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 such a 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 different approaches. Still, I was experiencing a general sense of dissatisfaction with regard to these theoretical frameworks. Then, one day, I came across a paper by the Finnish linguist Esa Itkonen entitled ‘On explanation in linguistics’, which 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 with respect to 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 really 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 and, whenever the ‘past’ was considered at all, it was just mentioned in passing (and normally these mentions referred to de Saussure or, at best, Franz Boas). The received view was that after the publication of Chomsky’s book ‘Syntactic structures,’ generativism replaced structuralism as the mainstream framework and, later on, a few competitors arose. So strong was the advent of Chomskyan linguistics, that some overenthusiastic scholar 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 grammar, functional 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. All these authors have in common a vast knowledge of the history of linguistics, as well as 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 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.

As a matter of fact, 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, in spite of 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 own 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 own past.

A logical pitfall in academic writing

typing English and gearsWhen 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, a 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 certain 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’. An apparently 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 which 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 labelled ‘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 which tends to slip under the radar. Indeed, not only can you find this kind of oversights 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. Basically, 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, my guess is 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. In order to prevent misunderstandings in your essays, you will need to put forward sound arguments as clearly as you can. It goes without saying that, 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.

Good and bad (use of the) resources

booksIn a passage of his book ‘Fluid concepts and creative analogies,’ the famous A.I. scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter ridiculed small, pocket bilingual dictionaries while praising thick multilingual thesauri. Although I see his point, I cannot agree with him on this matter (to be sure, the book is fantastic). Indeed, it would be unreasonable to pick up a pocket dictionary of, say, English and expect to find a comprehensive coverage of the English lexicon, let alone an introduction to the language. However, dismissing pocket dictionaries altogether does not seem reasonable. As in the case of any other resources, I believe it depends on the use one makes of them.

It is just wrong to assume that each and every person who buys a dictionary aims to become a fluent speaker of the language. In my experience as a private language tutor, there are many reasons why people may want to become familiar with a language. Some prospective learners may have family in a country where the language is spoken, some other may just enjoy going there on holiday, yet other may have a passion associated to that country (e.g., in the case of the UK, it is often pop and rock music). In all these cases, they have no ambition to attain a high proficiency level; as a consequence, they will not spend a lot of money on thick dictionaries and grammar books, and/or compelling and expensive courses. As a private tutor, it is crucial for me to always tailor my classes to the individual needs of every single student. The choice of the resources to be used must be maximally functional to reach the goals set at the beginning of the course, which sometimes can be very ambitious (as in the case of an absolute beginner who is planning to move abroad within six months) but are often more humble (as in the case of a learner who enjoys visiting a country for couple of weeks a year).

Of course, a professional linguist and/or language teacher will need many advanced resources. Indeed, we often spend a long time in libraries scrutinizing dictionaries, grammar books, textbooks, exercise books, collocation dictionaries, idiom dictionaries, urban dictionaries, lists of common mistakes, and we do it mostly out of interest. The linguist’s passion, though, is often not the language learner’s. The vast majority of learners will content themselves with carrying out relatively down-to-earth conversations with both native and non-native speakers of the language. Each case will require a careful selection of appropriate tools, possibly a combination of paper and electronic resources. The only really bad resources are those which contain factually wrong information (or are poorly written and/or organized). As for the rest, it depends on the use teacher and learner together make of them.