In GLOT International 3, 9/10, December 1998, page 8.


Elan Dresher

The Formalist in the Field

In The Rise and Fall of Languages (Cambridge University Press, 1997), R. M. W. Dixon proposes a "punctuated equilibrium" model for the development of language, borrowing the term and concept from Eldredge and Gould's (1972) hypothesis about biological evolution. On this model change is not steady and gradual; rather, periods of equilibrium characterized by little, if any, change are "punctuated" by relatively brief periods in which dramatic changes may take place. Periods of linguistic equilibrium come about when languages spoken by communities of roughly equal size and influence are in continuous contact in a region, with no one language or group predominating. These periods are characterized by large-scale linguistic diffusion, in which all the languages in an area come to resemble each other.

When the linguistic balance is disrupted a period of punctuation ensues, characterized by the relatively rapid expansion and split of a language. Dixon proposes that the familiar family tree model of linguistic change is applicable only to periods of punctuation. Thus it is no accident that this model was originally inspired by the Indo-European languages, whose expansions and splits have given rise to major punctuations that are contributing to the decline of indigenous languages all over the world.

The essay format he adopts is effective in enabling Dixon to present the main lines of his proposal without becoming enmeshed in too many details. At the same time, he makes a number of assertions that are likely to get up the noses of various groups of linguists.

Historical linguists might object that the limitations of the family tree model have been known and discussed almost from the beginning, so it is misleading to portray it as the accepted model of linguistic change; cf. Lass (1997).

Nostraticists will not be pleased with Dixon's socio-psychological analysis of the origins of the Nostratic theory (39): "The Nostratic idea took root at a time when Russian intellectuals were cut off from close contact with the rest of the world, in a sort of Lord-of-the-Flies situation..."

Sociolinguists may take exception to the claim (105-6) that Australian, American, and British English are converging due to improved communication, including television. Chambers (forthcoming), for example, considers it a "myth" that television is responsible for dialect change.

The historical linguists, the Nostraticists, and the sociolinguists can all look after themselves. Dixon also discusses some topics that are directly relevant to readers of this magazine. Urging that linguists make a greater effort to document endangered languages before it is too late, he claims that many linguists are of the opinion that theoretical analysis is more important and on a higher plane than writing grammars.

Whether or not this view was ever widely held, it does not describe prevailing attitudes in the linguistic societies that I am familiar with. Rather, there is a sense of increasing urgency about the need for documenting native languages, and for encouraging faculty and graduate students to do that kind of work.

In refuting the myth that people who write grammars work without a theory, however, Dixon replaces it with a new myth of his own. He maintains (132) that there is something called Basic Linguistic Theory, "the fundamental theoretical apparatus that underlies all work in describing languages and formulating universals about the nature of human language." He writes that this term has only recently come into use, which may explain why few linguists have ever heard of it. This basic theory, which in formalist manner I will abbreviate BLT, has something of a timeless character, existing more or less unchanged since the ancient Greeks. The various linguistic "theories" that have arisen in the last forty years are for the most part restricted formalisms based on some part of BLT. These formalisms come and go every six to ten years, wasting precious time and energy and diverting students from writing grammars with BLT.

My view, however, is that BLT is constantly changing as a result of the development of what Dixon calls linguistic "formalisms," i.e., theories. Linguists setting out today to write a reference grammar of a little-known language, and who want the grammar to be accessible and useful to as broad a readership as possible, might choose to write in a kind of theoretical lingua franca, whatever their own theoretical orientations. This common BLT, however, will undoubtedly incorporate elements of formalisms that were once considered faddish.

The punctuated equilibrium model, then, applies to the evolution of linguistic theory as well. Relatively brief and often exciting periods of punctuation, characterized by the development of new formalisms and successive theoretical splits best characterized by a family tree, are followed by quieter equilibrium periods in which elements of the various theories slowly diffuse throughout the scholarly community, and the different theories converge toward what appears to be a BLT.

This century has witnessed a number of major theoretical punctuations. As future archaeologists might describe them, the first of these innovation-spreading groups could be named for their most characteristic artefact, the Brackets Culture. They introduced the idea of the phoneme, now considered such an indispensable part of BLT that we must make an effort to recall that it was once thought to be revolutionary and controversial. Some historical linguists maintained as late as the 1960's that the phoneme has no place in handbooks that intend to provide students with a groundwork of solid knowledge (see Dresher 1993). Now, we recognize that such a groundwork cannot be laid without taking into account the phonemic principle.

Another major punctuation was provided by the Arrow Makers, who perfected the technology of fashioning single and double-shafted arrows that enabled them to write generative rules and syntactic transformations. The influence of the Arrow Makers can be found not just in the arrow heads strewn throughout modern BLT grammars, but also more subtlety, in the amount of attention devoted to particular topics.

