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Approaches in the Field of Linguistics

Early Approaches: Pвnini and Grimm

Sobel S.P. The Cognitive Sciences:

An Interdisciplinary Approach. – London; Toronto:

Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001. - pp. 155-158.

The notion of linguistic competence introduced previously rests on the assumption of unconscious knowledge and unconscious cognitive activity. This is not a new assumption; it underlies, for example, the work of the grammarian Pвnini, who carried out his research in India sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Pвnini sought to capture the underlying patterns of the Sanskrit he spoke and, in this fashion, to describe the whole of the language. The few examples presented in the previous section indicate something of the nature of the rules that a language rests on. How vast a task it would be to try to describe it all: rules affecting the sounds and their variants, rules for forming words, rules for generating all the possible sentences. Pвnini approached this monumental task by formulating detailed, highly condensed rules. Their nature was not prescriptive but rather descriptive. As such, they reflect the unconscious knowledge of speakers of the language rather than rules that might have been explicitly taught. They capture so much detail of the language so tersely that expanding and understanding them has required the work of many scholars and much time. Since Pвnini, no one has accomplished so impressive a description of any language.

The work of Pвnini, and of other Indian linguists of his time and earlier, was not known in the West until the 19th century. Linguistics scholars of the 1800s had observed many similarities among the languages of Europe and sought to trace their history, engaging in comparative studies of these related languages and projecting backward to arrive at a "reconstruction" of the ancestral language, or group of dialects, from which they derived. One of the most famous of these scholars was Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), of fairy-tale fame. Grimm's contribution to the understanding of certain important consonant shifts among the Indo-European languages (many of the languages most familiar to us, including English) is a staple of historical-comparative study, known to all linguistics students and scholars as Grimm's law. This law, which aids in the process of linguistic reconstruction, explains for example the historical relation between Latin p (as in pater) and English f (as in father), both of which derive from the same source, a language spoken some thousands of years ago and referred to today as Indo-European.

Linguistics scholars engaged in reconstructing early languages of which there is no written record made educated guesses as to what the earlier forms were based on evidence from all aspects of these languages—from the vocabulary they contained to the kinds of change exhibited over time in their sound systems and in their grammatical structures. This type of comparative-historical research contributed a great deal to our understanding of the processes languages undergo on their evolving paths. Access to information about Sanskrit played an important role in this endeavor.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf

In line with this type of research was research carried out into this century by scholars who sought to learn what processes underlay the many languages spoken by Native American tribes. In the process, they encountered ways of thinking quite different from those of the Western European culture, which had up to then provided the background for their studies. These scholars drew attention to the many different possibilities inherent in languages for expressing perceptions and experiences common to humankind. Edward Sapir, the American linguist and anthropologist, made many contributions to the field, among them important technical studies in Native American, Indo-European, Semitic, and African languages. With this wide basis, he was able to provide the field with cogent analyses of the relation of language and culture. His interest in this aspect of linguistics extended to the relation of language and thought. He and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, expounded a view that had great influence on linguists and other scholars in the middle decades of the 20th century. Known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it was articulated thus by Whorf in 1940:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into conand ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreeto organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but Us terms are absolutely obligatory-, we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees, (in Carroll, 1956, pp. 213-214)

Whorf had held, for example, that the Hopi language reflects a different conception of time from that of English. He claimed that Hopi has no linguistic means of referring directly to time, as English does, no word for "past" or "future." If he was correct, then, according to some, the Hopi could not distinguish past from future. Whorf's point was that the Hopi language reflects a different worldview—one that our own language lacks the means of expressing.

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds first that our language determines the way we think (linguistic determinism) and, second, that the distinctions found in a given language will not be the same as those in any other language (linguistic relativity). The basic principle follows from the observation, through study of the languages of different peoples that populations "carve up" in many different ways the natural world they experience. An instance is found in Whorf's paper "Science and Linguistics." After describing some of the characteristics that distinguish the worldview of speakers of the Hopi language from our own, Whorf says

What surprises most is to find that various grand generalizations of the Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe. The psychic experiences that we class under these headings are, of course, not destroyed; rather, categories derived from other kinds of experi-ences take over the rulership of the cosmology and seem to function just as well. Hopi may be called a timeless language. It recognizes psychological time. . . but this "time" is quite unlike the mathematical time T, used by our physicists. Among the peculiar properties of Hopi time are that it varies with each observer, does not permit of simultaneity, and has zero dimensions; i.e., it cannot be given a number greater than one. The Hopi do not say, "I stayed five days," but "I left on the fifth day." (in Carroll, 1956, p. 216)

