If you move in the same Facebook circles as me—and if you're reading this, chances are there's at least an overlap—you've probably already come across this blog post, in which a Helsinki-based linguist called Joe McVeigh critically reviews this paper, which appeared in PNAS earlier this year. McVeigh really goes to town with the paper, pointing out several flaws (and rightly so, I'd say), but the reason I wanted to rehash it here is because his opening statement struck a chord with me:
"I can understand the temptation to research and report on language. We all use it and we feel like masters of it. But that’s what makes language a tricky thing. You never hear people complain about math when they only have a high-school-level education in the subject. The “authorities” on language, however, are legion. My body has, like, a bunch of cells in it, but you don’t see me writing papers on biology."
You see, of the fourteen authors of the PNAS-paper, not a single one was a linguist. Some Reddit commenters saw in this blog post—and the above quote in particular—a plea against interdisciplinary research and even found it "smacking of arrogance", but that's not at all what this is about. There's something peculiar about language as the object of scientific study, something which invites many a non-linguist to posit hypotheses and develop theories of his own. I see at least two reasons for this. One is the simple fact—also pointed out in the quote—that language is something that we all own. Everyone reads, writes, speaks, intentionally manipulates language in word play, or experiments with it in poetry or literature, whereas only very few of us do the same with the DNA-sequence of a fruit fly. In other words, the object of study is much more accessible than it is in most of the hard sciences. The second reason, I think, is the fact that the basic linguistic insights—the axioms of linguistics if you will—are insufficiently known outside of the field, which in turn might be due to a lack of intradisciplinary consensus on what those axioms are. In short, there's still a lot to do for linguistics, both in terms of moving the field forward, and in terms of informing the outside world of that progress.