Friday, April 03, 2015

How it is said matters

Take languages seriously. Whenever there is some overt difference between two constructions X and Y, start out on the assumption that this difference has some kind of functionality in the linguistic system. Rather than pressing X into the preconceived mould of Y, try to find out why X and Y are different, on the working assumption that such a difference would not be in the language unless it had some kind of task to perform.— The Theory of Functional Grammar Part 1, The Structure of the Clause, page 17

<idle musing>
Seems obvious, doesn't it? But we don't do that. We say, "What he or she really mean is..." I'm in the midst of Lakoff and Johnson's marvelous little book, Metaphors We Live By, and one of the things they stress is that the way we say things matters. A lot. A whole lot. Grab the book and read it, especially pages 136–37.
</idle musing>


Helma said...

Two postscripts on a recent discussion. Color terms, nice discussion by Bernard Comrie, Language Universals and Linguistic Typology of why exactly Berlin and Kay came to be ground breaking (pp. 33-34). This was published in 1981, and B&K was less of a staple example yet, I suppose.
The other is an amusing but accurate description of the field of linguistics in Van Valin & La Polla, Syntax. Structure, meaning and function, in the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series (1997). On p. 11-12 they list the linguistic frameworks that do not take a syntactocentric view (i.e. everyone who is not a Chomskyan and has developed a counter model). The list goes on for a depressingly long time. And then it says, and then there are individuals with important contributions who have not developed a separate model. Such as .. (another long list). Ah well..

jps said...


It is kind of depressing that a field that is supposed to be all about understanding how language works can't agree on how language works—or even on the definition of terms!


Helma said...

Yep, all "we" can agree on is that we don't agree with Chomsky. That means giving up the easy road, esp. in American academia, but also elsewhere, so you might as well be principled about everything else as well. No compromise:-)