LINGUIST List 8.1433

Mon Oct 6 1997

Disc: Discussion on Prof. Yngve's Views

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>


  1. fcosw5, Further Discussion on Prof. Yngve's Views

Message 1: Further Discussion on Prof. Yngve's Views

Date: Sun, 05 Oct 1997 13:49:49 -0700
From: fcosw5 <>
Subject: Further Discussion on Prof. Yngve's Views

This posting is intended to further the discussion of Victor H. Yngve's
book _From Grammar to Science: New Foundations for General Linguistics_
(Amsterdam: Benjamins), which was reviewed by Pius ten Hacken in
LINGUIST 8.1277, and the review replied to by the author in LINGUIST
8.1409. I admit that i have not so far had time to look into Prof.
Yngve's book myself, and Prof. ten Hacken's review convinced me that it
would not be worth my effort. Having now read Prof. Yngve's response, i
find myself tempted to suspect that i might be more in sympathy with the
views in his book than i had supposed, but i do see some definite
grounds for concern that i think might be worth addressing in this

In his response, Prof. Yngve rebukes some (unnamed) `philosophers and 
philosophical linguists [for] proposing to change the rules of the game
and redefin[ing] science so that it does apply to the study of *invented
objects* and would no longer require *contact with reality*' (emphasis
mine). It is not at all clear, at least to me, from this discussion
exactly what Prof. Yngve has in mind when he speaks here of `invented
objects', but i get the impression that he would like us to move away
from the consideration of theoretical abstractions and closer to
directly observable phenomena.

Prof. Yngve's statement that he has `three degrees in physics and 
several publications in that field' encourages me to hope that he can 
offer a good answer to the analogical question that i find gnawing at me
as i consider this notion. That question, or group of questions, is:
Where do quarks fall on the continuum between directly observable 
phenomena and theoretical abstractions/`invented objects'? What about
much of modern quantum theory? At least to my admittedly limited
understanding, much of what quantum theory tells us about is by
definition not directly observable. Especially due to `containment',
quarks themselves are definitely not observable directly. We have some
circumstantial evidence supporting their theoretical existence. But the
theories that are built on the assumption of the reality of quarks and
other quantum phenomena have been very successful; indeed, most of
modern electronic technology, including this forum, would be impossible
without them.

Getting back to linguistics, as i said above i do not know what Prof. 
Yngve has in mind when he speaks of `invented objects' in linguistic 
research. His opening statement seems to imply that he would like as 
much as possible to close the gap between the mental state(s) we might,
for the sake of discussion, label `successful communication' and sound
waves, or at least patterns of sound waves. By `invented objects', does
he mean things like tree-diagrams or the abstract structures they are
meant to represent? I see at least as much reason to believe in the
reality of these structure as i do for anything spoken of in quantum
theory. Does he mean transformations? I, personally, recognize the
great theoretical value of the notion of syntactic transformations while
remaining sceptical as to their reality, which is why i continue to
investigate with as open a mind as possible not only transformational
but non-transformational theories of syntax.

Prof. Yngve recommends that, `for a selected approach to linguistics, 
[we] identify the explicit assumptions put forth on which it is based
... [and also] the implicit, tacit, or hidden assumptions relied on.' 
Now, i have devoted much of my research energies to just such critical
endeavours in the area of syntax, and now that i at last have a
university teaching position it is my intention, as it has always been,
to encourage my students to do so. But i have also been reminding my
students of the importance of abstraction in scientific research. As i
have for a long time understood the matter, Newton's success in
developing his Laws of Motion and Gravitation was due in large part to
his intellectual ability to abstract away from the directly-observable
phenomena of falling apples and orbiting planets (though in fact the
orbits themselves are *not* directly observable, only deduceable from
long-term observation) to the realization that both are in fact simply
manifestations under different conditions of the same *unobservable*,
more fundamental and `underlying' phenomena. As i repeatedly tell my
students in various ways, the ability to move cognitively away from
primary data, the directly-observable phenomena, towards more abstract
perceptions thereof -- provided we do it intelligently and with all due
respect to the primary data -- can bring much light to many dark

Science depends upon a constant give and take between empirical data and
abstract theorizing. If Prof. Yngve is recommending that in the course
of our theorizing we never lose sight of our primary data i have no
argument with him; i have always been very strongly in favour of the
theorist keeping close at hand large stocks of relevant data from a wide
variety of sources, which is why i am a member of both the Association
for Linguistic Typology and the Foundation for Endangered Languages. 
But if he is advocating an avoidance of theoretical research in favour
of purely empirical data-collection, or imagines that it will ever be
possible to account for the connection between the cognitive state of
`successful communication' and the sound waves or gestures by which it
is achieved without positing some very abstract intermediate structures,
then i have a great deal of concern about the suitability of his


Steven Schaufele, Ph.D. home: Yusheng Street

Asst. Prof. of Linguistics, English Department Lane 8, #10, 2F

Soochow University, Waishuanghsi Campus Shihlin District

Taipei 11102 Taipei 11118

Taiwan, ROC Taiwan, ROC

(886)(02)881-9471 ext. 6504 (886)(02)835-6966

Fax: (886)(02)883-5158

 ***O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum!***

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