Modern linguistics is “non-sensical”?

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Modern linguistics is “non-sensical”?

Ahmar Mahboob

University of Sydney, Australia

This essay responds to the broad question: Why is it that a study of hard or applied sciences (e.g. physics, chemistry, biology, medicine) is more “desirable” and considered more “valuable” than a study of language and/or linguistics?

A one-line answer to the question is: because a study of language/linguistics makes limited (and sometimes no, or even negative) contributions to people or community. Or, put another way: we value things that benefit us more than those that don’t.

In what follows, I am not saying that ALL modern linguistics is “non-sensical”; some is not. But, by far, most of modern linguistics is “non-sensical” in many ways. I will share six of these here.

  1. In material and natural sciences, it is important to identify features that help us classify and categorise different entities. This differentiation allows us to separate out different composite parts of an entity; and, by manipulating these, we can create new things. For example, if we know what enzymes and chemicals in a particular plant are beneficial to us and for what purposes, we can use this information and develop medicines. Similarly, if we understand the nature of the atom, what it comprises of, what the characteristics of each of these sub-entities are, then we can learn to manipulate it to generate atomic power (or produce atomic bombs). Scientists, engineers, doctors, et al draw on understandings of material entities and use these understanding to create things that are useful to us.Modern linguists, following these material and natural sciences, attempt to do the same: they isolate contrasting features of a language and then label them (whether this is sound, word, grammar, or text).

However, this is where the similarity ends.

Whereas, people who understand material and natural sciences can use their understandings to create new things; the descriptions provided by linguists do not necessarily lend themselves to application. The grammars that modern linguists write have little real-world use. We cannot use or manipulate the grammatical information provided by linguists to create new things. Hence, linguists make little contribution to community.

This is because language is not a material system. It is a semiotic system – a meaning making system. Trying to study a semiotic system as if it is a material system leads to descriptions that have limited, if any, use.

Some may argue that there is application of linguistics in education. I counter: yes, but is this a beneficial application?

The use of grammars developed by modern linguists may have severe negative impacts on our communities.

For example, descriptive linguists, out of necessity, often exclude descriptions of variation in language. The grammatical descriptions provided are based on a limited set of a data collected from a few “informants” and in only a handful of contexts. These grammatical descriptions are further distanced from context by turning them into abstract linguistic rules or concepts. These descriptions, based on limited data and context, are not sufficient for use in education.

Yet, they are used in education. Including in testing and assessment, leading one to ask: how can an assessment be valid if it is NOT grounded in and constitutive of real-world experiences?

Language in education cannot be restrained by grammars produced by modern linguists. When they are, it leads to futile learning – learning that is not based on real-world and that cannot be used for community benefit.

Modern linguistics is “non-sensical” because it continues to write descriptions that are of limited (if not of negative) value to a community.

  1. Modern linguistics reduces language primarily to oral and written language. In some contexts, it includes a study of sign language and Braille – but, note that these are not considered part of mainstream linguistics. In fact, many linguists think of Braille as another form of written expression (a quick search of the definition of Braille, including the one in Microsoft Word, will confirm this). They are wrong.

Why can I be so sure?

Because oral language, written language, sign language and Braille are aspects of three different sensory systems: hearing (oral), sight (written; sign), and touch (Braille). These three sensory systems operate very differently, but work together to help us create meaning.

In fact, meaning making is not restricted to these three sensory systems. We also use the sense of smell and taste to make meaning.

And, we can compensate for the lack of one or more of these sensory systems by using others. For example, a person who doesn’t have vision, may have a much more developed sense of hearing or touch or smell or taste – or, all four of these.

Reducing language to essentially two (or sometimes three) sensory systems is “non-sensical”.


  1. Modern linguistics reduces the use of each sensory system to what it calls “language”. Other forms of communication, for example, gesture, facial expression are considered “paralanguage”. Some modern linguists have started paying more attention to these and call their study ‘multi-modal’. This work is problematic because it over-emphasizes “language” and discounts other sensory systems. It also often confuses different aspects of each sensory system.

For example, many linguists consider that oral language and written language are ends of a continuum. And, they exclude a study of sign language and Braille as a core aspect of a study of language.

The belief that oral and written language are two modes of one system is a fallacy.

The minimal engagement with sign language and Braille in linguistics programs around the world reflects modern linguistics’ non-interest and non-engagement with issues of real people in real communities. One can argue that this is a consequence of modern linguists’ fascination with theoretical questions: studying for the sake of studying; not for application or community benefit.

Oral and written languages are aspects of two different sensory systems. Modes, if any, may perhaps exist within one sensory system, but not across two (or more).

So, it is perhaps possible to say that written language, sign language, symbols, gestures, facial expressions, body movement, location, colours, size, etc. are all modes of the visual system. Just as oral language, music, other sounds are modes of the oral system. But, written language and oral language are not two modes of one system.

Let me give more concrete examples.

Imagine that you are watching a movie and, all of a sudden, the screen goes blank – but you can still hear the sounds; you may still be able to understand some of what is happening, but not everything. Conversely, imagine that you are watching a movie and the sound disappears (including music) – you may still be able to make some sense of what’s happening by watching the images, but you will miss out on a lot.

Or, if you are attending a presentation with a PowerPoint; you may stop paying attention to what a speaker is saying and focus more on what the PowerPoint is showing. Or, the PowerPoint may stop working, and you only have the speaker’s sounds (and perhaps gestures and body movement) to understand what they are talking about.

In each of the cases, the meanings we make will be different from if we could draw on multiple or different sensory systems.

At this point, you are probably saying: well, this is all pretty common sensical.

Yes, it is.

And, this is why it is “non-sensical” that modern linguistics fails to recognise and correct this.

