LINGUIST List 7.102

Tue Jan 23 1996

Sum: Linguistics and the millennium

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Brigitte Nerlich, Sum: Linguistics and the millennium

Message 1: Sum: Linguistics and the millennium

Date: Tue, 23 Jan 1996 10:53:20 GMT
From: Brigitte Nerlich <>
Subject: Sum: Linguistics and the millennium
We got 15 replies to our questions concerning the past achievements and
future prospects of linguistics. We would like to thank Stirling Newberry,
Bill Bennett, Dan Moonhawk Alford, John Clews, Peter Schmitter, Martin
Eayrs, Donald Carroll, Bob Yates, Mike Maxwell, Larry Trask, Leo Obrst,
Pius ten Hacken, Andrea Menegotto, Jonathan B. Alcantara, and Zvjezdana
Vrzic for their stimulating and thought-provoking replies.

The answers to the first question centred round the issue as to whether
linguistics is progressing, regressing or going round in circles.Stirling
Newberry and Pius ten Hacken voted strongly in favour of the view that
linguistics is progressing, the former giving at the same time an excellent
summary of the main views expressed in reply to the second question
concerning the three main discoveries in linguistics: "Linguistics is
certainly progressing! After all, we have gone, in the beginning, from
tremendous cultural snobbery (eg *barbaroi* for those who are not *koine*
speakers and so on), to understanding that a large fraction, if not all, of
human language descends from a common source. We have come to see how
languages transmute over time, we are beginning to glimpse the fundamental
ways that language arises in the mind", and so on. Pius ten Hacken voted
for progress in linguistics from a Kuhnian-cum-Chomskyan point of view,
arguing that if "progress in a science is the increase of the overall
explanatory power of its theories", then this increase can be observed in
the 'mentalistic paradigm'. Andrea Menegotto felt more pessimistic and
voted for going round in circles. Progress in linguistics can only be
achieved, she claims, if we find "a common ground, and since the decline of
structuralism we do not have one." Pius ten Hacken and others would
certainly say that this common ground has already been found. Dan Alford
also voted for "going in circles during all of this century, admitting
neither a Darwinian evolutionary base for 'language' nor the physics
insights of what reality is." On a similar line, John Clews wants to know
whether "language development on a human, evolutionary scale, was also
progressing, going round in circles, or regressing?" Peter Schmitter took
up the general historiographical gauntlet and discussed the problems
inherent in any attempt to find 'global lines of development' in
linguistics. He argues that one can only start to look for them after
having established whether we want to make a speculative and/or
teleological statement based on the philosophy of history (which can
neither be verified nor falsified), or whether we want to make an empirical
statement. In general, we had the impression that those working in the
Chomskyan tradition are more optimistic and would, we assume, argue
(although no one did) that it would possible to give a series of lectures
on linguistics that would give us the same sense of satisfaction as the
series of lectures on geology which had provoked our questions. Those not
working in this tradition are generally more pessimistic. Another issue
taken up by those replying to our questions was the implicit 'comparison'
between linguistics and geology/natural sciences. Bill Bennett deplored the
"lack of a dynamic theory (which is unnecessary for a system of
classification such as needed by the natural sciences)". Zvjezdana Vrzic
argued (and we fully agree with this view) that "trying to be more like a
'real science' is probably justified in the sense of introducing more rigor
into the field and certainly, politically useful, but it may be harmful if
this 'comparing' and 'borrowing' is indiscriminate. The object of our study
is different, both 'natural' and 'social'" - and Pius ten Hacken and
Jonathan Alcantara would add: cognitive.

Those replying to this question listed between one and six discoveries.
There was more consensus than we had expected: Chomsky, his innatist
hypothesis and universal grammar received 6 votes; Jones and the discovery
of the historical nature of language in general 5; Saussure and the
discovery of the systematicity of la langue and the difference between
langue and parole 3; Trubetzkoy's and Jakobson's work on phonology 2. Other
nominations were: the discovery of the difference between language and
reality, the invention of phonemic writing systems, the discovery that the
human language faculty is in large measure autonomous, and that language
(particularly, E-language) can reflect social or other extralinguistic

Leo Orbst was the only one to address this question and came up with the
following list of desiderata which we most heartily endorse:
"1) I would like to see computational models of language change created. I
think that there are enough tools and information available to begin
mathematically treating diachronic models.
2) Work on theories of communication, i.e., wider than the study of
narrowly circumscribed human language: animal, non-verbal, etc., i.e,
semantically significant transmission and representation of information.
3) Bring to the study of language more mathematical treatments, including
additional modern subdisciplines of mathematics such as topology and
category theory, the latter the study of form par excellence. I see these
subdisciplines in particular as being usable to advance the state of
metaphor study and discourse theory."

Once again, thanks to everyone who took part in the discussion. If you have
views you have not sent us yet we should still like to have them.

Brigitte Nerlich and David Clarke

- ------------------------------------------------------------------
Dr Brigitte Nerlich
Department of Psychology,
University of Nottingham,
Nottingham NG7 2RD,

Phone 0115 951 5361 Ext 8341; home:0115 9287317
FAX 0115 951 5324

- ------------------------------------------------------------------
Dr Brigitte Nerlich
Department of Psychology,
University of Nottingham,
Nottingham NG7 2RD,

Phone 0115 951 5361 Ext 8341; home:0115 9287317
FAX 0115 951 5324
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