Recently I've been contacting a user that I thought didn't see that Linguistics entered Beta. To my slight surprise, this person told me that she actually visited Linguistics at first but then lost interest because of the fact that questions got low-level as she felt that instead a place for researchers, the site was mostly used by non-linguists with a passing interest.

The reason didn't really surprise me.

Yes, someone else complained along the same notes. Now, I thought about this and I came to think that Linguistics needs to change its direction. I'm not saying we should close to newbies, enthusiasts. Linguistics is not and shouldn't be an elitist site. I'm not sure about what we should do, perhaps we should discourage the simple questions? Or should we instead allow them but with strict requirements?

This Meta question is an invite for you to seriously think about what you want this site to be. Our Private Beta is more than one year far away in the past, but we are still in Beta (and even if we already graduated), we can and must need to fix the situation.

Let me reiterate: I don't want to drive any non-expert away. Not now, not never. But certainly I don't want experts to disappear either. Quite the opposite, I want them to be attracted to this site.

In any case, I cannot do anything alone. The community really needs to step up, otherwise I doubt we'll really have any success if not in the really, really long term. My opinion is that this is a sort of self-examination: if you really care for the site and want to see it graduate, then this is the moment to do something about it.

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    I'd suggest chatting with the Cogsci mods and the users in the chat room; we're struggling with a similiar issue there. One of the things we came up with was an expectation of research but it's sort of a "we know it when we see it" situation. We too want to attract experts but are struggling with less familiar users' questions
    – Zelda
    Commented Dec 15, 2012 at 16:28
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    I am supposing that the kinds of people who will ask sophisticated questions already have good outlets for asking them. Graduate students can ask their peers and professors by email or in person, and expect to get a good answer. When you add to this the rather small size of the field, it looks like there will be structural problems in achieving a site of the kind envisioned.
    – user483
    Commented Dec 15, 2012 at 21:44
  • @jlovegren Yes, but that's true for other fields too. So it really doesn't explain it. It doesn't explain why there are successful forums or sites like thelinguistlist.org. Linguistics might be niche, but I doubt that explains why we have only ~500 visits a day from the whole world.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 12:02
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    @jlovegren: This is also how I see it. @ Ale: So what fora are these, and how are they successful? More visitors? I couldn't find thelinguislist.com, but thelinguistlist.org seems to be staffed by professionals from the University of Wisconsin, and they do all sorts of projects with funding from other parties. We don't have all that. Another thing: if there already are good websites where people can discuss and ask questions about linguistics, is the market perhaps oversaturated?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 22:57
  • @Cerberus Ah right. The address was wrong. :P
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 22:59
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    @Alenanno linguistlist i believe is federally-financed and university supported. i've met their representatives at a conference before. they publish book reviews and job advertisements, and occasionally host discussions between professionals. but they are completely embedded in the (exclusive) university culture, and our site is open to the public. i don't see any realistic chance of SE competing with them. i don't mind, however, making our site a place for interested amateurs to discuss questions that might not interest professionals.
    – user483
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 23:14
  • @jlovegren I think you're taking this out of its direction. No-one talked about competing against thelinguistlist. :) I'm just saying we should build up our own site and try to attract more experts.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 23:15
  • I'd like to make it clear that I had no intention of competing with other sites, or proposing it for that matter, and I don't think how this topic changed direction reflects what I meant, simply because this is not the message I intended to convey. Perhaps we shouldn't mention other sites at all in order to highlight this point.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 23:40
  • @jlovegren: linguistlist.org is financed by contributions and occasional government grants for specific jobs, plus contracting work. It is supported by Eastern Michigan University, run by professors in their copious free time, and staffed by interns who are usually graduate students in linguistics. So it's professional, and it's shoestring, and has been both since it started. I'm on the board and helped start it in 1991, so I can answer questions about it.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 18:59
  • @jlawler Thanks for the insight. I know you're usually not interested in such things, but do you have any suggestions/thoughts on this issue?
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 19:01
  • Sorry if I took things in the wrong direction, but thanks @jlawler for the clarifying remarks.
    – user483
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 23:51
  • @jlovegren No problem! Don't worry about it, really. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Dec 17, 2012 at 23:53
  • Which issue? The future of Ling.se? I haven't decided myself whether it's a good thing or not.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 1:01
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    @jlovegren Speaking as a graduate student, the more outlets for questions the better. Maybe my department is comparatively small, but I don't always have a professor or fellow grad student that I can ask for advice. We don't all work on the same things and our interests may closely match those of one single faculty member at a time, if that. Plus everyone's time is limited, so it's good to be able to spread your questions around.
    – lapropriu
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 17:43
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    Are there successful SE sites in a similar field? I'm not talking about Math SE or English SE, but something where they expect the same kinds of questions and are trying to target the same kind of audience. If not, maybe the SE format is too restrictive for the kinds of questions linguists might have for other linguists. I don't know, I'm just speculating.
    – lapropriu
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 17:47

3 Answers 3


I am a professional linguist, and unfortunately, I fully agree with the sentiment expressed by the user you have talked to. I have no problem with the questions being mainly asked by non-experts. I am reasonably active on Tex.SX, where I only ask questions, since I am a novice user. In fact, I see few questions there asked by experts.

