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The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other

A Martian View of Linguistic Theory,Plus the Discovery That an Explanatory Theory Does

Not Presently Exist, Plus the Offering of a Crude Explanatory Model on the Theory That

Something Is Better than Nothing

ALTHOUGH THE WRITER of this paper is not, strictly speaking, a Martian, his distance from and innocence of standard linguistic disciplines is, if not extraterrestrial, at least extralinguistic. Accordingly, this paper can commend itself to readers more by reason of its ignorance than its knowledge. What virtues it may have are mainly those of its perspective. I do not presume to compare myself to the boy who noticed that the king was naked nor linguists to the king’s subjects. Yet innocence — and distance — may have its uses. Just as a view of the earth from space may reveal patterns in forested areas and deserts which might be missed by the most expert foresters and geographers — because they are too close — so it is that what follows is what might be seen from a Martian perspective, that is to say, a perspective worlds removed from the several admirable disciplines of linguistics.

Imagine, anyhow, a Martian astronaut of average intelligence and an average scientific education. He lands on earth with the assignment of making a brief survey of the status of earth sciences. After taking cram courses in physical, chemical, and biological sciences, he reads up all he can on theoretical linguistics. Upon his return to Mars, and after thinking things over, he fancies he can see a thing or two which might be useful to earth linguists — by virtue of his perspective. It is somewhat as if he had been in orbit a hundred years ago when Sir Richard Burton and Captain Speke were thrashing around East Africa in search of the Nile’s source. From his altitude the astronaut can beam down instructions to the explorers: “No no no! You’re too far west! Head due east and in fifty miles you’ll strike a large body of fresh water. Proceed north along shore until…”

What the Martian sees in the case of earth linguistics is a, to him at least, remarkable bifurcation of theoretical effort of such a nature that the central phenomenon is straddled and, as he sees it, largely missed — as if Speke were on one side of Lake Victoria and Burton on the other. There is, on the one hand, a triumphant tradition in modern linguistics taking several forms and variously named, “descriptive,” “structural,” “transformational,” associated with people like Bloomfield, Harris, Chomsky — varied theoretical approaches, to be sure, yet sharing one important trait in common: that of approaching the phenomenon of language through a formal analysis of the corpora of languages, an analysis which abstracts both from the people who speak the language and the things they talk about. Semantics or the relation between words and things, the Martian notices, is mentioned now and then but is treated by and large like a bastard at a family reunion. Kinship is admitted, yes — after all words are often used to mean things — but the visitor does not exactly fit into the family. He, the Martian, recalls, for example, Bloomfield’s model where “experience” is stuck onto an otherwise neat hierarchy of phonemes, morphemes, and such, somewhat like a sore thumb; or the transformation model (Chomsky) which specifies a “central syntactic component” to which a somewhat mysterious “interpretive semantic component” is added as a kind of afterthought.

This is one branch of the bifurcation then, the structural-descriptive-generative analysis of language as a corpus. The other branch is not so much a working science as it is a shared belief, a faith that human language must surely be of such-and-such an order. Until a few years ago it was set down, again with all the fervor of an article of faith, that human language must not be different in kind from communication in other species. Proposals to the contrary were taken as a rejection of the entire scientific tradition of the West (Hockett). The traditional model was of course that of the behaviorists and learning theorists with one or another refinement, for example, Bloomfield’s notion of language as “secondary response.” The trouble was that this model worked only in carefully chosen cases: Jack getting thirsty and saying “Water” and Jill going up the hill to fetch it, or Malinowski’s example of the Trobriand Island fisherman shouting “Mackerel here!” whereupon other fishermen respond by paddling over. But the theory didn’t seem to work when, the fishing over, the feast eaten, the islanders were sitting around the fire spinning tales about long past or mythical events.

No less astonishing to the Martian is the more recent countervailing view that human language is utterly unlike animal communication (Chomsky), so much so that it was felt necessary to revive the old Rationalist notion of innate ideas to account for it (Chomsky). Maybe Hockett was right after all. Anyhow, what strikes the Martian most about the controversy is the extreme character of the alternatives. If he understands correctly, it appears as if, once the inadequacy of the behaviorist model is admitted, one has no choice but to chuck “empiricism,” rummage in the philosophical attic, and dust off a somewhat decrepit mind-body dualism. Surely, thinks the Martian, empiricism as it applies to science is not a dogma about the nature of the mind — that it is a tabula rasa or whatever — but rather a proposition about the practice of the scientific method, namely, that the scientist relies on data which he obtains through his senses, to account for which he constructs theories and models, and to confirm the latter he must return to sense data.

