Review of Language and Meaning
AUTHOR: Beedham, Christopher
TITLE: Language and Meaning
SUBTITLE: The structural creation of reality
SERIES: Studies in Structural and Functional Linguistics 55
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
Amy E. Gregory, Department of Modern Foreign Languages, University of Tennessee
This book explores controversial areas such as 'langue' versus 'parole' as
the proper object of linguistic investigation, formal versus semantic
analysis, what constitutes formal analysis, and the question of whether
reality creates language or the other way around. In the introduction, the
author states, ''language is the most human of all human attributes. More
than just a means of communication it is our vehicle of thought.'' He
purports to answer the questions, ''What is the relationship between
language and thought/perception? How does language influence
thought/perception? Does language come first and then thought and
perception, or do thought and perception come first, and then language?''
Throughout the book, Beedham contends that 'langue' should be the
fundamental object of linguistic analysis, that formal rather than semantic
analyses (but not in the Chomskyan sense) are the essence of Saussurean
structuralism, and that language creates reality. As evidence of his
arguments, the author offers a re-interpretation of the passive
construction in English and the irregular past tense verbs. He illustrates
his position throughout with English examples complemented by examples from
his work in German and Russian. This book is intended for a diverse
audience: from the layperson to the linguistic researcher.
Chapter 1 reviews key points of Saussurean structuralism. Based on
Saussure's premise that language is a system whose units are determined by
their place in the system, Beedham contends that form rather than meaning
should be the point of departure in linguistic analysis and that there
should be no exceptions to accurate rules. If there are exceptions to
descriptive rules, it can only mean that the rules are not valid. Beedham's
form-to-meaning approach equates 'langue' with sentence grammar, which
equates with formal linguistics. He contends that the study of 'langue,' as
Saussure intended, is in decline, which he attributes to three major
historical events: (1) the division of structuralism into European and
American structuralism; (2) the advent of generative grammar and Chomsky's
competence-performance distinction; and (3) a disinterest in descriptive
linguistics as generative grammar became the state-of-the-art of formal
Additionally in Chapter 1, Beedham begins to make the case for language
creating reality by evoking abstract concepts such as 'love', 'hate', etc.,
function words such as 'the', 'and', 'of', etc., the nominative case, and
the suffix '–tion' that supposedly do not correspond to reality. Although
having previously stated that there are two simultaneous processes
(language influences reality while reality influences language), he
contends that even concrete entities are constructs of language and the
human perceptual apparatus, ''...there is no such thing as objective,
non-linguistic, pre-linguistic reality anyway (because reality only takes
shape under the influence of language.)''
Aspect is the general topic of Chapter 2, in which the author examines how
aspect may be expressed either by 1) auxiliary + participle; 2) lexically;
or 3) compositionally (as manifested by combined elements of a sentence).
He notes that, in spite of the widely accepted voice analysis that
maintains the passive voice is derived from and a paraphrase of the active
voice (provided that the active construction contains a transitive verb to
be passivized), there are non-passivizable transitives; thus, he concludes
that the voice analysis needs re-examining. The conclusion arrived at based
on a re-analysis is that the lexical aspect of those non-passivizable
transitives makes them incompatible with the passive. Sections on lexical
aspect of both Russian and German support the author's aspect analysis.
In Chapter 3, Beedham elaborates on the advantages of the aspect analysis
over the voice analysis and notes that the voice analysis, in addition to
the exceptions of the non-passivizable transitives, spawns many unanswered
questions such as: if 'actives' and 'passives' are formally/structurally so
different, how is it there is no semantic difference between the two?
