‘Exploring Language(s)’ – video 05 out now!

The new ‘Exploring Language(s)’ video is an interview with professor Augusto Soares da Silva (UCP – Braga ) on the status of Portuguese as an international language. We recorded the interview in Portuguese; then I manually added the subtitles in the three ‘official languages’ of the channel. Watch it with the subtitles in your favorite language! 😉

🇬🇧 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRaK8NM1e5g
🇪🇸 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=org4reB65jI
🇮🇹 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF5EaTimK-8

As usual, the links to the video will be stored in the video repository.

‘Exploring Language(s)’ video 04 out now!

The new ‘Exploring Language(s)’ video is now online. It is the second part of a comparison between Spanish and Italian, two Romance languages whose differences are too often undervalued. In this second episode, I will deal with issues regarding grammar  and lexicon. Watch it in the language you prefer! 😉

🇬🇧 English

🇪🇸 Spanish

🇮🇹 Italian

The links to all YouTube videos are listed in reverse chronological order here.

‘Exploring Language(s)’ video 03 is out now!

Spanish vs. Italian – part I: Pronunciation and orthography

The new ‘Exploring Language(s)’ video is now online. It is the first part of a comparison between Spanish and Italian, two Romance languages whose differences are too often undervalued. In this first episode, I will deal with issues regarding pronunciation and orthography. Watch it in the language you prefer! 😉

🇬🇧 English

🇪🇸 Spanish

🇮🇹 Italian

The links to all YouTube videos are listed in reverse chronological order here.

‘Exploring Language(s)’ video 02 is out now!

Why it is time to accept that the English language today is a diversity policentric entity, and no variety is inherently superior to (or more real than) any other.

The new video is out now! Watch it in the language you prefer! 😉

🇬🇧 The myth of ‘real English’:

🇪🇸 El mito del ‘verdadero inglés’:

🇮🇹 Il mito del ‘vero inglese’:

The links to all YouTube videos are listed in reverse chronological order here.

First YouTube video out now!

The ‘Exploring Language(s)’ YouTube channel is officially kicking off! 🙂

A short video introducing my YouTube channel ‘Exploring Language(s)’ is now available. You can watch it in your favorite language by clicking on the relevant link below! 😉 All my YouTube videos will also be stored in the apposite section of the website. 🙂

🇬🇧 ‘What is Exploring Language(s)?’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rq_1zJPFmdI

🇪🇸 ‘Qué es Exploring Language(s)?’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWcjvfPNMro

🇮🇹 ‘Che cos’è Exploring Language(s)?’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UrfxcFSP80

This video is just a short introduction. Honestly, I know that the result is not perfect: it is quite evident that I was not at ease in front of the camera. Moreover, the recording and editing of a simple video took me days and was quite stressful. However, I am thrilled to launch the channel. It is the beginning of a new project that is making me rediscover the joy of learning something new from scratch through a process of trial and error. In my next videos, I will do my best to get better and better results. 🙂

Time to ditch the ‘language purity’ myth and enjoy diversity

I have just published an opinion article on the Spanish website Globedia. It deals with the longstanding myth that some language varieties are inherently better than others, illustrating, in particular, the case of English and, to a lesser extent, Spanish. It is, for the most part, a translation of this post into Spanish. Read it online or download the PDF! Please comment and let me know what you think! 🙂

Ernst Cassirer on Kant and modern linguistics

In 1945, just a few days before his untimely demise, the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer gave a speech entitled ‘Structuralism in modern linguistics’ in front of the Linguistic Circle of New York (his paper appeared in the journal WORD a few months later). Importantly, Cassirer did not use the label ‘structuralism’ to refer to the mainstream, mechanistic approach inspired by an early (rather outdated) version of behaviorist psychology. Proponents of this approach only focused on the description of the strictly observable (see the work of scholars such as Bernard Bloch or George L. Trager, among others). Instead, Cassirer referred to an alternative position, which we may define as ‘European/Sapirian-oriented’, whose advocates investigated language as an instrument to attain certain goals; as such, they were not content with describing linguistic structures but they also aimed to account for how linguistic structures contribute to communication (see the work of André Martinet or Morris Swadesh, for instance).