Whorf's description of the Hopi conception of time seems to indicate that for the Hopi time exists as a series of points rather than as a continuous flow. This conception relates interestingly to Kant's discussion of time, in which he argues that "all appearances of succession in time are one and all only alterations . . . all change (succession) of appearances is merely alteration" (Kant, 1781/1965, p. 218). That is, we only recognize time by the sequential changes that we observe. A flow, or passage, of time, as we are accustomed to conceiving of it, and which seems to us the natural way of conceiving of it, is equally naturally perceived as a sequence of events, each one different from the preceding one. The Hopi's "I left on the fifth day" seems to accord with this conception of time better than our own characterization of the situation "I stayed five days": "The fifth day" marks one of a series of days, whereas "five days" combines them into a whole.

The notion that language serves not only to express thought but also to filter it leads easily to the idea embodied in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language serves to shape thought. This view was subsequently interpreted to mean that we cannot—and cannot learn to—think in any way but the way in which our language dictates. Because many felt this interpretation was incorrect—and was threatening to groups that might be politically affected by it—the hypothesis was rejected by the establishment. In fact, there was a strong reaction against it, because it seemed to predict that if one's language lacked some forms of expression its speakers were incapable of conceptualizing what such expressions express. Consider, for example, the construction that is second nature to English speakers: "If I were you. . . ." Of course I know perfectly well that I am not you. That is precisely why I put it in this way, using an if construction, paired with the special form were of the verb to be. There are languages that lack a construction of this sort, called a counterfactual, as it is counter to what is in fact so.

A weaker version of the hypothesis was somewhat more acceptable, namely, that the constructions of language make it relatively easier or more difficult to think in certain ways. But consideration of the effect of language on thought was for a period a topic many were unwilling to engage in.

More recently, scholars such as Alfred Bloom have returned to this issue, as we will in the next chapter.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Another approach to the field of linguistics was that introduced early in the 20th century, when attention turned from the focus on historical-comparative studies to the principles governing the structure of languages still being spoken. The theoretical ideas introduced at this time by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) were extremely influential, essentially redefining the field. These ideas were based on the observation by scholars going all the way back to Pвnini's time (and perhaps even before then) that when people actually speak they often produce sounds and constructions that they themselves would report as somehow being not "really right," but which are understood anyway. For example, if, around lunch-time, a friend called out to you, asking "Jeet jet? your response would probably not be "Huh?" but either "Yeah" or "No,joo?' What surfaces as Jeet jet? and No, joo? is clearly understood by both of you as "Did you eat yet'" "No, did you?" You could at any time "translate" the rapid form of these questions into the complete version you produce when slowing down and enunciating carefully. By means of rules specific to your language, a conversion takes place between what you know is the real underlying form of the utterance and what you actually say. All of this is part of the unconscious knowledge we have been calling your linguistic competence.

Pвnini's work on the rules underlying the language of speakers of his form of Sanskrit leads to a recognition of the distinction between those rules and the language they generate. The notion that something underlies the forms we actually produce is the important insight here, one that has been brought out at other times in the history of linguistics. Contemporary scholars such as Noam Chomsky give credit to, for example, Rene Descartes and to the authors of the volume Grammaire generale et raisonnee, published in France in 1660 (usually referred to as the Port-Royal Grammar), for reintroducing such insights from which much of modern-day linguistics has benefited.

More recently, Ferdinand de Saussure, working near the beginning of the 20th century, distinguished between langue, the linguistic system internalized by speakers of a language, and parole, the act of speaking. This distinction implies a tacit assumption that underlying the actual utterances of speakers of a given language is a shared structure, absorbed by speakers when very young and remaining largely below the level of consciousness. This implicit structure enables them to judge, for example, when one utterance is correctly formed, another is not, and a third is all right when speaking (especially quickly) but is not really the way it is "supposed to be," as our Jeet jet? example. Put more succinctly, the distinction is between what you know about your language (your linguistic competence, unconscious though it may be) and what you actually say, which linguists refer to as your linguistic performance.

