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Linguisticy Problems

August 5, 2015

I’ve been thinking about linguistics again lately, mostly because of the symbolic thought thing I mentioned on Monday. Also because linguistics is awesome and why wouldn’t I think about it? But let’s stick with the Monday explanation, because it’s arguably less weird.

So, in my linguistics classes, I learned three different models for how certain parts of language work.

  1. Optimality theory (OT), for sound changes and syllable structure. It posits that we’re all born with a set of rules like “five consonants in a row is bad” and “make a vowel nasal after a nasal consonant” and that learning to speak involves learning which rules take precedence over other rules. Linguists do not know all these rules, but they’re working on it.
  2. Word structure trees, which map the relationships between the roots of words and the affixes you add to them. It’s clearer to write “antidisestablishmentarianism” as a tree than simply broken into pieces, because then you see what’s actually modifying what. It’s “disestablish-ment” not “dis-establishment”, and so on.
  3. X-Bar theory, which is a way of doing sentence trees so they also clearly show relationships between each word and group of words in a sentence. It allows for linguistic variation (the happy dog vs. le chien heureux) and the movement of phrases within a sentence (I saw that man vs. that man did I see). Aside from a little bit of what I feel to be hand-waving, it’s a fairly good, versatile theory.

All do good things. All explain and predict a lot of what goes on in a language. They don’t explain everything. They didn’t eight years ago in my lectures, when I’m reasonably sure my profs were glossing over things for the sake of simplicity, and they certainly don’t now that the internet has really started getting its claws into language.

First, they’re all specific to their respective fields. There aren’t many people explaining syntax in terms of OT, or morphology in terms of X-Bar. If the ultimate goal of linguistics is a Theory of Everything, we should be aiming for something a bit more united, no?

Then I start nitpicking. OT is currently set up so that the rules we use are infinite, which can’t actually be the case. X-Bar doesn’t do well with repetition of the “thing is—insert rambling sentence here–the thing is” variety and some of the “this clause moves into this phrase slot” stuff we learned has always seemed a bit handwavey. Like, sure, that explains why the words are in that order, but “why did it move there?” shouldn’t be answered with “because it does” … should it? Especially when the position you tell me suggests the clause is modifying, say, a verb phrase when it’s actually modifying the sentence as a whole.

Plus there’s a whole bunch of semantic information that these theories just miss. Phonesthemes, for instance. Some kinds of puns. Lexical ambiguity. Emphatic stress. Why we keep coming back to threes (three items in a list, three repetitions to make a point, three prepositions in a row before confusion kicks in). How we make the shift so that phrases like too second season of Sleepy Hollow-y and because reasons or sentences like I can’t even are actual English. Why sentence fragments are okay. Whether you’d parse this paragraph as a sequences of “sentences” or as a run-on. Not to mention why stutterers break words and sentences where they do, or why all kids learn language the same way and make the same kinds of mistakes and why adults don’t have the same pattern of acquisition.

There’s another theory I was exposed to, that states that we learn language as chunks and patterns, which explains things like clichés, idioms, jargon, verbs becoming nouns becoming adjectives, and the “noun phrase with an adjective ending” thing, but it’s equally gappy in a lot of ways. It does get closer to the symbolic thought stuff, though.

I can’t help feeling there’s a better way. Don’t know what it is, but it’s got to be out there. It almost makes me wish I’d gone for that post-graduate degree after all. Almost. At least then I’d have fewer questions, or at least more means of answering them myself.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    August 5, 2015 10:55 am

    Might it be the difference between a node, a line, a plane, a solid, and time, or between a situation (flat field) and a story (a field designed to fit into human cognitive slots)? By analyzing the difference between indigenous and Western story, in the light of Lacanian psychology, might some of these slots reveal themselves? I say this on the hunch that you’re right, and that the reason linguistics can’t get there is it is missing a set of tools, which might be lying around elsewhere. These might not be the tools, but it would be fun anyway, and perhaps the hunch is worth puzzling over… well, it is for me! Thanks for the nudge.

