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Towards A Theory of Titles

Here I am, in my office, doing some background research for a paper…. and getting all distracted by linguistics-internal silliness.  There’s a funny phenomenon in linguistic theory papers (perhaps in theory papers of other domains as well?  I’d be curious to hear from other folks about titular conventions in their field, too) where it seems as though the choices in paper titles is pretty constrained.  There’s the super-descriptive, a la “An autosegmental account of Coast Salish”, the broadly defined (“Trends in…”, “Working papers in…”, “Foundations of…”, “Frontiers of…”, “Aspects of…”, etc.), and several more modern spins on less-academic sounding cheeky titles like “Mam, my trousers is fa’in doon: Community, caregiver, and child in the acquisition of variation in a Scottish dialect”…

I’m sure there are more archetypes of lingusitics journal titles, but there’s one in particular that really stands out for me.  It’s “Towards a Theory of…”.  I confess to having titled my BA thesis in accordance with this particularly snooty sounding one.  But what I find intriguing about this one is that it seems to be relatively recent.  A quick search of the Language and Language Behavior Abstracts database gives me a full 81 hits for “Towards a Theory of”, the earliest from 1972 (“Pedagogical grammar: Towards a theory of foreign language materials preparation”).

I’m taking the first of three linguistic theory foundation classes this quarter, so all the heavy reading I’ve been doing is from the 1920s-1950s, essentially.  A time of very investigative, interesting, fairly cohesive research.  And a lot of papers that have very solid sounding titles:  “Prinicples of Phonology”, “A functional view of language”, “A System of Descriptive Phonology”, etc.  Nobody titling anything with movement included.  So my thought is… did the generitivist schism make us all self-conscious?  It’s as if no one wants to say anything very definite any more, but instead to merely add little bits of knowledge to an already extant body of work and eschew responsibility for any possible major theoretical missteps.   All of the sudden we’re “Towards a theory of” stuff all over the place!  Though in reality, I think this was Chomsky’s game plan too… by the time you’ve analyzed his most recent work and found logical flaws, he’s already onto a new formulation and no longer interested in what you’ve spent so long looking at.  Everything is in a perminant preliminary state.

Anyway.  I guess that’s enough soapboxing for now… I really ought to get back to work!

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