Behaviorism: John B. Watson and B. E Skinner

Saussure's work has had great influence on contemporary linguistics. But the direction taken by the field was altered for a time, despite the insights he provided Land developed. With the advent of the "behavioristic" paradigm, the "mentalistic" approach to the study of language was abandoned. The American psychologist John B. Watson (1878-1958) struck out in a new direction, becoming the founder of the school known as behaviorism. Behaviorism operates on the principle that what goes on in the mind that is not directly observable or measurable is not an appropriate and useful subject of research. The only appropriate subject matter of psychology, according to the behaviorists, is behavior. Behavior is all that we can j hope to treat objectively, because it is all we can measure. This approach leaves no place for study, linguistic or otherwise, based on unconscious knowledge. The insights of scholars over a very long period were abandoned as linguists attempted a stimulus-response account of language.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) is today probably the best-known proponent of the behaviorist approach. Among his many works was the 1957 book Verbal Behavior, in which he sought to interpret and explain the major aspects of linguistic behavior within the behaviorist framework. In 1959 the American linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) published a review of Verbal Behavior in which he refuted Skinner's premise that it is possible to account for linguistic behavior within this framework. He systematically discussed each concept introduced by Skinner in order to show "that, in each case, if we take his terms in their literal meaning, the description covers almost no aspect of verbal behavior, and if we take them metaphorically, the description offers no improvement over various traditional formulations" (Chomsky, 1964, p. 574). This review sparked a period of debate and called attention to the beginning of a new phase in linguistics, in which Chomsky has figured prominently.

Major Themes in Linguistics


Crystal D. Linguistics. Second ed.

Penguin Book, 1990. – pp. 140-157.

The subject we now call linguistics began to take its present form at the beginning of this century. The interesting thing is that it seems to have developed in an almost independent way in two places at once - Europe and America. But the two approaches were radically different, each being very much the product of its own history, and each taking advantage of the kind of linguistic material which it found immediately available. The Europeans had a continuous tradition of philosophical thought, as we have seen, which stemmed from Classical times; and an immediate background of historical study of language which came from nineteenth-century 'comparative philology' (of which more below). Most of the data about language concerned the development of Classical and, to a lesser extent, modern European tongues. Based entirely on written records, their discussion of language had usually been from the viewpoint of textual interpretation - for example, in biblical studies, literary criticism, or history. Work on living languages had been considered secondary, and limited to the activities of a few who attempted to plot the differences between regional dialects, and to construct 'dialect atlases'. A few 'occasional' studies of new languages had been made by missionaries and colonial officials in various parts of the world, but these had been narrowly pedagogical for the most part, and were usually made within a Latinate analytical framework.

The tradition which the early European linguists grew up with and reacted to was very different from that available to American scholars, who had had relatively little direct contact with the European situation. American research began by turning to the sources most readily available, the American Indian languages, and the orientation was completely different. There was no written record in the case of these languages, and there were no earlier descriptions – hence it was impossible to develop a purely historical interest or to use writing as the basis of linguistic analysis. These languages were also so different from European languages that it was obvious that Classical procedures and terminology were going to be of little value; and in any case, many of the scholars involved had developed a strong distrust of the distortions which they were aware Latinate descriptions could impose. There was also a reaction against the use of meaning as the basis of an analysis of a language – again a contrast with the way in which considerations of meaning, logic, and so on had been used for the definition of grammatical categories in the European philosophical orientation. The first task of the linguist, it was felt, was to describe the physical forms that the language had: saying what those forms meant was a logically later activity. The emphasis was therefore on a meticulous description of the individuality of each language's structure, based on the only available source – the living speech activity of the users. This dynamic role given to language was largely due to the initiative of the anthropologists of the time, who stimulated this kind of approach from the very beginning as part of their drive to accumulate information about the dying Indian tribes. Franz Boas, one of the pioneers, emphasized the need for the linguist to 'go into the field', to get an accurate, detailed description of the human behaviour involved - before it was too late, and all the informants were dead! In 1911, the first volume of the Handbook of American Indian Languages, which he founded, was published. Ten years later, another anthropologically orientated book, subsequently extremely influential, appeared - Language, by Edward Sapir. These two books, and the students of their authors, were a formative influence on the development of linguistics in America, as we shall see in due course.

