The social cognition of linguists

Andrea C. Schalley
Griffith University

It is social cognition which enables us to construct functioning societies sharing knowledge, values and goals, and to undertake collaborative action. It is also crucial to empathising and communicating with others, to enriching imprecise signs in context, to maintaining detailed, differentiated representations of the minds and feelings of those who share our social universe, to coordinating the exchanges of information that allow us to keep updating these representations, and to coopting others into action.
(Evans 2012)

What about the linguistic research community – is this a “functioning society”, to use Evans’ notion? Which knowledge, values, and goals are we (and I consider myself a member of this “society”) aiming to share? What are our goals? In this post, I will try to look at “the linguists” as a “society” and discuss whether it is “functioning” from a “social cognition” point of view. I hope that a meta-discussion on the state of linguistics may result, potentially benefitting the further progress and development of the field.

So – let us draw some parallels:

  1. Society:
    The society under scrutiny is the linguistic research community.
  2. Knowledge:
    Knowledge important to the society is how language as a phenomenon / specific languages work and how language is used. This has roughly (!) led to three main knowledge domains in linguistics – theoretical linguistics (how language as a phenomenon works), descriptive linguistics (what we know about specific languages), and applied linguistics (how language is put to use). Naturally, these domains intersect and inform each other, and each has been split further into subdomains – fields of research such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, first and second language acquisition, multilingualism, sociolinguistics, language change, language contact, language documentation, or linguistic typology, to mention a few.
  3. Values:
    The society values a scientific approach to language; overall, there is an expectation that ‘good science’ is carried out in the discipline. Nonetheless, methodological disagreements do exist and a substantial number of schools of thought can be found in the society.
  4. Members and groups in the society:
    These schools of thought form ‘social groups’ within the society, groups that complement and support but also compete with each other. The groups can be likened to kinship groupings in social terms (‘X is a student of Y’), or, if more broadly based on theoretical or subfield-based notions, on the ingroup/outgroup distinction (‘She is a generative syntactician’). Communication across such groupings is often difficult due to specific ‘ingroup’ terminology, but loyalty considerations also often prevent members of the society from being open-minded towards other social groups within the society.
  5. Goals:
    Dietmar Zaefferer (as cited in Schalley 2012b:20) has summarized the goals of the society very eloquently: the society aims to

    (a) deepen our understanding of the form, content, and use of linguistic symbols,
    (b) gain insights into the architecture of languages and their subsystems,
    (c) elucidate the interplay between linguistic and other cognitive feats as well as
    (d) between the corresponding individual and trans-individual characteristics of our minds, and therefore
    (e) contribute to human self-conception in its specificity.

Yet, what about undertaking collaborative action, the last point listed in the first sentence of Evans’ quote? How are the items listed above impacting on it? In the following, I will concentrate on a discussion of how well the linguistic research community organizes its ‘collaborative action’. Instances of this include, amongst others, the collaboration of individual linguists on a joint project (e.g., as part of a funded research project), or collaboration in the sense that knowledge is shared through a coordinated exchange of information (for instance via peer-reviewed publications).

Interestingly, in these cases there are external gatekeepers involved, whose aims we cannot expect to be well aligned to the linguistic society’s goals. These include (i) funding bodies, who have to take political agendas into account, (ii) publishers, who are market-driven and thus do not necessarily prioritize the society’s goals, and (iii) employers, who want to increase the overall institution’s reputation and performance, resulting in at times detrimental decisions for the linguistic society and some of its members (e.g. by them not being allowed to apply for external funding). So one question the society should be asking itself is how it can best manage these external factors and minimize their impact on the society and its aims as a whole. Contributing to peer reviewing is one possibility, but there are other more ‘radical’ options available to us, such as taking over some of the gatekeepers’ functions. An example of the latter is the recent establishment of Language Science Press, an imprint growing out of the Open Access in Linguistics initiative. Of course, this requires sustained collaborative action within the society – and collaborative action of a different nature than the one mentioned above, as this is not just about furthering linguistic research per se.

The other question is what internal processes and procedures the society has set up to enable collaborative action and knowledge sharing within the field. Building on Evans (2012) quote from the beginning, how good are we in

  • “empathising and communicating with others”
    (e.g. communicating about each other’s research),
  • “enriching imprecise signs in context”
    (e.g. understanding each other’s way of “doing linguistics”, including the terminology we use),
  • “maintaining detailed, differentiated representations of the minds and feelings of those who share our social universe”
    (e.g. conceptualizing each other’s views and perspectives on linguistics),
  • “coordinating the exchanges of information that allow us to keep updating these representations”
    (e.g. coordinating exchanges of linguistic data and knowledge on language or languages),
  • “coopting others into action”
    (e.g. getting each other to make an effort to share our data and knowledge)?