Furthermore, if four-fifths of passive sentences appear without the
'BY-phrase,' as sustained by corpus analyses, can it make sense that
passives might be derived from active constructions? The author dispenses
with all the above shortcomings with the 'aspect analysis': be + V-ed
represents an aspect of the verb that signifies a resultant state of an
action performed on the subject functioning as patient. The lexical aspect
of the verb and the compositional aspect of each sentence determine which
verbs form passives. Verbs and sentences that do not potentially contain an
end-point cannot passivize. The by-phrase is an optional prepositional
phrase in which 'by' indicates agency or instrumentality. Accepting the
aspect theory of the passive would implicate a change in the 'auxiliary +
participle' paradigm of English leaving us with:
be + V-ing (progressive)
have + V-ed (perfect)
be + V-ed (passive/ action + state)
Thus, Beedham declares that the structuralist tenet of ''form determines
meaning'' is born out by the similarity in form and meaning of the perfect
and passive. As before, the author supplies data from German and Russian to
support his argument.
The concept ''form determines meaning'' has methodological implications,
according to Beedham, in that it applies to the researcher's perceptions;
i.e., the formal-grammatical analysis that one is committed to creates the
meaning that one sees. ''The same principle applies to our perception of the
universe generally. The things and actions, houses and trees, love and
hate, beauty and ugliness that we see in the universe are not objectively
there, they are created by the perceptual apparatus that we bring to bear
in seeing them: by mind, language, the five senses, plus other biological
and physical properties which humans happen to possess'' (57).
Chapter four is devoted, in part, to generative grammar due to the
passive's role in the development of generative grammar, and given the
domination of generative grammar in theoretical linguistics. According to
Beedham, understanding the shortcomings of generative grammar will help
make a case for descriptive grammar. As opposed to generative grammar,
descriptive grammar provides analyses, theories, and explanations in
addition to description. Chapter four summarizes Chomsky's current version
of generative grammar, Minimalism, as well as derivatives of generative
grammar (Joan Bresnan's Lexical-Functional Grammar, Pollard and Sag's
Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, and Formal Semantics). The author
contends that all are inadequate given their reliance on formal notation
instead formal analysis. Connectionism (Parallel Distributed Processing) is
also considered since it claims to compete with generative grammar. After
deconstructing connectionism, however, Beedham concludes that
''connectionism's double misinterpretation of the already misguided
generative grammar'' makes irrelevant any claim to compete with generative
grammar. The inclusion of connectionism seems to be motivated by its
contribution regarding patterning of vowels and consonants in irregular
past tense verbs in English since that is the topic of the next chapter.
Chapter four concludes with a discussion of how Steven Pinker is really
more of a descriptivist than a Chomskyan and how the mathematical,
model-building approach employed in generative grammar can be
counterproductive to conducting real science.
Chapter five, Tense and irregular verbs, deals with contradictions and
anomalies in the verbal system of English. Beedham notes the mismatch
between the names for tenses and the time reference their names imply.
Subsequently, he delves into the area of his own research: finding the
meaning behind the forms of the strong or irregular past tense verbs. Again
citing Saussurean structuralism, Beedham insists that no linguistic form
can be without a relation to the rest of the relevant linguistic system. He
explains his methodology and his findings to date, reporting that strong
verbs and monosyllabic function words share to a certain degree the same
vowel-consonant patterns. He conducted the same experiments for German and
Russian and reports having obtained the same results. However, the question
of meaning is left unresolved.
In Chapter six, Beedham discusses 'parole' versus 'langue,' alleging that
text-grammar is different from sentence grammar (not superior or inferior)
and that the types of meaning conveyed in texts are different to those
conveyed in sentences (different but not more or less important). The areas
of speech acts / communicative functions, what he refers to as
'theme-rheme' analysis, styles and registers, and corpus studies are given
as examples of approaches to text-grammar. He suggests that
sentence-grammar and text-grammar are interdependent or complementary and
refers to how he used the corpus linguistic approach in support of his
aspect analysis of the passive construction. Having said all that, Beedham
concludes the chapter with a defense of sentence-grammar and criticism of
those who say that only text grammar is valid:
The sentence-grammarian analyses words and forms by deliberately
abstracting away from their specific contexts in order to arrive at
generalizations. This is the essence of science. If one did not abstract
away from specific instances generalizations would be impossible. Such
ancient, familiar, and incontrovertible concepts of sentence-grammar as
word, clause, noun, and subject are generalizations of this kind. They
exist on the sentence, not on the text (152).
