Some Columbia linguists may know that the Macedonian language lacks an infinitive form for verbs, while others know that Sanskrit has eight nominal cases, but all of them know the struggles that come with being in a small, unrecognized major.
Columbia is one of only two Ivy League schools, along with Princeton, that does not offer a linguistics major, although undergraduate interest in the field has been growing. Columbia’s program has been suspended since 1991, but students can petition for an independent major in linguistics or graduate with a special concentration in the discipline.
“While that’s actually kind of nice for those of us who do elect for the independent major—since we get the benefit of small classes with other very dedicated language enthusiasts and lots of attention—it saddens me that so few people actually know what linguistics is as a result of its lack of recognition by Columbia,” said Marybeth Seitz-Brown, CC ’14, who is awaiting the approval of her independent major in linguistics.
Some linguistics majors expressed an interest in seeing Columbia’s linguistics program evolve into a real department. “The lack of a major at this point is honestly a little baffling,” Julia Blume, CC ’13 and a linguistics major, said. “Students and professors at other universities are often shocked when I tell them this, as it is not at all an uncommon major, and there is a lot in place already to establish a small department and good major.”
The program is gaining popularity by the year. Last semester, professor John McWhorter’s Introduction to Linguistics course had 146 students enrolled, more than double the 70 students who took the course in 2009. Next year, eight seniors will graduate with an independent major in linguistics. Three years ago, that number was zero.
New classes, with an ever-increasing variety, are being added each year.
“The strategy of students and faculty has seemed to be to add more classes, have more people petitioning for the major, and so forth, until it becomes visibly absurd that there is essentially a phantom major and department which is not recognized by the University,” Blume said.
The program reached a high point in the mid-60s, but after a series of downward slides—which included the departures of notable former professors Uriel Weinreich and William Labov—before its 1991 suspension.
Columbia’s linguistics program was restarted in the early 2000s, but program director Alan Timberlake said that his and fellow Slavic languages professor Boris Gasparov’s imminent retirements, as well as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ flat budget, make it doubtful that the department will ever be unsuspended.
Weinreich “had this ability to glue the other members who were individualistic, and once he was gone everyone saw things their own way,” Slavic studies professor Radmila Gorup, who received her Ph.D in linguistics from Columbia in 1986, said.
The emergence of linguist Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar in 1957 also ran counter to the longstanding tradition of seeing language as a form of culture, which Columbia’s department favored.
After that, the department was “never quite sure how to respond,” Timberlake said.
To major in linguistics, one must file for an independent major through a committee in the Office of Academic Affairs. This process requires the submission of several documents, including a personal statement, a teacher recommendation, and a detailed academic schedule plan.
“With a department, we wouldn’t have to deal with as much bureaucracy,” linguistics major Laura Milmed, CC ’13, said. “There would be a set of regulated requirements and courses consistently offered, taught by a faculty that truly specialized in the scientific study of language.”
Still, a small department has its benefits. “With such a small program, most professors get to know their students quite well,” Zuzanna Fuchs, CC ’13, said.
Columbia’s Linguistics Society organizes talks and dinners to partially fill the gap left by not having a proper department, Blume said. Members meet on a biweekly basis for informal discussions, though the club’s audience has generally been limited to people already interested in linguistics, president Alex Klapheke, CC ’12, said.
“There’s a sort of language cult among those of us who are really dedicated to the department, but I’m sure there are more people who would be interested in linguistics if it had a larger presence,” Seitz-Brown said.
Despite the lack of a department, Columbia’s linguistics program offers courses that approximate programs at other universities. “The availability of classes here is impressive, given the lack of a department,” Klapheke said.
“I think linguistics as a discipline is really on the rise. There is a lot of important work being done right now,” he said. “Hopefully the university will realize the utility of linguistics study and catch up with its peers in that area,” he said.
“In the meantime,” Timberlake said, “it is one hell of a program.”