For example,the classic series of thirteen grammar sketches, Linguistic Structures of Native America (Hoijer 1971), originally published in 1944, is a classic of the Brackets Culture. By my rough count, about 8% of the pages of these grammars are concerned with syntax. Compare these with a similar collection of twelve BLT sketches written between 1972 and 1996, published in Goddard 1996. Here, about 25% of the pages (excluding vocabulary lists, which were not part of the earlier collection) are devoted to syntax. There is no doubt that the difference reflects the increased concern with syntax associated with the Arrow Makers. We will have to wait another generation to see what effects on BLT the Dingbats fonts of the Tableau People will have.

At the end of the day, Dixon's view of formalism as being antagonistic to field work and grammar writing is not only ahistorical, but fails to do justice to his own career. On page 130, Dixon sets out an ideal plan for a modern linguist. Though he does not make the connection, the reader who consults the references might naturally think that Dixon is describing himself. After receiving the proper training in courses and field methods, the aspiring linguist is advised to do field work on an undescribed language, and write up its grammar for a Ph.D. thesis and publication (Dyirbal, 1972). Following detailed work on another language in the same family (Yidiny 1977), the linguist can embark on a comparative study (The Languages of Australia, 1980). After doing this basic work, one can presumably go on, as Dixon did, to write on general topics that build on the earlier work (essays in syntax and semantics, 1982; Ergativity, 1994).

This impression of Dixon's career is somewhat misleading, however. As he describes in Dixon 1984, he was a student of Michael Halliday at Edinburgh, and was involved at an early stage in the leading theoretical controversies of his time. Long before he published his grammar of Dyirbal, he published two books (1963, 1965) and a number of articles on linguistic theory. He has continued to publish on these topics (1991). Thus, Dixon is no artless rustic, but has been from the first a formalist in the field, whose theoretical concerns have informed and enriched his descriptive work, and whose true career is indeed worthy of emulation.


What a load of nonsense! Is he gone yet? G'day, mate, Bob from Australia here. What are you staring at, never seen a dinkum linguist before? Maybe I don't look like your kind of linguists, we don't dress quite so formally out in the bush. I've been reading your magazine. A fine publication, lots of theory, all sorts of formalisms. One refined thingo to move words around, another whatsit to check features, very delicate instruments. A lot of good they'll do you in the Amazon jungle. Now let me show you something, it's somewhere here in my tucker-bag... Here it comes, step back, it's pretty big - now, that's an analytical device! Sharp, too. When you're eliciting unfamiliar grammatical constructions and you're back of Bourke three days by canoe from the nearest village, this is what you want to have with you. I call it the Basic Linguistic Theory. It's gotten me out of a lot of scrapes. And you can use it for spreading your vegemite. Careful with that, I'll just put it back now... I've been browsing through your State-of-the-Articles: argument structure, thematic roles, ergativity... All those tall poppies don't know what they're talking about. You know how I learned about ergativity? Arguing semantics snout to snout with an eighteen foot crocodile - that'll teach you to tell an agent from a patient. You just can't get that kind of experience sitting in an office at uni. You've got to get out in the field, that's where the languages are, mate! That's where I'm going now, and if you want to be a go-ahead linguist, then you'll take my advice and put down this magazine, pack a billy and a Basic Linguistic Theory, grab a pair of sunnies and a good hat, and get out there, too. We'll keep a snag on the barbie for you.


Chambers, J. K. (forthcoming). TV makes people sound the same--NOT! In Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, eds., Language myths. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1963. Linguistic science and logic. The Hague: Mouton.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1965. What is language? A new approach to linguistic description. London: Longmans.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1972. The Dyirbal language of North Queensland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1977. A grammar of Yidiny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1980. The languages of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1982. Where have all the adjectives gone? and other essays in semantics and syntax. Berlin: Mouton.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1984. Searching for aboriginal languages: Memoirs of a field worker. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1991. A new approach to English grammar, on semantic principles. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1994. Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dixon, R. M. W. 1997. The rise and fall of languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dresher, B. Elan. 1993. Review: Richard M. Hogg, A Grammar of Old English. Volume 1: Phonology. Phonology 10:146-157.

Eldredge, Niles and Stephen Jay Gould. 1972. Punctuated equilibria: An alternative to phyletic gradualism. In T. J. M. Schopf, ed., Models in paleobiology, 82-115. San Francisco: Freeman, Cooper.

Goddard, Ives, ed. 1996. Languages, Volume 17 of Handbook of North American Indians, ed. by William C. Sturtevant. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Hoijer, Harry, ed. 1946. Linguistic structures of Native America. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology 6. New York: Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthroplogical Research. [Reprinted: Johnson Reprint, New York, 1963, 1971.]

Lass, Roger. 1997. Historical linguistics and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.