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LINGUIST List 18.304

Mon Jan 29 2007

Disc: 18.240, Disc: Re 18.30497: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...

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        1.    Alexander Kravchenko, 18.240, Disc: Re 18.30497: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...


Message 1: 18.240, Disc: Re 18.197: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...
Date: 25-Jan-2007
From: Alexander Kravchenko <sashakrisea.ru>
Subject: 18.240, Disc: Re 18.197: An Intelligent Man's Answer ...


Peter Hallman in his remarks on grammar and eloquence reassures Gross,
Kravchenko and Dalrymple about the awareness among linguists that 'there is
more to language than grammar'. Although this was not exactly the point of
the discussion and the kind of awareness Hallman mentions wasn't contested,
I find it hard to resist making a few comments on his own statements about
grammar.

Hallman insists that 'disembodiedness of grammar is a core methodological
tenet, based on the premise, endemic in modern sciences, that insight into
the nature of a totality can be gained by decomposing it into its component
parts and studying them separately.'' There is another way to say this:
''Long live analytism!'' And Hallman is unquestionably and fatally wrong
assuming that analysis into components can lead to revealing truths about
their totality. Actually, it works the other way around - at least, in
biology (or isn't it a modern science?). In biology, the more complex the
level at which one seeks to explain a living system, the greater the need
to examine the network of interactions that lie behind the genome. As
emphasized by Cornish-Bowden et al. (2004: 716), ''the fact that a complex
network of interactions connect genes to phenotypes emphasizes the idea
that only through the understanding of the whole can we understand the
function of the parts''. A holistic approach to language assumes its
biological nature: language is viewed as a biological phenomenon uniquely
characteristic of the species homo sapiens. Yet in formal linguistics (such
as generative grammar) there is a profound lack of understanding language
as a whole, and the question ''What is language for?'' has never seemed to
be a priority (and this is, by the way, what Dalrymple spoke about). As
linguists, we should not forget that language is a kind of biologically
grounded adaptive behavior. Regrettably, linguistics, as represented by
major schools of thought over the 20th century, appears to have had very
little in common with biological science - except, of course, the
generativist claim that language is a 'mental organ'.

So one shouldn't really be surprised at the staggering parallels of the
kind drawn by Hallman between grammar and chemistry. The fact that a
molecule of water consists of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen
(H2O), each of which is a gas, and the fact that hydrogen is a highly
flammable substance while oxygen is the component that makes combustion
possible, do not of themselves help understand how a particular structural
combination of the two elements yields a substance (water) so radically
different as to be used to put out fires! No, it's not just molecules after
all!

'Disembodied' ('formal', 'generative', etc.) grammar, understood as
something that can be singled out as a universal 'invariant among human
beings', as a totality of molecules that can be formed using a limited set
of components, is a fiction, a stark delusion rooted in Cartesian dualism
and based on Alan Turing's infamous metaphor 'thinking is computation'. For
people like Pinker, grammar is ''a code or protocol or a set of rules that
specifies how words may be arranged into meaningful combinations'' (Pinker
1999: 4). This code (also known as 'language faculty') sits in everyone's
head, and the mind 'works by words and rules' or, more generally, 'by
lookup and computation' (ibid.: 21). But language is NOT A CODE
(Kravchenko 2007).The generativist notion of 'grammar' as 'generalizations
about what constitutes a grammatical syntactic format in a language
independently of what speakers choose to express with those formats' is so
outlandish that one doesn't even know how to begin about exposing it as
totally invalid. Surely, this discussion forum is not quite the place for that.

References

Cornish-Bowden, A., M. L. Cárdenas, J.-C. Letelier, J. Soto-Andrade, F. G.
Abarzúa (2004). Understanding the parts in terms of the whole. Biology of
the Cell 96. 713-717.

Kravchenko, A. V. (2007, to appear). Essential properties of language, or,
why language is not a code. Language Sciences 29(1).


Linguistic Field(s): Discipline of Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
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