Finally, Chapter seven highlights what Beedham calls ''The method of lexical
exceptions;'' i.e., the methodology he used in his research on the passive
construction and the phonological shape of the strong verbs. In pursuing
this method, one identifies an area of grammar in which there are many
unexplained exceptions to a general rule (an indication of faulty
analysis), considers the commonly accepted explanation, analyzes the
contradictions or exceptions, and offers a new analysis that eliminates the
contradictions. He claims that the method of lexical exceptions allows the
sentence-grammarian to carry out research as defined by the natural
sciences. ''It is the methodological corollary that linguistics is a search
for meanings, whereby the meanings that we are looking for are determined
by the form of language'' (161).
Following Chapter seven, there are a few pages of conclusions in which
Beedham summarizes the main points of the preceding chapters and
anticipates possible devil's advocate-type questions. He restates what he
claims to have been his main thesis: ''...that the reality which we perceive
is not merely INFLUENCED by language and other facets of the human
perceptual apparatus – mind, biochemical make-up, general attributes, the
five senses – it is created by them. That is to say the world without an
observer is not there'' (165).
This book contains many good aspects as well as problematic areas. Let me
first address its positive aspects: 1) the innovative analysis of the
passive construction; 2) the systematic critique of generative grammar; and
3) its readability.
In support of the aspect analysis of the passive, I offer the contributions
of Hispanic linguistics. Spanish does not recur to the equivalent of the
English passive construction unless there is a specific need to identify
the agent; instead it uses the impersonal/ passive 'pronoun' SE to
passivize a construction while emphasizing the process rather than the
state. For example:
(1) *Aquí es hablado el español.
Spanish is spoken here.
(direct translation from English)
The proposition in (1) is expressed in Spanish as:
(2) Aquí se habla español.
Spanish is spoken here./ One speaks Spanish here.
The passive rather than the impersonal interpretation is implicated when
the verb is plural:
(3) Se venden guitarras aquí.
Guitars are sold here.
In short, the impersonal/ passive SE in Spanish, which emphasizes the
action rather than the resultant state, is more frequent than the
equivalent of the English BE + V-ed construction.
In order the fully comprehend the significance of the Spanish SE
construction, we must first consider the two verbs in Spanish that mean TO
BE: SER and ESTAR. The fundamental difference between the two is aspectual
(see Gili Gaya, 1970). SER + ADJECTIVE expresses identity/ inherent
characteristics and thus has durative aspect while ESTAR + ADJECTIVE
expresses the resultant state of an action/ process and has perfective
aspect. The following examples are limited to singular third-person forms
In (4) and (5) below, one can see the basic distinction: identity/ inherent
characteristic vs. resultant state.
(4) Es aburrido.
He is boring. (durative)
(5) Está aburrido.
He is bored. (perfective)
In (6) – (9), we see the different de-transitive options available to the
Spanish speaker. The preference for the passive/impersonal SE (6) for
de-transitivizing situations in which the agent is inconsequential is
inherent in the use of SE to change the lexical aspect of certain verbs in
Spanish; e.g., DORMIR (to sleep)/ DORMIRSE (to fall asleep), ALEGRAR (to
make happy)/ ALEGRARSE (to become happy), etc. In (7) and (8), as noted by
Beedham, we see the similarity of form in the attribute of the 'SER
passive' and the perfect participle. In the perfect construction, the
participle is an extension of the verb and does not need to morphologically
indicate gender/ number agreement with the subject noun. Example (9)
illustrates ESTAR with the same subject (LA CASA/ the house) and the same
process (CONSTRUIR/ to build) to show resultant state. Spanish only
slightly differs from Beedham's aspect analysis in that it uses the lexical
aspect of its TO BE verbs as a distinguishing factor, further delineating
Beedham's aspectual distinction: BE + V-ed = action + resultant state.