This approach to the study of language was based on three tenets. First of all, the analysis of meaning should be based on occurrences of actual language use, rather than etymology or textbook rules. In order to achieve an accurate description of the formal and semantic structures of a language, it was deemed necessary to observe the linguistic behavior of native speakers, which takes place in a specific socio-cultural environment, as language is shaped by use. Second, the function of linguistic units deserves to be brought to the fore, at the same level as the form. Indeed, a description of the formal shape of linguistic elements and their distribution does not count as a full description of a linguistic system: such an account may describe the formal relations among the elements of a system, but it will miss out on the role of these elements within the system and their functional relationship with the other elements. Finally, the different levels of language analysis (phonology, morphology, syntax) are not watertight compartments which should be separated by a dividing line; rather, they are interconnected. In particular, Kenneth L. Pike insisted that grammatical and phonological analysis should be run in parallel since one can benefit from findings in the other.

In other words, this approach consists of a systemic view of language which takes form, function, and meaning all into consideration, giving prominence to the way a language is actually used, also being attentive to the socio-cultural background of a community of speakers. Since the structure is created and shaped by function, a study of structure cannot be pursued regardless of the study of function. In turn, the study of function is made possible by the observation of how language is used. Observing language in actual use is also important in semantic studies, as meaning has always been a thorny issue in linguistic theory; actually, the nature of meaning has always been a matter of debate. However, the study of language in use allows for a consistent treatment of meaning as socially shared. This perspective finds philosophical support in Wittgenstein’s claim that meaning is use, i.e. the semantic properties of a linguistic unit are identical with its use in the language. Indeed, the adoption of an approach to language based on actual usage provides the analyst with a principled framework for addressing matters of meaning adopting an empirical perspective which, though fallible, is more reliable than etymological criteria or received knowledge, both synchronically and diachronically.

The study of language in use is unavoidably bound to take cultural issues into consideration. This is particularly important for the fieldworker, especially when it comes to translating texts into languages spoken in close communities. Observing the actual use of language is the key to understanding the adjustments to be made in order to strike a balance between respecting the purport of the original text and removing the obstacles to comprehension for the target audience. The observation of language in use and the relevance of function along with form also suggest that phonology and grammar are interwoven in a single linguistic system, where semantics also has a role to play. Indeed, all units of language are to some extent related to meaning. Even the phoneme, which does not have a meaning in itself, plays a role in determining the meaning of a larger unit, through its function of distinguishing it from other units which might have occurred in the same position.

With regard to the (perennial?) debate on the belonging of linguistics to the natural or the social sciences, Cassirer argues that this orientation firmly sides with the latter view. While mechanist linguists strive after assimilating linguistics to the natural sciences, European/Sapirian-oriented structuralists are keener on the Humboldtian perspective of language as a human activity (ένέργεια), rather than as a measurable product (έργoν). For them, merely describing sounds in terms of their acoustic and articulatory properties conceals the symbolic nature of language. Instead, adopting a systemic perspective on phonology and grammar on the one hand and on form, function, and meaning on the other reflects the view that language is a coherent whole in which all parts are interdependent upon each other, rather than a set of autonomous facets. Linguistics, as a semiotic science, focuses on the study of language as an instrument to engage with the outer world.

