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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Linguistics: A Bridge between Science and the Humanities

Paul D. Fallon.

The study of language is paradoxically the most humane of the humanities and at the same time the most scientific. It is a quintessential aspect of the humanities because, in Malinowski's words, "questions of language are indeed the most important and central subject of all humanistic studies."

Furthermore, language is one of the most striking differences between humans and animals; to use Fry's term, we are "homo loquens," talking human. Yet linguistics is the most scientific of humanities because it deals with language as a set of empirical facts subject to various hypotheses about the nature of language. In the words of Whitman, linguistics "has large and close analogies in geological science, with its ceaseless evolution, its fossils, and its numberless submerged layers and hidden strata, the infinite go-before of the present." Historical linguistics provided Darwin with an analogy for his theory of evolution. More recently, linguists have even used linguistic inquiry to introduce secondary students to the scientific method.

Linguistics lies on the edge of two very different disciplines, with the potential to act as bridge between science and the humanities; it is a paragon of interdisciplinarity because language as a medium pervades all fields and may thus be examined using a number of different lenses. Speech, for example, may be quantified through the acoustic analysis of vowel formants, analyzed categorically through distinctive features, transcribed into printed words or subjected to scansion, and used to reveal individual or group identity.

Knowledge of what it means to be human is incomplete without knowledge of language and its inner workings; this knowledge requires the joint participation of science and the humanities to investigate and preserve our genetic and cultural patrimony--the 6,800 languages which are rapidly disappearing, thus diminishing the scope of our typological database and the breadth of our linguistic heritage.


Paul D. Fallon  (United States)
Assistant Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
Howard University

Paul Fallon received his B.S. and M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, and his Ph.D. in Linguistics from The Ohio State University in 1998. He is Assistant Professor in the English Department at Howard University. His research interests include phonological theory and historical linguistics. He is currently working on a descriptive grammar of Bilin, a Cushitic language spoken by 80,000 speakers in Eritrea.

  • Linguistics
  • Humanities
  • Science
  • Relation between Science and Humanities

(30 min Conference Paper, English)