In what follows, the Martian will revive another idea, not quite so dusty nor so far removed from the practice of science. This is Charles Peirce’s theory of abduction, which is an analysis of scientific hypothesis formation, peculiarly apposite, as the Martian sees it, to linguistic theorizing, and which avoids such ideological extremes as mechanism and mentalism.

From an orbital perspective, it is possible to make other, more or less elementary observations.

It seems to the Martian, to begin with, that the transformationalists’ assault on the learning-theory model was both long overdue and remarkably successful (Fodor and Katz, Chomsky) and that, as a consequence, the latter has been dismantled and can no longer be entertained as a serious explanation of language as phenomenon. The watershed was probably marked by the appearance of Chomsky’s celebrated review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Linguistic theory would never thereafter be the same.

But, unless the Martian is very much mistaken — and it is here that he does resemble somewhat the boy who noticed something wrong with the king — it appears to him that while the prevailing behaviorist theory has been dismantled, no other theory has been advanced to take its place, this in spite of all the talk by transformationalists about “explanatory models.”

It is somewhat as if the Ptolemaic geocentric universe had been dismantled but Copernicus had not yet come along with his heliocentric model.

Accordingly, the assumption will be made in what follows that linguistic theory has not yet reached the level of explanatory adequacy of, say, seventeenth-century biology. It was then that, following the work of Harvey and Malpighi, it became possible to construct crude but accurate models of cardiac and renal function; to suppose, for example, that the heart is like a unidirectional pump or the kidney is like a filter. One may not say as much at the present time about the unique human capacity for language. True, a schema of sorts has been suggested (Chomsky; Katz) to show what happens when a child exposed to fragments of a language acquires a competence in that language: primary linguistic data→ LAD→ Grammar (where LAD is the Language Acquisition Device). What seems fairly obvious, however, is that despite claims to the contrary this schema is in no sense an explanatory model. It is no more than a statement of the problem under investigation. The “LAD” appears to be a black box whose contents are altogether unknown.

Finally, the Martian shall make bold to put forward a crude model not entirely of his own devising — Charles Peirce is its earthly progenitor.

1. Descriptive or structural linguistics cannot be regarded as a theory of language if the word theory is used as it is used in other sciences.

Structural or descriptive linguistics (Harris) deals with regularities in certain features of speech. These regularities are in the distributional relations among the features of speech in question, i.e., the occurrence of these features relative to each other within utterances. The procedure of structural linguistics is “to begin with the raw data of speech and with a statement of grammatical structure…essentially a twice-made application of two major steps: the setting up of elements, and the statement of the distribution of these elements relative to each other. First, the distinct phonological elements are determined and the relations among them investigated. Then the distinct morphological elements are determined and the relations among them investigated.” (Harris)

Such a discipline is undoubtedly beyond reproach — as far as it goes. Indeed one might well agree with Lévi-Strauss in setting up the method of structural linguistics as a model for anthropologists, a distributional method which Lévi-Strauss in fact applies to other cultural phenomena such as art, myth, ritual, religion, even cooking (Lévi-Strauss).

Yet it must not be forgotten that this method, rigorous as it is, does not pretend to be other than descriptive. Thus if one were studying hematology, one could imagine a science called “structural hematology” which consisted of a description of the cellular and chemical components of the blood and of certain “distributional” relations between them, e.g., a high nonprotein nitrogen is regularly associated with a low hemoglobin. But such a discipline, however rigorous, could never serve as a theory of blood formation or as a theory of the function of hemoglobin. Accordingly, the method of structural linguistics has at its core a fundamental ambiguity. This ambiguity can be expressed by two questions which presently go not only unanswered but unasked: (1) Does structuralism make the assumption that both language and culture are by their very nature phenomena of such an order that the search for distributional regularities is a terminus ad quern for both linguists and anthropologists? (2) Or is it rather the case that the current status of both arts is so primitive that we are necessarily at a stage comparable to Linnaean taxonomy, and so it goes without saying that at some future time linguistics shall arrive at a general explanatory theory bearing roughly the same relation to descriptive linguistics that Darwinean theory bears to Linnaean taxonomy?


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