Monday, January 29, 2001


Baslow attended an "innovative" college on Long Island in the early 1970's. It was not an "experimental" college. The faculty had decided (it was said) that the word "experimental" conveyed left-leaning implications which were best avoided. It was, instead, "innovative".

One did not major in a subject, one "concentrated" in a broad subject-area: "Social Science", "Natural Science", "Humanities", or "Liberal Arts". One could "emphasize" a sub-specialty by collecting enough courses in it. One took two courses each trimester, attending 90-minute classes in each, four days a week. There was much independent study, much library work.

It met Baslow's needs well, at the time. He was laboriously making his way out of the carnival funhouse that was his family, having managed to pull himself together after several "nervous breakdowns" over the preceding five years. He had sheltered himself, as best he could, from the craziness of the late 1960's by becoming something of a hermit (emerging from his bedroom only to forage for food in the kitchen, to go to the bathroom, or to walk to the local library). He seemed to himself to be..."wrong"; his family seemed most definitely "wrong"; the world seemed to be more and more "wrong".

The "innovative" program allowed Baslow to spend much time in the University library, following his interests, and thereby earning credit. He found himself more and more interested in what he thought of as "linguistics" -- although he meant by the term something much broader than what most theoretical linguists of the time seemed to understand. He cobbled together an emphasis in "linguistics" which resembled no linguistics program of which he was then aware.

Baslow was much impressed with Noam Chomsky's work. It was important, he thought, to understand and appreciate the implications of "Transformational-Generative Grammar" as it was then sometimes still called. He did not think, however, as Chomsky evidently did, that linguistics should consist of nothing but the study of such grammars.

Baslow included, under the rubric of "linguistics", the work of many people who did not call themselves linguists. He thought of Erving Goffman, in his most recent work, as something of a linguist. He thought of Harvey Sackes, Emmanuel Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson, the Conversation Analysts, as being linguists. He thought of much of the work that was called "Cognitive Anthropology" and "Ethnography of Speaking" as being, essentially, linguistics. He ranged broadly in his reading...but did not achieve much depth. Chomsky would have dismissed much of what Baslow wash interested in as "performance", whereas theoretical linguists should concern themselves exclusively with "competence".

Baslow couldn't shake the idea, however, that a proper definition of the word "language" had to include the fact that people stood around, in mutually focussed interaction, talking to each other. They instruct each other, negotitate and argue with each other, tell each other stories, make promises, and recount what other people (at other times, in other places) have said. They thereby form a network of talk which collectively instantiates the abstraction "language".

The "competence" Chomsky had undertaken to describe was almost certainly a part of how they constructed this elaborate edifice. Baslow was convinced, however, that there were other parts that also deserved the name "linguistics".

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