There was thus a simultaneous development in language studies on both sides of the Atlantic, with neither side in the early days knowing much about what the other was doing. However, it is usual to try to date the beginning of a science by referring to the publication date of some pioneering work; and those who have tried to do this for linguistics generally give the honours to a European. Despite the tendency these days to see the origins of linguistics in the work of almost every scholar since Plato, it is generally accepted in more sober mood that the work of the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure holds pride of place as the first real essay into linguistic theory as we understand it now. To call him the 'founder' of the subject, as is sometimes done, is perhaps a bit extreme, in view of the American work taking place at the same time. Moreover, there were other strands to the early history of linguistics which contributed to its foundation - for example, the general reaction against the principles and practices of traditional grammars, which had developed in the late nineteenth century in the context of a fresh pedagogical interest in language teaching, and associated with such names as Henry Sweet (satirized by Shaw as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion), Harold Palmer, and the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen. But there is no doubt that Saussure's pioneer thinking on theoretical issues had a fundamental and lasting effect on language study - and a very specific one too, in view of the fact that his was a dominant formative influence on at least three schools of linguistics later (those of Geneva, Prague, and Copenhagen). A number of his theoretical distinctions are striking anticipations of current issues - his distinction between langue and parole, for instance, which I shall shortly discuss appears with very little difference in the competence/performance distinction of generative grammar.

But it is not possible to understand what Saussure did without seeing him in his own time, and especially against the intellectual linguistic background of the nineteenth century, against which so much of his work is a reaction. Let us, then, begin near the beginning, with an excursus into the nature of nineteenth-century 'comparative philology'.

Comparative Philology

The easiest way to identify comparative philology is by saying that it is what most people coming across linguistics for the first time expect the subject to be about - the history of language and languages, and the study of the origins and development of words and their meanings ('etymology'). In fact, as we have seen in the first part of this book, this would be a highly misleading interpretation, for the history of language comprises but a small component of the discipline as a whole. It is, moreover, a component which many people have come to disparage, in view of the melodramatic approach to much historical study in earlier centuries (in connection with the origins of language), and the pedagogical tendency to confuse matters of history with matters of current relevance in language structure. The psychological gap between linguistics and philology has indeed been very great - and it still is, in some parts of the world, particularly on the continent of Europe. Linguists would get very emotional if they were referred to as philologists by mistake; and many philologists would look rather pityingly at the new upstart discipline which they would feel lacked the decades of painstaking textual analysis on which their approach was based. These days, however, there are many signs that the old opposition between the two fields is coming to an end. From the point of view of linguistics, at any rate, it is beginning to be realized that any opposition was due more to the use of different procedures in the analysis of data than to any radical difference of opinion as to the intrinsic interest of historical vs non-historical data. Nowadays, the problems which historical linguistics raises and the facts which its methods bring to light are seen as highly relevant to the development of linguistic theory as a whole. It has been recognized that a linguistic theory will be of very limited value unless it can provide an account of the mechanisms underlying language change - either as seen in the individual (as when a child learns a language, this being sometimes referred to as 'linguistic ontogeny'), or in the community as a whole (as when a language changes from one distinct form into another, e.g. Latin becoming French - 'linguistic phylogeny'). And with an increasing number of linguists becoming interested in historical matters and using modern techniques for their analysis, it is likely that an integrated approach to historical phenomena within linguistics will not be long in being formalized. There is, however, considerably less ecumenical spirit in many schools of traditional philology, and any attempt to identify philology with linguistics would still be premature. Even with the same subject-matter, and the use of similar techniques, it will be a long time before the pejorative connotations the two labels have acquired are eliminated. Accordingly, it is still prudent even these days to keep the terms 'historical linguist' and 'philologist' distinct, the former referring to someone trained in linguistics who is applying this knowledge to the study of the older states of language, the latter to a follower of the older, nineteenth-century traditions of study.

The contribution of the nineteenth century towards the development of a scientific approach to language cannot be underestimated, even though the preoccupation throughout this period was almost totally historical. Earlier study of language history, as we have seen, was largely haphazard and vague. There was little objective, systematic analysis of the similarities and differences between language forms, or of the chronological changes in a language. If similarities were noted, it was often to dismiss them as coincidental; differences were dismissed as unimportant, or reinterpreted to suit the presuppositions of a particular (e.g. original language) theory. If the changing nature of language was considered at all, it was as

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