skeptical about the mainstream 5 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 5)

Hi again, everybody!

I turn here to some less persuasive criticisms of mainstream linguistics made by non-mainstream thinkers who believe that they know enough linguistics to attempt this exercise.

Amorey Gethin, who has a good knowledge of language in general terms and writes with a particular focus upon the teaching of languages, has apparently exceeded his understanding of these matters in claiming that the entire discipline of linguistics is essentially nonsense. Much of his focus is upon Chomskyan linguistics, and many of his points have also been made by non-Chomskyan mainstream linguists; but his announced intention is certainly to demolish the basis for the discipline as a whole. Indeed, as the originator of ‘anti-linguistics’, Gethin himself has sought to show that mainstream linguistics as a whole is very badly flawed and indeed that there is no such legitimate discipline. As has been seen, even some ‘non-nativist’ professional linguists, notably Sampson, have in fact argued for a general linguistics of minimal scope; but amateur critiques such as Gethin’s are more forcefully expressed and indeed are themselves at the very least exaggerated.

Gethin essentially denies the reality of linguistic structures and systems of all kinds. In particular, he rejects the notion of grammatical structures (syntax, etc.) as an ‘illusion’; and he attacks the entire stance of modern scientific linguistics according to which syntactic structures are typically seen as perhaps the most clearly unique feature of human language. In this respect he represents a more extreme version of Deacon (see above). Indeed, he seems to believe that linguists actually know that grammar does not exist at all, but promote it so as to bolster their own status. Inevitably, he also holds that the errors of language learners almost entirely involve vocabulary (word-level semantics and context) – not grammar, which mainstream applied linguists would hold is implicated in very many learner errors.

Gethin ‘explains’ all linguistic and language-learning phenomena in terms of the meanings of words (and word-parts) alone, treating grammatical phenomena (including features such as the singular-plural distinction, as in cat/cats) as matters of ‘general meaning’ (as opposed to the specific meanings of words as displayed in contrasts such as girl versus boy). However, by no means all linguistic phenomena (even if phonology is excluded) can be fully explained in terms of meaning (semantics). For instance, a noun is not itself the same kind of thing as the word for an entity considered in terms of its meaning. ‘Noun’ is a grammatically-defined category (for example, a noun can be the grammatical subject of a clause). Different languages assign different grammatical categories to the words for entities (etc.); in Russian there are verbs meaning, for example, ‘be white’, and it has been argued that in Apache the word corresponding most closely with English waterfall is a verb; some languages lack certain grammatical categories altogether; and even within one language the distribution of grammatical categories is often complex (for instance, red is usually an adjective, but the more general word colour is a noun).

Furthermore, sentence-length linguistic meanings are not necessarily directly expressed in the forms of the actual sentences. If they were, even the (often complex) syntaxes of unrelated languages would be much more closely similar than they tend to be. And even within one language there are often two or more grammatically different ways of expressing the same meanings, for example active and passive voice equivalents such as Mark drank the beer and The beer was drunk by Mark. Conversely, there are syntactically identical but semantically and logically distinct pairs of sentences such as Jane is planning to marry a Dutchman (‘a specific Dutchman’ or ‘some so-far unidentified Dutchman’).

Gethin deals unconvincingly with cases of these types; and even thinkers of this kind can hardly deny that the typical order of subjects, verbs, objects, clauses etc. in a sentence differs from language to language. For instance, as I noted above, Welsh sentences typically begin with the verb. This itself is a matter of syntactic structure, not of meaning. Gethin also denies the reality even of the mainly semantic distinction between referential and ‘anaphoric’ uses of English the (as in The man over there versus A man appeared … the man then left.

Another writer with views similar to those of Gethin is David Kozubei. Kozubei attributes all linguistic constraints to context; he appears to believe that if a sequence of words can be interpreted as grammatically and semantically feasible in any way whatsoever – however contrived and however remote in meaning from the sequences with which it is being compared – this disallows Chomskyans from identifying it as grammatically anomalous and from arriving at any generalizations on that basis. (Sampson and other anti-Chomskyan linguists make similar points but with much more restraint and much stronger background knowledge.) Kozubei argues, in fact, that sentences identified by linguists (especially Chomskyans) as grammatically anomalous (‘ungrammatical’ in a given variety of a language) are in fact grammatically unusual at most. He therefore rejects the entire descriptivist notion of ‘ungrammatical’ (= ‘not found in a given variety or accepted as correct usage by the users of that variety, for grammatical reasons [rather than, for instance, because of odd use of vocabulary]’).

Like Gethin, Kozubei is moving towards a model of language which will include only a minimal grammar and in consequence will fail to capture many key facts. This will be rejected by non-Chomskyan linguists as well as by Chomskyans. Kozubei goes on to claim (again like Gethin, and again unpersuasively) that the errors of foreign language learners are all semantic or contextual in nature; they do not involve grammar.

I will move onto other issues in this general area next time.

Mark

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5 Responses to skeptical about the mainstream 5 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 5)

  1. edheil says:

    > Gethin ‘explains’ all linguistic and language-learning phenomena in terms of the meanings of words (and word-parts) alone, treating grammatical phenomena (including features such as the singular-plural distinction, as in cat/cats) as matters of ‘general meaning’ (as opposed to the specific meanings of words as displayed in contrasts such as girl versus boy). However, by no means all linguistic phenomena (even if phonology is excluded) can be fully explained in terms of meaning (semantics).