This fallacy in modern linguistics leads to multiple problems and may seriously limit the application of linguistic descriptions. And, they may produce results that work against the well-being of a community.

For example, if we think that written language is a visual representation of oral language, then this can be done in many ways. One key distinction between types of script is whether a script is phonemic or non-phonemic. The English letters, the Urdu letters, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), are all examples of phonemic scripts – where there is some degree of sound – symbol correspondence. Most modern linguists use and advocate for a phonemic script (manifested in their promotion of the IPA).
Using phonemic scripts leads to multiple problems. People may want to spell words based on how they pronounce them rather than how they ‘should be’ spelt (as codified in dictionaries, education, and testing material). A standardised spelling system based on a phonemic script can work against people who do not recognise the spelling and sound relationships in the same way as others

In Pakistan, this has fuelled ethnic jokes and conflicts. For example, writing the word ‘school’ as ‘اسکول‘ or ‘سکول’ in Urdu can mark a person’s ethnicity. Urdu speakers prefer the spelling ‘ اسکول’, whereas people in other parts of Pakistan may prefer the spelling ‘سکول’ – depending on the sound system of their languages. This contrast – which is grounded in the phonemic features of the script – can thus fuel conflict.

Modern linguistics’ failure to utilise the relationship of language to other sensory-systems is “non-sensical”.

  1. Modern linguistics uses contrasts between structural features (sounds, morphemes, words, and grammar) of a language to differentiate between dialects and/or languages.

The principle here, as in hard sciences, is to identify features of language that can be used to contrast one language/dialect from the other. While such an approach may work in hard sciences, it is counter-productive in social sciences – specially, in linguistics.

Language operates through five senses and contributes to the meanings that we make. Language is a natural system; it is, like most other natural systems, a complex dynamic system.

If modern grammars are not responsive to the dynamic nature of language, then they are reducing them to features and rules that do not fully explain the language phenomenon.

By limiting a study of language to structural features and ignoring (other) aspects of meaning making, modern linguists provide descriptions that are limited and divisive.

By studying – and hence advocating for a study – of contrasting features, modern linguists (inadvertently?) enable others (including non-linguists) to use these features to identify different ethno-linguistic communities.

This can lead to people making fun of others based on their accent and dialectal features. This is quite common in Pakistan, where people make fun of each other’s accents. And, often, it is people from ethno-linguistically dominant communities that make fun of people from minority communities.

In colonised countries with weak governance and economy, these ethno-linguistic identities – once enabled through modern linguistics – may lead to conflict and violence. For example, one of the reasons for separation of Bangladesh from a Unified Pakistan was non-recognition of Bengali as an official language of the country. The modern state of Pakistan continues to be plagued by ethno-linguistic conflicts. And, many of the present day ethno-linguistic identities can be traced back to the damaging linguistic work carried out by the colonial and missionary linguists (who are the ones who established the discipline of linguistics). This poor and damaging work by colonial and missionary linguists needs to be corrected.

When modern linguists claim that they have “described” a new dialect or language; they are enabling ethno-linguistic identities in a complex web of community relationships that may not have existed prior to the linguists’ work and which, now, will impact the communities for an extended period of time.

A neglect of social, economic and political consequences of writing grammars and dictionaries makes modern linguistics “non-sensical”.


  1. Language is shaped by and also shapes culture and society.

I can bet that most readers are aware that language, culture, and society are interrelated.

Yet, modern linguistics separates out language from both culture and society. Culture is the focus of study for anthropologists; and, society is the focus of study for sociologists. Modern linguists (and sociologists and anthropologists) carve these out as separate (and often independent) disciplines of study in western universities. This separation of disciplines fragments our understandings of how language works in communities. Instead of thinking about how we can use understandings of language to harmonize our communities, modern linguists spend their time identifying structural features of languages.

Given the conflicts in the world today, and our awareness that language plays an extremely important role in human engagement, it is “non-sensical” that modern linguists continue to write grammars that lead to conflict; rather than using their study to build peace, harmony and prosperity.

  1. While we – including modern linguists – lament the weakening and demise of our languages, modern linguists continue to write grammars based on ways of thinking about language that are based in colonial history.

It is no secret that linguistics was developed and used as a tool for colonisation (link to:

Most linguists realise this.

Yet, while modern linguists distance themselves from the politics of early linguistic research (carried out to support colonial and missionary interests), their methods of enquiry and what they document has not much changed.

One may question: if our goals influence our practice; then, if we don’t change our practice, could our goals really have changed?

In other words, if modern linguistics has rejected its colonial and missionary heritage; then, why does it continue to collect the same type of material and answer similar theoretical questions?

While modern linguists continue to champion languages by documenting them, languages continue to die. And the people who speak/spoke these languages are further marginalised and/or assimilated.

If the work that modern linguists are doing helps communities to maintain and empower their languages, we should have seen a stabilization – if not reversal – of language loss over the last 50 year or so.

We have not.

Modern linguistics claim that it helps maintain languages and empower communities is “non-sensical”.

So, what now? Having challenged some of the dominant approaches in the discipline that I am a part of, where can I go next.

My response to this is to develop a subaltern linguistics. I will write more about what I mean by subaltern linguistics in a following essay.

For now, I will restrict myself to the following: subaltern linguistics is a linguistics based on an understanding of how we make meaning using our five senses; and, how these meaning work in the context of our communities (including variations across and within communities). The goal of subaltern linguistics is not to write grammars for the sake of describing languages or answering theoretical questions; the goal of subaltern linguistics is to develop and draw on understandings of socio-semiotics to empower our communities by creating projects that benefit our communities.

By taking a subaltern approach to linguistics, we can work for the benefit of our communities. If our communities benefit from our work, then, we, our work, and our field of study will gain recognition and value.


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