This appears to be an area where we can surely improve. Linguistic diversity, while highly enlightening, also poses a major challenge here: due to the nature of the field, any linguist will only have access to or study (a) a limited number of languages, (b) a limited number of linguistic phenomena, and (c) a limited amount of literature and/or fieldwork data. It is impossible for any scholar to obtain a comprehensive overview of even one small phenomenon across the languages. With around 5,000–8,000 living languages (according to Ethnologue, there are currently 7,105 known living languages; Lewis et al. 2013), even for a simple feature such as the order of the object and verb, there is ‘merely’1 collated information on currently 1,519 languages available, as provided by The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) (cf. Dryer 2011), and thus for about 20% of the currently known living languages.

But how can we achieve more comprehensiveness? This is only possible by collaborating closely and sharing and integrating the knowledge we have. No single person will ever be able to take in and process all the data that we have about the world’s languages. Any linguist’s knowledge can, due to the nature of the field, be compared to pieces of a puzzle. Cross-linguistic work relies on being able to put these pieces together, and this can only happen through ‘collaborative action’. A sustained collaborative effort of the field is needed to put the puzzle together, with scholars integrating their knowledge into an overall knowledge base that can be flexibly queried, i.e. a storehouse of discipline knowledge that is integrated enough to allow access from different perspectives and with different aims in mind. Given current technological developments (e.g. Semantic Web technologies), I believe we have arrived at a crossroads. It now appears that we have the technical infrastructure to seriously start such an enterprise – and we need to take advantage of this opportunity. True progress of the field, given the constraints just discussed, will rely on linguists substantially contributing to such a collaborative enterprise, and thus allowing themselves as members of the society to be coopted into action. For this to happen, we need to find ways of rewarding contributions to such efforts (and not just of ‘independent’ publications such as papers and books); initial progress towards this is being made right now (cf., for instance, discussions currently held in Australia to establish appropriate recognition for curated corpora). We also need to be accepting of terminological differences and schools of thoughts (and hence to find ways of dealing with, for instance, the tension between in-depth language-specific description and broader cross-linguistic comparison, cf. Haspelmath 2010). There are incipient efforts under way to solve the technical and conceptual challenges and to establish a knowledge base that allows to do this and to carry out such collaborative action (e.g. Borkowski & Schalley 2011; Schalley 2012a, c); thus potentially leading towards the creation of a storehouse of discipline knowledge. Efforts are also increasing to link currently available data for further processing (cf. the Linguistic Linked Open Data Cloud, an initiative of the Working Group on Open Data in Linguistics).

Of course, many challenges still lie ahead. Nonetheless, we are likely to have to change the ways in which we disseminate our research in order for the field to progress substantially. Are you open to it?


1 I have put ‘merely’ in single quotation marks, as having such information collated for so many languages is indeed a major achievement. Hence – while it is ‘merely’ accessible for 20% of the known living languages – this is nonetheless a most impressive result, and the one with the most languages involved I know of.


Borkowski, Alexander & Andrea C. Schalley 2011. Going beyond archiving – a collaborative tool for typological research. In: Nick Thieberger, Linda Barwick, Rosey Billington & Jill Vaughan (eds.), Sustainable Data From Digital Research: Humanities Perspectives On Digital Scholarship. Melbourne: Custom Book Centre, University of Melbourne, 25–48.

Dryer, Matthew S. 2011. Order of object and verb. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online.
Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 83.,
accessed 17 September 2013.

Evans, Nicholas. 2012. The refraction of other minds: Language, culture and social cognition. Nijmegen Lectures 2011 (January 9-11, 2012), Lecture 2., accessed 16 September 2013.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2010. Comparative concepts and descriptive categories in crosslinguistic studies. Language 86(3): 663-687.

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2013. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

Schalley, Andrea C. 2012a. Many languages, one knowledge base: Introducing a collaborative ontolinguistic research tool. In: Andrea C. Schalley (ed.), Practical Theories and Empirical Practice. A Linguistic Perspective. (Human Cognitive Processing 40.) Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 129–155.

Schalley, Andrea C. 2012b. Practical theories and empirical practice – Facets of a complex interaction. In: Practical Theories and Empirical Practice. A Linguistic Perspective, ed. Andrea C. Schalley. (Human Cognitive Processing 40.) Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1-31.

Schalley, Andrea C. 2012c. TYTO – a collaborative research tool for linked linguistic data. In Christian Chiarcos, Sebastian Nordhoff & Sebastian Hellmann (eds.), Linked Data in Linguistics. Representing and Connecting Language Data and Language Metadata. Heidelberg: Springer, 139–149.

How to cite this post:

Schalley, Andrea C. ‘The social cognition of linguists.’ History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in Article, Linguistics, Philosophy, Psycholinguistics, Sociolinguistics

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