This attitude is consistent with Cassirer’s (1945, p. 114) suggestion that linguistics is a Geisteswissenschaft (i.e., belongs to the humanities), but with the qualification that Geist (literally, ‘spirit’) should not be understood as some metaphysical entity; rather, the term is to be used ‘in a functional sense as a comprehensive name for all those functions which constitute and build up the world of human culture.’ From this perspective, the approach described above is in harmony with Immanuel Kant’s holistic view of human experience (which is also necessary to science). Language is an integrated instrument shaped by use, which takes place in the context of a socio-cultural environment; as such, it is part and parcel of human experience at large. The systemic nature of experience may be seen as underpinning the success of structuralism in several scientific disciplines, as in the case of the recognition of sense-perception as having a definite structure by Gestalt psychologists.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that present-day so-called ‘usage-based approaches’ to the study of language(s) such as variationist sociolinguisticssystemic functional linguistics, and cognitive linguistics have to some extent inherited or rediscovered this perspective in the last few decades, emphasizing the need to study language in actual usage events, the nature of grammatical constructions as form-function pairings, the interweaving of phonology and grammar, and also the importance of the social and cultural context. Although this is rarely acknowledged, today the structural linguistics of the kind described above may be unfashionable but is far from relegated to the past; indeed, the three functional tenets and the overarching Kantian principle proposed by Cassirer can still be observed in contemporary linguistic theory and practice. If we accept Cassirer’s proposal, Kant’s perspective on human experience represents the basic philosophical background that present-day usage-based linguistics shares with European/Sapirian-oriented structuralism.

Mind, the history of linguistics, and a Western bias

From the beginning of my M.A. studies back in 2008, I have always approached language from a broadly cognitive/constructionist perspective, in the belief that, within this framework, I could best account for the target linguistic phenomena. Throughout the years, I dedicated myself to gain a broad and in-depth knowledge of this paradigm and applied it to my case-studies with commitment and enthusiasm. However, by the time I was approaching the end of my Ph.D., something had changed. I had begun to see inconsistencies within the framework and to question many assumptions I had previously taken for granted. Therefore, I began to explore different frameworks and to consider how to combine insights from other approaches. Still, I was experiencing a general sense of dissatisfaction concerning these theoretical frameworks. Then, one day, I came across a paper by the Finnish linguist Esa Itkonen entitled ‘On explanation in linguistics.’ In this article, the scholar boldly states at the onset, “[…] I have resisted here the utopian impulse which is all too common among the representatives of ‘theoretical’ linguistics: the present is thought to be full of promises that will be redeemed in the near future. As far as I can see, the reverse is true. If the present moment is experienced as less than satisfactory, it is so concerning the past and not to the future. Is this view justified? Certainly, no one who is ignorant of the history of linguistics has the competence to answer this question.”

That was an eye-opener.

What did I know about the history of my discipline? Very little, I had to admit. In my student years, I had never had the chance to attend a course in the history of linguistics. Whenever the ‘past’ was mentioned, it was just in passing (and these mentions, normally, referred to de Saussure or, at best, Franz Boas). The received view went as follows. After the publication of Chomsky’s book ‘Syntactic structures,’ generativism replaced structuralism as the mainstream framework. Later on, a few competitors arose. So strong was the advent of Chomskyan linguistics, that some overenthusiastic scholars claimed that more knowledge about human language was gained in the 1980s than in the previous 2,500 years (!). Advocates of rivals traditions (such as construction grammarfunctional typology, or sociolinguistics) generally maintained the same forgetful attitude toward structural and pre-structural linguistics.

As I read Itkonen’s paper, I grew intensely curious and decided to go on and read his books and the sources mentioned therein, in particular authors such as Eugenio Coşeriu and Raimo Anttila, among others. Not only have these authors in common a vast knowledge of the history of linguistics, but they also have a strong background in philosophy, classical languages, literature, and so on. Reading their work lead me to look for further readings, including both primary and secondary sources. In particular, I focused my attention on (especially American) structural linguistics, but I also explored in some detail the kind of linguistics which was practiced in antiquity and not only in Europe, but also in India, China, and the Arab world. Becoming acquainted with the linguistics of the past was a really rewarding experience, which helped me see how distorted the general idea of linguistics as science we tend to have, at least in the Western world.

