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State of the Field: Slavic Linguistics


This issue of the Newsletter offers,rather than two pieces, a single take on the state of Slavic Linguistics. Steven Franks is Chair and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Indiana
University, Bloomington. He is also Professor in the department of Linguistics,
Adjunct Professor in Speech and Hearing Sciences, and Editor-in-Chief of the *Journal of Slavic Linguistics*. Comparing the situation in Slavic Linguistics today with what it was in the
1990s, he asks questions we hope will spark discussion at the annual conference and beyond.


O Slavic Linguistics, Quo Vadis?
Steven Franks, Indiana University


The future of Slavic linguistics, and its relationship to the larger disciplines of Slavic languages and literatures, on the one hand, and to general linguistics on the other, is extremely difficult to assess at this point in time.

In many ways, the fate of Slavic linguistics is not really different from the fate of the Slavic field in general. We share with everyone else in Slavic studies a fortunate history, and flourished along with the overall proliferation of Slavic Departments in the post-war propaganda struggle against the “Evil
Empire”. But the new reality is that the mania is over, so it is time to redefine ourselves.

In 1996, I published a “Reflections” piece in the Journal of Slavic Linguistics on this same topic. (The piece is linked from the Slavica web page: http://slavica.com/jsl/jsl_reflections05.html.) Looking back, it now seems to me that I may have been unduly optimistic about the prospect of “building bridges” (the
title of my piece) between Slavic studies and linguistics. At the end of 2009, it seems to me we are distressingly further away from defining ourselves than we were in 1996. This is probably no surprise.
I wrote things like the following in addressing my fellow Slavic linguists: “I would rather urge you to break with traditions than perpetuate them. In my opinion, a Slavic Languages and Literatures department is an accidental home for a Slavic linguist, just as supervising an undergraduate language program is an accidental responsibility, thrust upon us through the same public misconception that linguists speak a lot
of languages.”

So what did I recommend Slavic linguists do? I maintained that “our future lies in making what we do relevant and accessible to the world of linguistics at large” and so that “we need to build bridges to our colleagues working on other languages and on language in general if we are to survive and prosper in the academic community of the 21st century. … Slavic linguistics in isolation and out of context, unconcerned
with problems of the study of language formulated more generally, is simply not going to be viable in the future.”

In 1996 I was able to offer good reasons why we were already apparently “making significant progress in
transforming ourselves into linguists who specialize in Slavic.” Some of these reasons might seem to persist: conferences like Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics and journals like JSL, the involvement of theoretical linguists at AATSEEL meetings. But if one takes a really good look, I think one can only
be struck by the lack of cohesiveness and the absence of a unifying field. In a word, Slavic linguistics is adrift.

To my mind, there is an obvious reason why we are so at sea: linguistics in general is becoming increasingly fragmented, the sense of convergence that not so long ago inspired our enterprise is sorely missing. So my earlier advice that we hitch ourselves to the general linguistics wagon turned out not to be
the most useful: that wagon has taken us in vague directions as it meanders through a morass of ways of thinking about language. As a result, I think the role of linguistics—and of linguists—in AATSEEL remains poorly defined and has gradually diminished.

The unclarified status of Slavic linguistics is clearly mirrored in the job situation. Twenty years ago, forwardlooking departments were seeking to hire new faculty with one foot in general linguistics. But what happened? Well, those people did not—could not—put Slavic back into the center of general linguistics research, as hard as they might have worked. Now, to the extent that anyone is hiring Slavic linguists,
departments are looking for Slavists who know enough about linguistics to keep the programs going, but who more importantly have strong interests in allied areas, particularly language teaching and culture. Slavic departments definitely do not want high-tech, symbol tossing, jargon touting, rule writing, constraint ranking, devil-maycare theoreticians who just happen to be doing their stuff with languages spoken
by Slavs. They want Slavists who know something about linguistics—and a lot more besides.

So now what? Does the change in job descriptions mean we should retool and go back to being more traditional? I think not, since those jobs are few and far between. Besides, scholars ought to study what they are truly interested in; otherwise what is the point of pursuing an academic career in the first place?
Still, we owe it to our students to be forward looking. Where is the field going, for the foreseeable future? It seems to me that the growth areas in linguistics and in Slavic linguistics are all in applied, practical domains. Pedagogy and second language acquisition is a traditional area that is still greatly underexploited
in our curricula and in our research programs. There is certainly still a niche for theoretically informed
research into second language acquisition. A newer applied area is Slavic computational linguistics, which, like SLA, is practically oriented but could also be a tool in testing and developing linguistic models. If I were putting together a new graduate program, I would want to highlight a computational track. The need for text mining, tagging, machine translation, grammar extraction, and other automated services is rapidly
growing, especially as we see Slavic speaking nations become increasingly assimilated into the European community. And, of course, computer assisted instruction is an integral part of this. If Slavic departments go this route it will also help them retain value and visibility in their home institutions, many of whose administrations see Slavists as an anachronistic breed. Certainly, in the future, technological sophistication will still be a sine qua non for success.

I have kept for last the most difficult question: “What role can AATSEEL play in the Slavic linguistics profession?” To be honest, linguists have become increasingly marginalized in AATSEEL over the years. Now, we do see some panels ostensibly devoted to Slavic linguistics, but to my mind there are few papers that would actually be of interest to general linguists. Linguistics articles in SEEJ are also vanishingly
rare. Rather, I would characterize AATSEEL linguistic activities as concerned with Slavic languages, rather than with language in general (which is the purview of linguistics). Our aim is to describe the facts of Slavic languages in a structured, insightful way. We take what we need from general linguistics in order to accomplish this, but that is as far as it goes. I think we are at crossroads, the divide between Slavists who
study language and linguists who work on Slavic languages is too great, and maybe these are irreconciliable goals. Maybe, instead of building bridges, we should be defining territories. I would
like to see this done in the context of AATSEEL, but I don’t know how to bring it about without moving inevitably away from AATSEEL. This does not however mean AATSEEL should forget about linguistics.
I have spent most of my career trying to get linguists to worry about Slavic languages, and indeed I believe that our languages are now much more strongly represented in general linguistics research. But this is not because of anything Slavists have done, it is because speakers of Slavic languages have gotten PhDs in general linguistics. The vast majority of these people have barely heard of AATSEEL, let alone think of joining it. AATSEEL talks and SEEJ papers are largely ignored. So what can we do to bring these people
into the fold, to revitalize AATSEEL as an organization that serves everyone in the Slavic field? That is the challenge I leave you with.