Posted by: Steve Coplan | May 31, 2006

Readings in Linguistics

One of the reasons I vacillated over a career in linguistics is that it always struck me as something of a strange beast with an identity crisis, epistemologically speaking. Linguistics purports to be a social science, with conclusions derived from empirical procedures. In reality, the practice of linguistic theory largely involves the isolation of complexities, or confining the data set sufficiently to justify a conclusion.There’s no definitive theory of the origin of language, and no consensus on the definition of language (although this looks like a promising project).

Noam Chomsky may be known as the world’s most famous linguists, but his theory is based on the notion of ‘language competence’, which is simply not a testable. For instance, language acquisition as an infant is not a conscious process. Linguistic theory in general and Chomsky in particular makes enormous assumptions about the process of cognition, neurological dependencies and the human brain’s capacity to assimilate logic constructions. For this reason, Chomsky is generally better regarded outside of the field of linguistics than he is within the field. Historical linguistics is a little more reliable since it involves the study of patterns using fairly standardized principles, and works on the basis of physical evidence. Sociolinguistics is a highly subjective field that while interesting is but is more of a tool to supporting existing conclusions than a self-sustaining discipline.

The current state of the science of language is illustrated by the reaction to two recent research papers. The first is the discovery that starlings can discern discursive patterns. Discursive patterns are the foundation that human language uses to build an infinite number of occurences from a finite set of components. Expressed in another way, there’s no upward limit to the number of words a language can have just because there’s a limit to the number of sounds the human ear can perceive. Equally, there’s no limit to the number of sentences that you can construct despite being constrained by the rules of syntax that really are conventions about what is a universally mutually intelligible string of discrete sound sets with associated functions. The authors of the study argue that on the basis of the starling’s ability to recognize this discursive patterns (which some primates cannot), they are capable of language. I tend to agree with those who conclude that it proves that starlings are just better for one reason or another in discerning audio patterns. Whether they understand that the pattern has any intrinsic meaning (which is the tricky part with human language) is out of the scope of the study.

The second is the study of the Piraha tribe in Brazil, who as it happens don’t have numerals in their language. This discovery has revived discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hyopthesis, an essentially racist notion that a language’s constructions underlie individual’s perception of reality and trammels thought patterns. As proof, linguists cite the fact that the Piraha have enormous difficulties grasping the idea of numbers when first introduced to them. Of course, no mention is made of the fact that the Piraha had no real functional need for numbers or may even as a conflict resolution strategy in a society with not much to go around created a taboo around counting. It’s not for nothing that the universal show for pettiness is the phrase: “After all, who’s counting.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may have some power when applied to an obscure isolated cultural group, but the collorary that everyone who speaks the same language sees the world in the same way is really just absurd.

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