We tend to hold the belief that successive approaches replace the previous ones because of greater scientific merit, and that this change is relatively quick and sharp. This is far from accurate, as often pointed out by historiographers of linguistics such as e.g., Dell H. Hymes or E.F.K. Koerner, whose calls generally tend to fall on deaf ears among theoretical/empirical linguists who do not share the same historically-oriented outlook. More importantly, knowing the past of the discipline is necessary to appreciate the many similarities, along with the differences, between contemporary linguistic approaches and past practices. To this end, it would be very important to teach the history of linguistics to students, although they may often find it hard to follow or, in the worst-case scenario, see it as a waste of time (but it should not be too hard for the lecturer to help them change their mind). Even more importantly, it would be relevant to point out that the so-called (somewhat inaccurately) ‘paradigm shift’ which can be observed in the history of Western linguistics is not to be found in the history of linguistics in India, where the practice of grammar is still based on Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī (c. 400 B.C.), a grammar of Sanskrit still unsurpassed today. A similar consideration also holds for Sībawayhi’s Al-kitāb fī an-naḥw (c. A.D. 760-796) in Arab countries.

As a consequence, it would be wise to adopt a less Western-centered and more inclusive approach to the teaching of linguistics. Indeed, while Pāṇini’s work, the oldest grammar of a known language, is often mentioned as a monumental intellectual achievement, it is normally only known by fame by non-specialists, despite the availability of exegetic sources (though admittedly not free from controversy). The significance of this work could not be stressed enough: this grammar, consisting of 3,959 rules on syntax, morphology, and semantics, composed and transmitted orally, was more advanced than any theory put forward in the Western world until the 20th century. As Itkonen suggests in the conclusion of his book ‘Universal history of linguistics,’ not only does this call into question the too often taken for granted Western ‘intellectual supremacy,’ but it would also suggest that we should revise our beliefs about the potential of the human mind, which we see through the lens of our culture. It is no chance that centuries ago certain Eastern societies developed the ability to exert control over one’s thoughts and emotions, which is often still seen as a utopia in our hyperkinetic Western world. It may, therefore, be time for us to forget our egotism and dive into the adventure of exploring other traditions as well as our past.

A logical pitfall in academic writing

When I was a student, it was not infrequent for me to have an idea and write an essay in one go. In the phase of editing, I could not see any faults in my essay because I knew what I wanted to say. Much to my disappointment, when I had my essay read by somebody else, sometimes I found out that I had communicated something quite different from what I had in mind. I believe this is one of the most insidious pitfalls in essay writing. Indeed, your intentions are unfathomable (and irrelevant) to the reader: s/he will only know (and be interested in) what you have actually written. In other words, poor word choice can fatally undermine the logic of your argument. I will now clarify this point with the aid of a simple example.

Let us suppose that you are describing an entity, which is made up of three elements standing in a given relationship with each other: your description of this scenario must be careful and consistent; otherwise, you may find yourself in trouble. Let us also suppose that you have decided to introduce your entity as ‘A’. Later in the text, you want to provide some more details about this entity and say it is made up of the three components ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. A (not so) small oversight has led you to claim, inconsistently, that ‘A’ is at the same time the whole entity and one of its three components. This already amounts to a reductio ad absurdum of your argument and you are also running the risk of going further astray. For instance, you may later term the relationship between the two components ‘A’ and ‘B’ as ‘C’. Then, you would be claiming that ‘A’ is an entity that is made up of itself and two more components, one of which (‘C’) is the relationship between ‘A’ itself and the other component (‘B’). The danger of infinite regress would then be looming large.