The main problem I have with our Linguistics site is that the questions typically are notoriously imprecise, often bordering on wordy rants (which makes it near impossible to provide a reasonably quick answer). Many of the questions I see can also easily be answered by glancing at the relevant Wikipedia entry, performing a Google search, or looking up in a reference grammar or dictionary of the language in question.

It seems to me like this Linguistics site has become to many a default place to go to ask any language related question that they think of on the spur of the moment, before attempting to find the answer in any other way.

Although I would like to help people with their linguistics related questions, I don't feel like it is my duty to do so for people who haven't put any reasonable amount of effort into finding the answer themselves first.

  • Exactly. I've had much better luck discussing linguistics on the ELU Stack Exchange. I think the model is flawed for linguistics and language sciences generally, as I point out in an attempted post on the English Learners SE that applies here and in ELU as well.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 17:14
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    Oh, and while I'm on the subject, quantity is not a substitute for quality. We don't give very good answers, so we don't get very good questions. And vice versa. Improve the quality and the quantity will follow.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 17:17
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    That was the thought I had some time ago. I wanted to give good answers to improve the quality of the questions. But I might not have the patience (or time) to do so. Other SX sites dealing with programming, scripting, statistics etc. have an advantage in that they attract people with a vested interest in the subject matter. The average Joe never thinks to himself "I wonder how to perform a bubble sort operation in C", so there's already a built in sifting of questions there.
    – Sverre
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 17:32
  • But we get the same kind of questions; the answer to "how do I perform a bubble sort operation in C" is "Don't do that; use quiksort instead". The answer to most questions we get here is "It doesn't work that way".
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 13, 2013 at 18:12

Let me play a devil's advocate here.

While I agree with what you say as per quality of the questions, I think quality is not a today's concern. 0.9 questions per day is the real problem to solve. It should be increased at least twenty-fold, and it is not a simple task to accomplish.

In other words, we should attract more people to come here first.
Then they will form the average level of the questions.
Indeed, if the number of questions increases 20-fold, today's 36 questions/month will represent only 5-7% of overall number of questions. Consequently, today's users will also represent 7% of tomorrow's community. Considering this, how can we predict what kind of the questions future people will ask?

Seriously, I'm not trying to convince everyone to think that moderators and today's core users don't play significant role for a beta site as per defining topic and primary direction of site's growth. Instead, I suggest adapting to what the majority of the visitors need. And since this majority is from the future (they aren't our users yet), we don't really know who they are and what are they interested in.

For instance, if it happens they are mostly avid students, and the majority of the questions are non-professional (but still interesting for most visitors), so let it be! :)

  • Good points, but while I agree that we need more questions, the problem is: how do we do it? :) I've made a Community Ad to bring people here from English and I've had our site linked from the LinguistList.org, but I don't know what else I can do.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 11:23
  • @Alenanno "How do we do it?" -- by attracting more people. There are topics on advertisement (1), (2), (3). Note the site stats has declined since that time almost twice as much. :( Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 12:40
  • by attracting more people. The question stays the same: How do we do it? I have no ideas at the moment. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 13:34
  • @Alenanno I don't know. :) Out of many ideas listed, this answer suggests to broaden the scope, which looks like a direct answer to this question. I concur; there may be two phases: (1) broaden the scope to attract more people; (2) gradually narrow the scope later, when survival of the beta is no longer an issue (today it is). This does not look very fair, but evolution is unfair by itself. :) Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 14:13
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    Broaden to what though? We have already broadened and included Conlangs, and we currently cover any Linguistic-related topic. I don't think there is anything more to cover.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 5, 2013 at 15:20
  • Key thing to my mind is the stuff @Sverre brings up: the quality of the questions needs to be improved to attract more users.
    – dmh
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 19:45
  • This is very old but it's now 5.3 questions per day, almost graduating. Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 1:22

To my slight surprise, this person told me that she actually visited Linguistics at first but then lost interest because of the fact that questions got low-level as she felt that instead a place for researchers, the site was mostly used by non-linguists with a passing interest.

Would it be possible to ask the person why this is a problem? Is it because most of the questions that get asked are ones she isn't interested in answering? Or that the questions that she asked didn't get an expert response? Or that she feels she wouldn't "fit in"?

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    I am not sure she's available at the moment, but anyway, my impression was that low-level questions wouldn't intrigue an expert. I don't want to discourage those questions but questions like "What is IPA" (banal and stupid example, I know), should be discouraged.
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 10:13
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    I rarely find interesting questions here anymore. What we generally have now is too localized, too low level and/or too crackpotty. It is no longer as interesting to visit, as I can no longer expect to learn anything new or find leads to interesting papers.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 10:47
  • I think a question like "What is IPA?", while it can be answered with a visit to wikipedia, does merit an answer because it is actually answerable! If we can give people high quality short answers, that will improve their image of the site. I am always frustrated to see questions that are too vague to answer, so I typically leave within 5 minutes of landing.
    – dmh
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 19:49

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