Letters to the Editor SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No 1 Contents Rotokan Revelations—Franny Irchow

The “Slater Method” of Linguistic Fieldwork

H.D. Onesimus

Though the cause be hopeless, the pure in heart persevere. —Aristotle

Let us cut right to the chase. Fieldwork is an abomination, a rat-infested sty of offal, the stench of which could drive even a battle-hardened linguistics department administrative assistant to tears. If fieldworkers do not desist from their perverse pursuits, we shall have no one but ourselves to blame when linguistics as a discipline is abolished by common consent of academic deans throughout the world.

This much should have been abundantly clear from my bestselling book on the subject, as well as from the modest essay which I was honored to provide, by special invitation, to a 2010 “special” issue of Speculative Grammarian devoted to the infernal subject of excessive data production.

However, the clarity which I have brought to the topic in the past has apparently neither quelled nor quenched the greed of the masses, for I find that now, instead of once and for all rejecting this outmoded and unneeded headlong rush for additional “facts” about languages, Speculative Grammarian conversely persists in publishing fieldwork tales of the most detailed and diabolical kind.

The most recent offense in this long line has been a series of so-called “articles” by Keith Slater, outlining the results of his investigations on a language of dubious ontology, which he refers to as “Pinnacle Sherpa.” Setting aside, for a moment, the obvious question of whether such a “language” even exists (an ISO code is as absent as geographic specificity in Slater’s publications), I note with horror that Speculative Grammarian not only publishes this rubbish, but in fact praises it in various aside comments.

Stronger measures are apparently called for, if the cause of linguistic purity is to be upheld.

One obvious concern for those devoted to the survival of the very field of linguistics is that the ominously named “Slater Method” appearsdeceptively and seductivelyto be a desk-based approach to fieldwork, inasmuch as it involves comfortable chairs, internet connections, and (presumably, though Slater never deigns to mention such critical details) excellent coffee. Slater claims that all of his fieldwork has been conducted in mediated fashion, via Skype and other digital communication modes. Indeed, some colleagues (whom I shall not name, in order to spare them intense embarrassment) have suggested to me that this is some sort of a “middle way,” by which linguistic fieldwork and linguistic deskwork might be, as they quaintly put it, “reconciled.” Mediated fieldwork, they tell me, is fieldwork conducted at the desk.

Balderdash! No reconciliation is possible. Deskwork is correct; fieldwork is corrupting. Gathering data at one’s desk is tantamount to treasonit leads to perditious purgatory. The field is full of folly; the desk is the domain of decency, decorum and doctoral degrees. And yet Slater does not see this.

The critical difference is this: linguistic investigation must focus on books, not on “speakers” and what they say. Data is not grown in some metaphorical field, it is discovered at the desk. Language is not discovered, as though it were a previously unknown amphibian scurrying through Bornean jungles. No. Language is explained, through patient sorting of index cards and concomitant insightful publications. Linguistics is built upon the solid rock of analysis, not the slippery sand of ecologism. Linguistics should concern itself with the immutable, the permanent, the tangible, not with the ephemeral and unverifiable. This is to say, Chomsky got it right.

One does not like to criticize other scholarsespecially one as intellectually defenseless as Slaterbut this “Slater Method” spells a further descent into primitivity; its spread signifies no less than the utter demise of our field. And it must be stopped.

Speculative Grammarian, once a bastion and beacon of brain power, has floated from its moorings and risks the wrecking of our entire discipline. I implore the editors to recapture reason and return to the right. The survival of our fieldthe field of the seated scholardepends upon you.

Letters to the Editor
Rotokan RevelationsFranny Irchow
SpecGram Vol CLXIV, No 1 Contents