Mathematics and linguistics (part 3)

In part 1, I discussed the non-specialist’s experience with both mathematics and linguistics, and suggested that their experience is, in both cases, essentially prescriptivist in nature. Before discussing the relationship between these fields, we must move beyond the non-specialist’s perceptions and understand more about the actual scope of each of these fields. In part 2, I offered some observations about mathematics. In this part, I’ll address the question of linguistics.

To start with, I’ll turn once again to my trusty OED. As a substantive, we find that linguistic is “the science of languages; philology”, and is almost always used in the plural form linguistics (linguistic, sense B.a, b). Turning to philology, we find that the pertinent sense of the word is

3. spec. (in mod. use) The study of the structure and development of language; the science of language; linguistics. Now usu. restricted to the study of the development of specific languages or language families, esp. research into phonological and morphological history based on written documents. (Really one branch of sense 1.)

This sense has never been current in the U. S. Linguistics is now the more usual term for the study of the structure of language, and, with qualifying adjective or adjective phrase, is replacing philology even in the restricted sense.

For the non-specialist, this doesn’t add too much beyond what we experienced in terms of grammar, and possibly pronunciation drills in a foreign language course (courtesy of something that looks, after all, like its related to the “Hooked on Phonics” products). And, of course, theres that odd term, morphological.

Mark Liberman recently provided a wordbite that does a much better job at suggesting the range of phenomena studied by linguists:

The usual division is into six levels [of linguistic analysis], named as pragmatics (how language is used to communicate), semantics (the meaning of words and phrases), syntax (the structure of sentences), morphology (the structure of words), phonology (the inventory of sounds and their systematic arrangement into words), and phonetics (the physical facts of speech).

An important point here is that linguistics is the scientific study of these phenomena. A linguist will not provide a list like the following (from Richard Johnson-Sheehan’s Technical Communication Today, 2nd ed., p. 218):

Eight Guidelines for Plain Sentences

  • Guideline 1: The subject of the sentence should be what the sentence is about.
  • Guideline 2: The subject should be the “doer” in the sentence.
  • Guideline 3: The verb should state the action, or what the doer is doing.
  • Guideline 4: The subject of the sentence should come early in the sentence.
  • Guideline 5: Eliminate nominalizations.
  • Guideline 6: Avoid excessive prepositional phrases.
  • Guideline 7: Eliminate redundancy in sentences.
  • Guideline 8: Write sentences that are “breathing length.”

People who study and teach the art of communication may well provide well-reasoned arguments in favor of following some or all of these guidelines under certain circumstances. However, no such argument is part of linguistics, any more than a rule that says “Do not stop on tracks” is part of physics. It’s a perfectly good traffic guideline, and well-supported by an argument that a train hitting a car generally has negative consequences. The reason that it isn’t physics is that there’s nothing about the physical nature of cars and railroad tracks that prevents a car from stopping in such close proximity to the tracks. The reason that the eight guidelines aren’t linguistics is that they are not a property of language, but rather a recommendation on how we use a specific language.

Linguistics, unlike writing advisors or publication style manuals, is the scientific study of language. The linguist doesn’t ask “what should people do?” (that’s rhetoric), but rather “what do people do?” and “how do people do what they do?” These questions can be from several different standpoints. For example, we might look at a corpus—a collection of written or spoken language that has been collected from various sources—and examine the phenomena that appear in that corpus. We can also treat corpora as being just a sample of the actual and / or possible range of language use, and study some aspects of the larger collection from which the sample is drawn.

The corpora-based approaches, whether drawn from real corpora or some form of virtual corpus, are often aggregates over some group of people. A fundamentally different approach is to study how a specific person uses language. One form that this type of research takes is to correlate specific linguistic tasks with imaging studies of the brain. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies are one of the current tools in this vein. Evaluation and study of people with impaired language capabilities also lend themselves to this type of individual study.

The scientific tools that are deployed in linguistics are quite varied. Some of the biological investigations use highly technical instruments like the imaging systems that collect data for the fMRI studies. Other types of investigation, such as how language use correlates with sociological factors, may use surveys and interviews as their primary tools. But no matter what research tools are used, linguistic questions are always fundamentally concerned with what actually happens when people create and consume language.

Copyright © 2008 Michael L. McCliment.

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One Response to Mathematics and linguistics (part 3)

  1. […] faculty of language When we talked about the specialist’s view of linguistics, I mentioned that the scientific study of language can be approached from a variety of standpoints. […]

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