LINGUIST List 2.112

Wednesday, 3 Apr 1991

Disc: Functional, Warning, Joos, Finnish, Body-Parts

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Scott Delancey, formal and functional
  2. , A Word of Warning from John von Neumann
  3. "Bob King -, More on Martin Joos and the Boas Tradition
  4. Richard Ogden, linguists working on Finnish
  5. Allan C. Wechsler, Borrowing of body-part words

Message 1: formal and functional

Date: Mon, 1 Apr 1991 17:08 PST
From: Scott Delancey <>
Subject: formal and functional
 In Fritz Newmeyer's recent comment I can see a large gulf
between his understanding and mine of the work that functionalists
and cognitive grammarians are engaged in. This inspires in me the
uneasy thought that my understanding of the autonomous linguistics
position might be similarly unrecognizable to its adherents. Perhaps
there's an opportunity here to talk (?) some of this out so that
we can all at least agree on what we're arguing about.
 As I see it, the task of formal analysis of structural patterns
is to identify and classify (which I take to be less than N means by
"characterize") the structural possibilites of Language and languages. 
The task of functionally or cognitively-oriented research is then to 
explain these principles, i.e. to discover how they follow from 
Language-independent principles of cognition. If I sometimes use
the term "formalist" with a pejorative tone (which I know I do, and
I know it's inappropriate) it is in reference to what I take to be
the error of confusing formalization with explanation.
 My understanding of the autonomous position it that it 
assumes (and I use the word advisedly) a) that the principles which 
determine linguistic structure are autonomous, and b) that this
is because those principles reflect the structure of an innate
linguistic capacity which is distinct from other cognitive systems,
i.e. that language is the way it is because it is represented in
a neurological distinct system. To me, this innate language
capacity plays the same role in linguistic theory as vital essence
once did in biology, i.e. it is invoked to avoid dealing with all
the horrendously difficult questions of origin, transmission, and
the manifestation of what are apparently the same structural
principles of organization in remotely- or un-related systems. 
Autonomy is irrefutable in the same way as vitalism--vitalism
did not disappear because anyone was able to prove the nonexistence
of vital essence, but because researchers eventually realized that
looking for real answers was more productive. And biologists did
not wait, as some of the participants in this discussion seem to
want to do, until good reductionist answers to all the big
outstanding questions were in hand before giving up their faith
in vitalism; if they had it would probably not be quite dead
 I will not try to reply to all of N's points, at least
not all in one note, but I must point out that his chess analogy
is at best a parody of one particular functionalist school of
thought. It certainly is not a tenet of many (if any) non-autonomous
approaches that languages do not have structure, which seems
to be the implication. But it is, if my understanding is correct,
a tenet of autonomous approaches that most structural facts are
predictable from a general theory of linguistic structure. Thus
if N's analogy is pursued, it would seem to imply that the correct
understanding of chess and the place of the bishop's move within
it must proceed from a general theory of board games, one which 
has its own principles, not necessarily related to anything else 
in the psychology of humans or their reasons for playing games? 
And that it is that theory which tells us that a move such as the
bishop's in chess is possible, while other possible moves (such as
the knight's?) or systems of moves are not predicted by the
theory and are therefore unlearnable?

Scott DeLancey
University of Oregon
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: A Word of Warning from John von Neumann

Date: Tue, 2 Apr 91 14:04:58 EST
From: <>
Subject: A Word of Warning from John von Neumann
 "As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source, or
 still more, if it is a second and third generation only indirectly in-
 spired from ideas coming from 'reality', it is beset with very grave
 dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing, more and more
 purely l'art pour l'art. This need not be bad, if the field is surrounded
 by correlated subjects, which still have closer empirical connections, or
 if the discipline is under the influence of men with an exceptionally
 well-developed taste. 

 "But there is a grave danger that the subject will develop along the line
 of least resistance, that the stream, so far from its source, will separate
 into a multitude of insignificant branches, and that the discipline will
 become a disorganized mass of details and complexities.

 "In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after
 much 'abstract' inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degen-
 eration. At the inception the style is usually classical; when it shows
 signs of becoming baroque the danger signal is up. It would be easy to
 examples, to trace specific evolutions into the baroque and the very high
 baroque, but this would be too technical.

 "In any event, whenever this stage is reached, the only remedy seems to me
 to be the rejuvenating return to th^Ee source: the reinjection of more or
 less directly empirical ideas. I am convinced that this is a necessary
 condition to conserve the freshness and the vitality of the subject, and
 that this will remain so in the future."
 --- 'The Mathematician'
 John von Neumann
 Now go back and substitute "linguistic" for "mathematical"
 if you don't get the point.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: More on Martin Joos and the Boas Tradition

Date: Tue, 2 Apr 91 13:25 CST
From: "Bob King - <>
Subject: More on Martin Joos and the Boas Tradition
 Emmon Bach raised two questions about Martin Joos' characterization
of the Boas tradition (in reply, wasn't it, to something Vicki Fromkin
had said?). (1) Is Joos' formulation of the 'Boas tradition' in fact a
correct formulation of what Boas actually believed? (2) Did Joos actually
himself believe that 'languages can differ without limit as to either
extent or direction'?
 On (1) I have nothing to say. On (2) I know, because I once asked
him, that he did not, repeat not, literally believe that languages can
differ without limit etc. (This would have been in 1968 when I taught at
Toronto, where he had gone after leaving Wisconsin, and after I had
moved a good way from the neo-Bloomfieldianism that I had gotten from Joos
when I was his student at Wisconsin.) No, he said he had put it that way
to dramatize through hyperbole the contrast between the grammatical
tradition that made every language look like Latin and the 'American'
descriptive position that languages need not be like that.
 Joos always formulated other linguists' positions in slightly
outrageous terms. Some people thought that irresponsible and hated him
for it. For me it was part of his very great charm, and I liked him for it.
 Bob King 
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 4: linguists working on Finnish

Date: Wed, 3 Apr 91 10:35 GMT
From: Richard Ogden <>
Subject: linguists working on Finnish
Thank you to those people who contacted me about Finnish. I have been
trying to mail you with more information, and thought it would be a 
good idea if we could all know about each other... but we are having some
sort of problem with the mail here and I can't get a message sent to
a fair number of people. Please either get in touch again and I will 
instantly reply (!) or bear with me until I can send a common message
out to everyone.

Many thanks!

Richard Ogden
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 5: Borrowing of body-part words

Date: Tue, 2 Apr 1991 11:16-0500
From: Allan C. Wechsler <ACWYUKON.SCRC.Symbolics.COM>
Subject: Borrowing of body-part words
The Australian word "ngapurlu" ("milk/breast") appears in identical form
in at least two languages that are too disparate for the identity to be
homologous -- it must be a loan, but I don't know the direction of
borrowing. The two languages are Warlpiri and Murrinh-Patha.

I should mention that in Australian languages, borrowings of fairly
basic words are probably more common than elsewhere, because of the
prevalence of speech taboo rules. When a word becomes taboo, the gap is
frequently filled by borrowing from a neighboring language. This
supports Alexis Ramer's assertion that "borrowing patterns are highly
culture-specific and so not a reasonable topic for universalist
speculations". I would weaken that assertion a bit, and simply say that
universal statements about borrowing patterns are a dangerous foundation
for comparative work.

Perhaps David Nash can give more details on the Australian situation.

[End Linguist List, Vol. 2, No. 112]
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue