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.