The department of linguistics separated from the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics (FLL) at the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester, underscoring an important niche of the Georgetown University curriculum.
The FLL is an informal collaboration between several different language-related departments of Georgetown University, including Arabic and Islamic studies, classics, East Asian languages and Cultures, German, Slavic Languages, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, global comparative literature and, until recently, linguistics. These departments operate independently but meet monthly to discuss common goals and issues, collaborating through joint events, programming, cross listing courses and occasionally pooling money for summer grant funding.
Professor Alison Mackey, chair of the linguistics department, said that leaving the FLL reflects the growing belief that linguistics is a data-based social science rather than a humanities field like language.
“The move to Linguistics now being an autonomous department in the CAS better reflects who and what Linguistics actually is today in 2023 at Georgetown,” Mackey wrote to the Hoya.
According to Mackey, the linguistics department Future Directions Committee surveyed 111 linguistics majors, minors and students last year to gauge student perception of the FLL and found support for the split.
According to survey results in an internal email, only 18% of students had heard of the FLL and could explain what it was. Eighty percent of students said they believe linguistics fits in the social sciences, not the humanities, and 15 out of 18 faculty members said they primarily work in social, data or language science.
Mackey noted that the courses offered collaborations among departments and venues where research is published and grants are given show a shift in focus towards the sciences.
“Chat-GPT and the like derive from natural language processing, which is studied and taught in our Computational Linguistics concentration as part of AI,” Mackey wrote. “So, thematically, we felt that classifying linguistics as a standalone department which is interdisciplinary better reflects Linguistics as a discipline as it is today, as well as our student and faculty interests.”
Sue Lorenson, vice dean for undergraduate education and a professor in the linguistics department, said changes in identity for both departments have led to an understanding of linguistics as a social science and languages as humanities.
“While there were once linguists embedded in each language department, that is no longer the case,” Lorenson wrote to The Hoya. “Meanwhile, the linguistics department has expanded into areas like discourse analysis, sociolinguistic variation and computational linguistics. Similarly, the language departments have undergone their own evolutions.”
“You wouldn’t have found Law & Order in French Detective Novels, Arab Film, Business Chinese or Asian Lit and Cultures in Span in the 1970 catalog, and yet here we are. All those courses are offered this semester,” Lorenson added.
Professor Robert Lado started the Institute of Language and Linguistics in 1960 within the School of Foreign Service to train future foreign service officers, according to Deborah Tannen, distinguished university professor in the department of linguistics. Lado’s approach to teaching was three-pronged: languages, theoretical linguistics and applied linguistics, Tannen wrote in an internal memo on the department’s history.
“SLL doctoral students would choose one of these three fields as a major; the other two became their minors. That meant that linguistics students had to study a language in depth, and
language students had to study linguistics,” Tannen wrote.
By 1966, the Institute became its own school, the School of Languages and Linguistics (SLL), with Lado as its dean. The SLL eventually merged with the College in 1995, and the FLL was established to keep the different departments from the SLL together.
Professor Alfonso Morales-Front, a linguist in the department of Spanish and Portuguese, said that the historic nature of the FLL as a separate school with common interests have united the departments for a long time, but they now are moving apart in commonalities.
“It’s not a school, but it’s a concept of what used to be a school,” Morales-Front told The Hoya.
Erin Fell, a fifth year PhD candidate studying linguistics, said that undergraduates may now expect more flexibility in their curriculum.
“The undergraduate requirements now allow them to more flexibly incorporate classes from other fields like psychology, biology, computer science etc., should they choose,” Fell wrote to The Hoya. “That’s great because linguistics has always been an interdisciplinary field, and this will allow for some additional personalization of course selection.”
A representative for the Future Directions Committee said that although the formal affiliation of linguistics with the FLL is ending, the different departments will still work together in undergraduate and graduate projects and teaching.
“Linguists in language departments and in the linguistics Department will continue to work with each other’s UG [undergraduate] and G [graduate] students on committees, to cross list each other’s courses and to maintain the close ties we have now,” the representative wrote to The Hoya.
“Functionally, very little, if anything, will change for students at Georgetown as a result of linguistics moving to be a regular department within the College,” the representative added.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 11/26 to correct the spelling of “Ledo” to “Lado” in all cases.