You may be tempted to dismiss the present post as ‘stating the obvious’ and/or dealing with a trivial issue. Though perhaps legitimate, this comment does not find support in my experience. It is true that the problem mentioned above can be resolved by rephrasing the concept so that ‘A’ is an entity made up of three components ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’, with the relationship between ‘B’ and ‘C’ being labeled ‘E’ (for the sake of completeness, let us add that the relationship between ‘C’ and ‘D’ could be labeled ‘F’ and the one between ‘B’ and ‘D’ could be termed ‘G’). However, this is the kind of issue that tends to slip under the radar. Indeed, not only can you find this kind of oversight in student essays, but also in academic books. For instance, in an otherwise well-written monograph on English phraseology, an internationally recognized linguist claimed that his analysis was “… expected to reveal very strong qualitative trends rather than statistically measurable patterns” (the emphasis is mine). This assertion is controversial because the notion of ‘trend’ is inherently quantitative, i.e. a trend is a statistically measurable pattern. In a nutshell, the author is claiming that the analysis is expected to reveal ‘As’ rather than ‘Bs’ but he is overlooking the fact that ‘A’ and ‘B’ are extensionally identical.

Putting the above quotation into context, I guess that the author aimed to say that the scope of his study was not carrying out a detailed statistical analysis, but rather identifying general tendencies and then proceeding to carry out a qualitative analysis. However, this is just my interpretation. To prevent misunderstandings in your essays, you will need to put forward sound arguments as clearly as you can. To do so, reflecting on what you want to say will be vital. However, the way you choose to say it is no less important since an unfortunate lexical choice may turn into a serious logical problem. Indeed, it seems safe to state that, in academic writing, logic and word choice must go hand in hand.

The myth of ‘real English’

It happens very often, and it is quite amusing. Speaking about someplace in the English-speaking world, at some point somebody (often a non-native speaker) will say that locals “do not speak ‘real English’ there.” Even if I limit the scope of my attention to England, I have heard this comment about the North West, the North East, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the South, and recently even London! It is funny because it would mean that ‘real English’ is not spoken anywhere in England. I have singled England out because I live there, but of course, I have heard the same comment about the rest of the UK, not to mention the US, Australia, Jamaica, and so on… nobody in the English-speaking world speaks real English! This rather awkward claim makes one wonder what on earth this ‘real English’ is supposed to be.
When a native speaker mentions ‘real English,’ they normally refer to a variety or a cluster of varieties (usually, including their own) that are supposed, for some reason, to be better representatives of the English language than others. Sometimes these comments are made in jest but sometimes they are meant to be taken seriously. When a non-native speaker mentions the phrase ‘real English’ instead, they normally mean a speech that is similar to the English they were taught in school. In European countries, this is usually a standard variety of British English, which is supposed to be close to the variety spoken in London (as if a single, uniform variety of English could be detected in such a diverse megalopolis). Both native and non-native speakers are wrong on this point.
The former are mistaken because although different varieties are more prestigious than others, and more used in formal situations, the English language belongs to the whole English-speaking community. No variety is inherently ‘superior to’ (let alone ‘more real than’) any other: it is a matter of social perception, which depends on variables such as region, class, age, gender, and so forth (the interested reader is referred to the sociolinguistic literature on this topic, in particular, the seminal work of William Labov in the US and Peter Trudgill in the UK) Non-native speakers are mistaken because the variety of English they are taught in school is just a variation-eliminating idealization based on a (rather artificial) variety which is used in the media and other formal contexts. The importance of this kind of language can hardly be overstated, and it has always proved its worth in language teaching. However, standard varieties are largely the result of a process of abstraction, and surely there is no reason to consider any of them as representing ‘real English’.
In conclusion, there is no such thing as an opposition between ‘real’ and ‘non-real’ English. The English language is a diverse, multifaceted entity, which is characterized by a myriad of (to a large extent, mutually intelligible) varieties whose commonalities and differences cut across a range of dimensions. Of course, non-standard varieties can be hard to understand for the non-native speaker, but there is no reason to claim that these varieties are any less representative of ‘real English’ than more standard ones. Rather, the high level of diversity which characterizes contemporary English reflects the different historical and cultural heritage of the many distinct English-speaking communities around the world. Therefore, while it is a fact that some varieties of English are more standard and/or more prestigious than others, we are not entitled to claim that any of them is ‘real English’. Instead, we should recognize that all these varieties are integral parts of this beautiful, multi-colored entity that is the English language today.

Image credit: Talking People