques de la traduction. Préface de Dominique Aury. Paris: Gallimard.

———1967.  Histoire de la linguistique, des origines au XXe siècle.  Paris: Presses universitaires de France.

 ———1990. Teoria e storia della traduzione. Milano: Einaudi.

Pellegrini, Angelo M. Giordano Bruno on Translations. In: English Literary History, 10: 193—207.

Pullum, Geoffrey  K.  1991.  The Stranger in the Bar.  In: The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other irreverent essays on the study of language. Chicago : University of Chicago Press.

Roget, Peter Mark. 1852. Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas and assist in Literary Composition.  London: Longman.

Saussure, Fernand de. 1913. Cours de Linguistique Générale, Paris (translated by Wade Baskin as Course in General Linguistics, 1959, New York: Philosophical Library.).

The Edge Foundation. 2005. What Do You Believe To Be True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?  The Edge Annual Question.  Online at:

Whitfield, Francis. 1969 Glossematics, Chapter 23 of Linguistics, edited by Archibald A. Hill. Washington, DC: Voice of America Forum Lectures,  (reissued in the same year by Basic Books).

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, Thought and Reality, (collected papers).  Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Yates, Frances A.. 1934. John Florio: The Life of an Italian Shakespeare's England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



1. The Edge Foundation Annual Question, 2005.
[back to text]


2.  http://www.accurapid.com/journal/29computers.htm
[back to text]


3. Language Technology, various issues, 1988—1990.  [back to text]


4. Pullum, p. 19.  [back to text]


5. Bruno: Yates, 89. Pellegrini, 193. Original text appears to be Florio's English.  [back to text]


6. Montgomery. 253—55.  [back to text]


7. Lichtenberg, 78. This citation was first found in a dictionary of quotations and was evidently revised from the 1908 translated version, which read: "Language originated prior to philosophy, and that is what handicaps philosophy..."  [back to text]


8. Lavoisier, third paragraph.  [back to text]


9. Unamuno. Author's Preface, xxxiii.  [back to text]


10. Gross, 2003.  [back to text]


11. Lamb, 1999 and also online at: 
[back to text]


12. Caldwell, at http://www.hinocatv.ne.jp/~price/
[back to text]


13. Gross, 1993, 1995/96, 2000a, 2000b.  [back to text]


14. Written correspondence with Jane Goodall.  [back to text]


15. Dreifus, 2001.  [back to text]


16. http://language.home.sprynet.com/trandex/smithson.htm
[back to text]

17. Two possible sources for this citation are:
[back to text]


18. Epictetus, Encheiridion V. [back to text]


19.  Lao Tse, Section 81, beginning. The author is fairly sure this was a translation by Ezra Pound he encountered some five decades ago, like many other classical Chinese passages included in one or another version of Pound's  labyrinthine Cantos, even though he has not yet been able to locate it there.  This was a late 1940s edition of a work that later went through many corrections, changes and new editions.  It stands as a memorable phrase in its own right, even though a more accurate translation might read: "Sincere words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not sincere."  [back to text]



The following true-or-false test was distributed to those attending the 2005 LACUS Conference at Dartmouth almost two full days before the presentation seen above.  A second copy, containing the Scoring Method as shown below, was given out only during the presentation itself.  Here is the full text that was presented at that time.

LINGUISTICS: A Quick True or False Self-Test

Do not enter your name on this test or hand it in.  A method for calculating your score will be presented during the Wednesday 4 PM session on Evidence Based Linguistics, and no one besides yourself will ever need to know the results.

1.  Linguistics is the science of language.   True      False

2.  The detailed study of grammar will ultimately unveil all major secrets of language.    True     False

3.  Mathematics and especially computational mathematics are far more complex than language and will necessarily sooner or later produce solutions for most linguistic problems.    True  

4.  The consequences of decoding the human genome together with the development of ever smaller nanotechnological tools will lead to discoveries so vast and all-embracing that the solution to relatively trivial linguistic problems will become an insignificant detail by comparison.
   True        False

5.  If Whorfian theories were correct, this would lead to a form of linguistic predeterminism governing our actions and attitudes.  But all human beings enjoy free will, and no one is ever influenced by the structures of their languages alone.  
    True        False

6.  Furthermore, if Whorfian theories were true, translation between languages would be impossible.  But since we all know that translation is in fact perfectly possible, this means that Whorfian theories must be incorrect. Therefore, we do not need to study translation as a branch of linguistics or listen to what mere translators try to tell us about language.         True    

7.  Despite all appearances to the contrary, advances in machine translation over the decades have been so encouraging that after only a few more years of research the long-sought goal of Fully Automatic High Quality translation for all texts is likely to become a reality.      True       False

8.  Words and morphemes have core-meanings, and the painstaking study of these core-meanings is certain to yield important new insights into how language functions and perhaps lead to the creation of universal conceptual glossaries.  
   True        False

9. Some 180 professional societies in our field are currently active around the world and most hold annual conferences lasting from two to five days each year, which means that scarcely a day passes when a learned conference about language is not in session.  Such intensive activity can only mean that our knowledge of  how language has evolved in the past and functions today is at an absolute peak and that all major linguistic problems are likely to soon be resolved.       True        False

10.  The invention of language by humans was a decisive step in all of evolution—it ranks as our highest and most advanced achievement as a species and marks us as quite unique  among all other creatures on our planet.     True       False 


Your score on this test may be calculated as follows:

Assign yourself 10 points for each question your answered as "True."

0 (Zero, all are false):   You are free of all traces of Voodoo Linguistics and may already be practicing EBL.

 10—30:  You are suffering from a relatively mild infection of Voodoo Linguistics and should be able to practice EBL despite some areas of impairment.

 40—50:  The infection has now spread and presents as Moderate Voodoo Linguistics, seriously affecting your ability to practice EBL.

 60—70:  You have suffered a further decline into Severe Voodoo Linguistics and may be so deeply infected that you actually believe that VL is identical with EBL.

 80—100:  Advanced and possibly incurable Voodoo Linguistics.

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