    Ronald Langacker would disagree with you.

    > For instance, a noun is not itself the same kind of thing as the word for an entity considered in terms of its meaning. ‘Noun’ is a grammatically-defined category (for example, a noun can be the grammatical subject of a clause). Different languages assign different grammatical categories to the words for entities (etc.); in Russian there are verbs meaning, for example, ‘be white’, and it has been argued that in Apache the word corresponding most closely with English waterfall is a verb; some languages lack certain grammatical categories altogether; and even within one language the distribution of grammatical categories is often complex (for instance, red is usually an adjective, but the more general word colour is a noun).

    It seems here as if you’re taking “meaning” to mean “extensional meaning,” not psychological meaning, which can include different ways of construing the same objective situation. For example, “the cat is on the mat” and “the mat is beneath the cat” may describe the same objective situation, but in the first, the mat is a point of reference used to describe the location of the cat, and in the second, the cat is a point of reference used to describe the location of the cat. I would argue that these are distinct meanings. And that “waterfall” as a noun and “to waterfall” as an Apache verb would also have distinct meanings. Having read Langacker, I am not convinced there is any such thing as a purely grammatical distinction that has no semantic significance.

    > Furthermore, sentence-length linguistic meanings are not necessarily directly expressed in the forms of the actual sentences. If they were, even the (often complex) syntaxes of unrelated languages would be much more closely similar than they tend to be. And even within one language there are often two or more grammatically different ways of expressing the same meanings, for example active and passive voice equivalents such as Mark drank the beer and The beer was drunk by Mark.

    These sentences may describe the same situation (they may have the same extensional semantics) but they are prima facie distinct in meaning, if we take meaning to include matters of emphasis, figure/ground distinction, topicalization, etc.

    > Conversely, there are syntactically identical but semantically and logically distinct pairs of sentences such as Jane is planning to marry a Dutchman (‘a specific Dutchman’ or ‘some so-far unidentified Dutchman’).

    Yes, following Langacker, these could be parsed into different constructions, much the same way we can parse the spoken word /weItz/ into a verb “waits” or a noun “weights” (or the noun “waits” meaning more than one wait, for that matter).

    > Gethin deals unconvincingly with cases of these types; and even thinkers of this kind can hardly deny that the typical order of subjects, verbs, objects, clauses etc. in a sentence differs from language to language. For instance, as I noted above, Welsh sentences typically begin with the verb. This itself is a matter of syntactic structure, not of meaning.

    Contra Gethin, Langacker considers patterns of words to be symbols themselves. In his analysis the pattern (VERB) (NOUN1) (NOUN2) where the parenthesized elements are abstractions over any possible verbs and nouns, would in Welsh have roughly the same “meaning” as the pattern (NOUN1) (VERB) (NOUN2) has in English.

    Perhaps this is the big difference between an anti-linguist like Gethin and a sematically-oriented linguist like Langacker (or Adele Goldberg or George Lakoff…) — a semantically-oriented linguist believes every element of grammar has a meaning, but not every meaning is a *word meaning* — that abstract patterns which are analyzed traditionally as syntactic structures empty of semantics, are in fact semantically significant.

    And perhaps that’s the reason Gethin is an anti-linguist and the others are simply linguists who explain certain phenomena differently. 🙂

    I know nothing about Gethin but what you’ve said and he sounds like a crank to me. But some of the arguments you used against him could also be used against legitimate linguists, which is why I argue with them.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks a lot for this!  My post seems to have suffered somewhat from an attempt at brevity.  For example, I accept that when I said ‘there are often two or more grammatically different ways of expressing the same meanings’ I was oversimplifying.  Actually I did at one stage intend to hedge this comment, as in other versions of this text; I now see to my dismay that I did not get around to this here.  Mea culpa!  Clearly emphasis, topic, etc are indeed involved here.  And obviously I agree that more generally there are many aspects of meaning beyond the strictly ‘cognitive’.  Neither do I categorically deny that ‘every element of grammar has a meaning’ – although in some cases, where grammatical structures vary, it is hard to discern the meaning contrast (e.g. presence or absence of ‘complementiser’ THAT).  But for my own part I am not convinced, at least for some phenomena, that (conversely) syntactic ambiguity always involves different SYNTACTIC constructions (I would like to see empirical evidence supporting each such analysis).  And what I WOULD deny (along with almost all linguists) is that (even if EVERY element of grammar DOES have a meaning) meaning is ALL that is present, and that grammar itself is an illusion – as anti-linguists such as Gethin and Kozubei claim.  Mark

  2. “…grammar, which mainstream applied linguists would hold is implicated in very many learner errors.”

    Isn’t this a bit of a strawman? I’m not a linguist, but I know that Geoff Pullam (co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) has repeatedly stated in a variety of media that actual grammar errors are extremely rare in first-language acquisition.

    • marknewbrook says:

      Thanks!  Depending on how one defines the notion of ‘error’ in such a context, I think Pullum’s position is SOMEWHAT exaggerated (while rightly admired, he does have odd perspectives on various issues); but in any case my own comments were about SECOND language acquisition (sorry if this wasn’t apparent).  Mark

  3. […] skeptical about the mainstream 5 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 5) (skepticalhumanities.com) […]

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