Contemporary linguistics
A personal view, from Jeffrey Kallen
What linguistics (alone) does NOT do:
Imply that linguists know many languages
Decide whether it is best to say ‘It is me’ or ‘It is I’
Account for animal communication systems
Explain the development of language in children
Prevent languages from dying out
Predict the direction of language change
Set out plans for language teaching or learning
Chomsky’s view of adequacy
Noam Chomsky, (born 1928),
arguably the most influential
linguist of the modern age.
Landmark works: Syntactic
Structures (1957), review of
B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior
(1959); Aspects of the Theory of
Syntax (1965); Rules and
Representations (1980); The
Minimalist Program (1995).
Shifts the focus of linguistics to
generative grammar.
Observational adequacy
Chomsky (1964: 28–29)
'The lowest level of success is achieved if the
grammar presents the observed primary data
correctly'. But note that 'what data is relevant is
determined in part by the possibility for a
systematic theory: ... the fact that a certain noise
was produced, even intentionally, by an English
speaker does not guarantee that it is a wellformed specimen of his language'. 'Speech is
subject to various, often violent distortions that
may in themselves indicate nothing about the
underlying linguistic patterns'.
Descriptive adequacy
A 'higher level of success is achieved when the grammar
gives a correct account of the linguistic intuition of the
native speaker, and specifies the observed data ... in
terms of significant generalizations that express
underlying regularities in the language' (Chomsky 1964:
28). Implicit is the view that grammars should be
generative, i.e., they should 'express structural relations
among the sentences of the corpus and the indefinite
number of sentences generated by the grammar beyond
the corpus' (Chomsky 1957: 49).
Explanatory adequacy
'A third and still higher level of success is achieved when
the associated linguistic theory provides a general basis for
selecting a grammar that achieves the second level of
success over other grammars consistent with the relevant
observed data. ... In this case, we can say that the linguistic
theory in question suggests an explanation for the linguistic
intuition of the native speaker' (Chomsky 1964: 28). See
King (1969: 13): 'given any number of observationally
adequate grammars, explanatory adequacy selects the
descriptively adequate grammar'.
Some fundamental questions
How does linguistics relate
Form and meaning
 The individual and society
 System and use
 Different historical stages of a language
Ferdinand de Saussure
Swiss linguist (1857–1913);
influential in historical linguistics,
but best known for the Cours de
linguistique générale (1916),
assembled by his students at the
University of Geneva (appeared
in English in 1959, re-edited
1986). Saussure saw linguistics
as part of a wider field of
semiology, the science of 'the life
of signs'. Signs relate the
signifier (outward form) to the
signified (concept or idea) in a
particular way.
Saussure: sign = signifié + signifiant
'I propose to retain the word sign
[signe] to designate the whole
and to replace concept and
sound-image ... by signified
[signifié] and signifier
Principle I: 'The bond
between the signifier and
the signified is arbitrary',
i.e., 'the linguistic sign is
arbitrary'. (Saussure [1916]
1974: 67)
Saussure: the social system
'In separating language [langue] from speaking
[parole] we are at the same separating: (1) what
is social from what is individual; and (2) what is
essential from what is accessory and more or
less accidental'. Langue 'is the social side of
speech, outside the individual who can never
create or modify it by himself; it exists only by
virtue of a sort of contract signed by the
members of a community' (Saussure 1974: 14).
Saussure: separating synchrony and diachrony
'If we considered [langue] in
time, without the community of
speakers [la masse parlante] ...
we probably would notice no
change; time would not
influence language. Conversely,
if we considered the community
of speakers without considering
time, we would not see the
effect of the social forces that
influence [langue]. (Saussure
1974: 78)
Franz Boas
Born Germany (1858), died New
York (1942). 'Grounded
anthropology and linguistics in
fieldwork' and 'continually argued
that all languages are equally
viable vehicles for the expression
of thought, in spite of their formal
differences, which might reflect
differences in cultural interests'.
Also stressed that 'the principles
of a language's construction
remain largely unknown to its
speakers' (Foley 1997: 195).
