LINGUIST List 8.1520

Fri Oct 24 1997

Disc: Yngve Review

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>


  1. David Ludden, Re: Yngve Discussion

Message 1: Re: Yngve Discussion

Date: Mon, 20 Oct 1997 11:43:08 -0500
From: David Ludden <>
Subject: Re: Yngve Discussion

In Linguist 8.l473, Dan Moonhawk Alford commented on Yngve (1996) *From
Grammar to Science*. After reading Yngve (1996), I would like to voice my
own opinion in favor of the main ideas in the book, and to address some of
the concerns Alford raises.

Yngve (1996) argues that Linguistics must adhere to the scientific method if
it is ever to achieve a solid understanding of "human communicative
behavior." Alford (Linguist 8.1473) raises concerns about Yngve's
conception of the scientific method, in particular where it is based on
"outmoded Newtonian science resting on materialism alone," or whether it
takes into account advances in relativity and quantum physics in this
century. I think that most scientists would agree that the scientific
*method* has not changed with the development of relativity and quantum
physics. Rather, what has changed has been our understanding of the physical

Alford then refers to "The X Interpretation," by which I understood him to
be referring to the Uncertainty Principle, which states that at the quantum
level an entity cannot be measured without changing it. A result of this is
that two related quantities of a particular subatomic particle, for example
its position and momentum, cannot both be measured, since the first
measurement will alter the value for the second measurement. Thus, the
observer must be selective in which measurements to make. Alford asserts
that this uncertainty introduces "meaning" into quantum physics. Although
the significance of the Uncertainty Principle has been much debated in
philosophy, I believe that most physicists would agree that "meaning" is not
a relevant term to use with regard to the behavior of subatomic particles.
If "meaning" is relevant to quantum physics at all, then it resides in the
heads of quantum physicists, who must decide which measurements will be
"meaningful" or useful for their purposes. The behavior of quantum particles
is probablistic, not intentional.

Alford gives two examples of how human involvement makes physical events
"meaningful": our perception of rainbows and our lack of awareness of the
blind spot in our field of vision. In the first example, Alford states that
"rainbows do not exist unless someone is in exactly the right position with
the sun to create them." I beg to differ with Alford on this point: light
refracts whether anyone sees it or not. This example is completely analogous
to the old conundrum about the tree falling in the forest (it does make a
noise whether anyone hears it or not). The second example has to do with the
blind spot in the center of our field of vision which occurs where the
optical nerves join the retina. I agree with Alford that the brain
constructs what we see, with the brain filling in the gaps. But presumably
Alford mischose his words when he asserted that "there is nothing causal
about what frequencies come in to our eyes," since light waves are subject
to all physical laws. However, it is true the that brain is selective in
what it attends to, and often "massages" the data it receives. The brain
constructs what we see, but it does not construct reality. What we see is a
representation of reality and not reality itself.

The philosophy/science dichotomy, or as Yngve (1996) has phrased it, the
distinction between "logical" and "phyical" domains, is a prevailing concept
in *From Grammar to Science*. This is not a wrong/right distinction.
Philosophy contributes to the advancement of knowledge by the generation of
new ideas. Science makes its contribution by testing ideas (hypotheses)
methodically against the real physical world. That the scientific method is
the most appropriate vehicle for understanding the physical world is
attested to in the unprecedented rapid advancement in our knowledge of the
world in the last four centuries.

Linguistics needs to decide whether it is going to be a philosophy or a
science. If it chooses to remain in the "logical domain" with its eternal
bickerings about the supposed qualities of "assumed" entities, it will be
doomed to the "dustheap" of academia. Only if it chooses to become a
science, to operate in the "physical domain," will real progress be made in
this field. And only if real progress can be made, and real results
produced, will linguists continue to get the funding they need to do their work.

David Ludden
Department of Linguistics
University of Iowa
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* David Ludden			 *
*				 *
* Dept. of Linguistics *
* University of Iowa *
* Iowa City, IA 52242 *
* *
* Email: *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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