Really, what is linguistics good for?


Several months ago — when I had more time (before baby #2 arrived ;) — I watched Particle Fever on Netflix. Whoa! An amazing documentary about the international effort, spanning decades, between scientists from different fields to build a massive particle accelerator called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short. The original goal was to crash two particles together, traveling close to the speed of light (186, 282 miles per second), with the hopes of discovering the Higgs boson—the central missing link in the Standard Model of particle physics (which "explains how the basic building blocks of matter interact, governed by four fundamental forces").

The particles are so tiny that the task of making them collide is akin to firing two needles 10 kilometres apart with such precision that they meet halfway.

Lost yet?

Let me explain how all this relates to the BIG question of this blog post:

What is linguistics good for?

When one of the theoretical physicists was asked at a press conference a similar question, his answer blew me away and resonated so much with how I feel about the latent utility of linguistics. Here's a transcript of the exchange:

The question by an economist was, "What is the financial gain of running an experiment like this [LHC] and the discoveries that we will make in this experiment?"

And it's a very, very simple answer.

I have no idea.

When radio waves were discovered, they weren't called radio waves, because there were no radios. They were discovered as some sort of radiation.

Basic science for big breakthroughs needs to occur at a level where you are not asking "what's the economical gain", you're asking "what do we not know, and where can we make progress?".

So what is the LHC good for?

It could be nothing, other than understanding everything.

-Prof David Kaplan

It doesn't take much imagination to see how this same scenario applies to linguistics and biblical studies. I often hear the same question asked — not by an economist — but a theologian: "What is the exegetical gain of paying attention to linguistics?"

The answer is, largely, the same.

*A special thanks to Pau Sabria who saved me the hassle of typing the quote up.