Mary Haas
Born 1910, died 1996. Studied
linguistics under Edward Sapir
(student of Boas). Fieldwork on
Native American languages of
the southeast (Creek, Choctaw,
Alabama, etc.), then in California
and elsewhere. Pioneered
linguistic description and
historical reconstruction of
undocumented languages. Said
to have trained more American
linguists than Boas and Sapir put
The anthropological tradition
Strong emphasis on description, working
with native speakers
Psychic unity: the fundamental
relationships between language and mind
are universal
Leads to an interest in comparative and
typological cross-linguistics study
Leonard Bloomfield
Born 1887, died 1949. Influenced
by Boas, Sapir, and Saussure,
Bloomfield stressed the
importance of scientific
description in linguistics. 'In all
sciences like linguistics, which
observe some specific type of
human activity, the worker must
proceed exactly as if he held the
materialistic view'. 'Above all, he
must not select or distort the
facts according to his view of
what the speakers ought to be
saying' (Bloomfield 1933: 38).
Bloomfield: early postulates
'The totality of utterances that can be made in a speech
community is the language of that speech-community'.
'We are obliged to predict; hence the words "can be
made". We say that under certain stimuli a Frenchman
(or Zulu, etc.) will say so-and-so and other Frenchmen
(or Zulus, etc.) will react appropriately to his speech.
Where good informants are available, or for the
investigator's own language, the prediction is easy;
elsewhere it constitutes the greatest difficulty of
descriptive linguistics'. (Bloomfield 1926: 155)
Roman Jakobson
Born Moscow 1896, died Boston
1982. Foundational to Moscow
Linguistic Circle and Prague
Linguistic Circle (1926–1939). In
US, worked with Boas,
Bloomfield, Morris Halle, et al.
Work covered nearly all aspects
of linguistics (especially
phonology), and poetics,
semiotics, discourse analysis,
structural approach to folklore,
aphasia, language acquisition,
and linguistic universals.
Jakobson: the system
'I do not believe in things, I
believe in their relationship'
(Georges Braque). 'It is not
things that matter, but the
relations between them' (E.T.
Bell) 'Attention must be paid not
to the material units themselves
but to their relations' (Jakobson
1973). (Waugh and MonvilleBurston 1990: 5)
Putting Jakobson in context
'Linguists should ... not abstain from synchronic investigation
(as did the Neogrammarians); they should not dispense with
the study of semantics (contra the American structuralists) or
eliminate it from the domain of syntax (as early
transformational grammarians did). Language should not be
overemphasized to the detriment of parole (as for Saussure),
nor competence to the detriment of performance (as for
Chomsky). Furthermore, one should not concentrate on the
cognitive or referential function of language to the prejudice of
the other, primordial functions' (Waugh and Monville-Burston
1990: 32).
Chomsky: a look at the fundamentals
Form and meaning
'The person who has acquired knowledge of a
language has internalized a system of rules that
relate sound and meaning in a particular way. The
linguist constructing a grammar of a language is
in effect proposing a hypothesis concerning this
internalized system' (Chomsky 1972: 26).
System accounts for intuitions
(1) John is eager to please
[John pleases someone]
(2) John is easy to please
[someone pleases John]
(3) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
[follows grammar but meaning is anomalous]
The individual and society
If each individual has an innate capacity to
construct a grammar of whatever language(s)
are found in the environment, then each
individual reflects the universal characteristics
of language. 'If something is true for an
individual, I'm sure it's true for a society'
(Chomsky, UCD lecture).
System and use
'Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal
speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speechcommunity, who knows its language perfectly and is
unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions
as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention
and interest, and errors ... in applying his knowledge of
the language in actual performance'. 'We thus make a
fundamental distinction between competence (the
speaker-hearer's knowledge of his language) and
performance (the actual use of language in concrete
situations)'. (Chomsky 1965: 3–4).
Linguistics: only as good as the data
Adherence to descriptive aims, not language
 Explicit description in phonetics needs the
International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
Morphology and syntax need explicit systems
of description, ideally cross-linguistic
What will the data be: intuition or naturallyoccurring data? Individual or societal?
Linguistics: which system of rules?
Chomsky: from (revised extended)
Standard Theory to Minimalism
Optimality Theory
Functional Discourse Grammar
Role and Reference Grammar
Systemic Functional Grammar
and new theories of phonology ...
Linguistics: where does it stop?
Is language unique to humans?
How does first language acquisition relate to cognitive
How and why does language change?
How do people use language to achieve things in the world
(make friends, win arguments, promise, apologise ...)
Do different gender groups use language differently?
How can writing systems be designed and adapted?
Why do people have strong feelings about some languages?
Is access to language access to power?
So many topics to research ...

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