    • anassarhenisch permalink*
      August 5, 2015 11:42 pm

      Completely agree about the missing tools. I suspect someone else has them—anthropologists? folklorists? philosophers?—and they’re not talking to the linguists about them. You might be onto something with the node-line-plane-solid thing too. There could be an interesting model in that. Also note that Middle Eastern, African, and East Asian stories follow different patterns again.

      • Harold Rhenisch permalink
        August 5, 2015 11:44 pm

        yes, about the other stories!

      • Harold Rhenisch permalink
        August 6, 2015 12:01 am

        Dancers or musicians might know, but it would be in body-language, so not translatable!

  2. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    August 5, 2015 11:15 am

    Hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmmm maybe it’s a matter of looking at the presumptions behind the linguistical methods and seeing what the limitations of those are, as they are likely to influence the logics… mathematics has been making great strides at coming up with different forms of enquiry… perhaps there’s a model there. It seems that where one looks one’s method allows one to look there: the mathematics of the four-dimensional space on the surface of rough objects, for instance; indeterminacy and quantum mathematics, for another. Without the terms, it’s all not even thinkable. Perhaps linguistics is equally creative. I’d guess so. By assumptions, for instance: unity is attainable; logic is not cultural or mutable; time is directional; humans raised in built environments relate to body space and its symbolic projections in the same way as those raised in non-built environments, or that these relationships have no influence on logics (in-as-yet-undetermined ways); thought is cognitive, not muscular, i.e. a mind is not-body and body is not-mind; and so on. Ancient distinctions that are still fun? Hmmm hmmmm hmm hmmmmm.

    • anassarhenisch permalink*
      August 5, 2015 11:52 pm

      First presumption: There is a system. This seems to play out for the most part.
      Second presumption: We’re born knowing this system so it must be anatomical/psychological. Again, seems to play out.
      Third presumption: Brains are like computers. Computers like a certain kind of logic. Linguistics must therefore adhere to that logic. I think this is where we start going off the rails.
      There are probably more presumptions than this.

      I have a hunch that the linguistic subfields aren’t really collaborating. That they’re getting too into phonology or syntax or whatever and have started to miss the big picture because of it.

      There’s also the “language influences thought influences culture influences language” loop, which probably plays into this somehow.

      Keep on thinking!

  3. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    August 6, 2015 12:11 am

    It is fascinating that the system of math, indeterminacy, that was invented in a society in which the measurement of a person determined whether they were living or dead, depending on the observer, came up with indeterminacy, or that the Germans, whose language tends towards gestalts, came up with the greatest gestalt, the Bomb… many examples of this type suggest that whatever system there is is more culturally coded than its proponents are aware. A Nez Perce system might entail Itseyeye laughing… it’s in his name, even (Coyote, he is), which would be a kind of wild card in system making, and at some point you would have to go out and talk to a spirit. A tradition like that would have developed a different kind of linguistics (if it was even prone to inventing one in the first place)…. of course, linguistics is what linguistics is, as are all Western fields of scientific inquiry, but, as a poet, I find it fascinating that they are all alike, for the most part, except for things like Goethe’s phenomenological science… a linguistics he would have worked out would have not been in series, but would have opened from within itself, and then opened again, and then opened again, in a process of becoming itself. Now, linguistics is, if I understand, the study of the process… with the Goethean example I’m only trying to point out that at least one person (there are more) thought of different processes, ones that used the human body as the measurement tool, in its body-ness, not its kindness…. so, why are all the sciences (except for phenomenology) alike? Why is that? In all the multiplicity of human experience, in all the faiths and religions, in all the languages, there is one science? Hunh? It would strike me that it is chasing its own tail, or there’s a good chance of it. Ah, perhaps there are other sciences, but they are called different things, and the answers are there?

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