Consequently, Spanish renders an outcome similar to what Beedham proposes
aligned with 'auxiliary + participle' aspect paradigm: SER + PAST
PARTICIPLE = action and ESTAR + PAST PARTICIPLE = resultant state.
(6) La casa se construyó en Los Altos de San Isidro.
'The house was built in the Los Altos de San Isidro.'
(7) La casa fue construida por los mismos habitantes.
('true passive' with SER – durative aspect - process in focus)
'The house was built by the inhabitants themselves.'
(8) La casa ha sido construido según sus especificaciones.
(present perfect - terminative – process in focus)
'The house has been built according to your specifications.'
(9) La casa está construida de madera y ladrillo.
(perfective – resultant state)
'The house is built of wood and brick.'
Example (7) alludes to the process while (9) can be said from the moment
the construction is finished. In summary, the Spanish data supports the
claims made based on English, Russian, and German data in this book.
In addition to being laudable for accurately describing the meaning of the
passive, the book is highly readable. Beedham mentions that the book stems
from a course he teaches; in fact, it is structured just as a course for
undergraduates should be structured – with multiple repetitions of the main
points and various summaries along the way.
Now we turn to the problematic areas. The question of whether language
creates reality has many more dimensions than this book acknowledges. If we
return to the questions from the introduction, it is unclear what
relationship there is between the hypotheses that ''language influences
thought/ perception'' and ''language creates reality.'' These are just not
equivalent propositions; the former is the weak version of the hypothesis
and the latter the strong version, but only if we equate 'thought/
perception' with 'reality.' The strong version states that there is not an
objective physical reality without language; however, it is not clear if by
LANGUAGE the author means 'langue' or the 'human cognitive capacity for
language.' This is a fundamental distinction made by Saussure (1987:
24-25) and apparently overlooked by Beedham.
Although the author reminds us of Saussure's distinction between 'langue'
(the linguistic system) and 'parole' (what the individual does with that
system), he does not distinguish between 'language faculty,' 'langue,' and
'parole.' Conveniently, in Spanish there are three distinct words for the
three concepts. 'Lenguaje' is the human cognitive capacity for language, in
short, thought and reason; 'lengua' is a specific language as defined by
the collective consensus that uses it for communication; and 'habla' is the
individual's rendition of his or her community's linguistic system. Based
on this distinction, thought/ perception (language) influences the
linguistic system ('lengua' or 'langue') and inversely, the linguistic
system influences thought and perception. In short, I understand Beedham's
stronger version of this hypothesis to mean the linguistic system (langue)
creates reality (thought/ perception).
But what of the questions posed in the introduction: does language exist
before thought and perception or do thought and perception precede
language? How does language influence thought/ perception? It is true that
words (the value we personally attach to them) can influence the way we
think about things? As Saussure says and Beedham recognizes, it is the
point of view that creates the object. A case in point is the rhetoric
spawned by the war in Iraq. How can anyone object to a 'war on terror'? Or
the rhetoric from the abortion debate where 'pro-life' equals
'anti-abortion'? No one supports abortion rights because of being
pro-abortion or anti-life but that is the implication in the 'pro-life'
In effect, ''we see things not as they are but as we are'' (anonymous);
'reality' is a function of perception and point of view. Differing
connotations for words are accounted for in Saussure's semiotic triangle
(1987: 87-90) in which the sign is an amalgamation of (1) meaning (mental
object); (2) referent (real-life entity); and (3) signifier (acoustic
image, phonetic sequence forming a word). However, it does not follow that
if an individual's connotation of a word influences his or her perception
of reality that language therefore creates physical reality. Saussure's
triad supports the weak version of the hypothesis but nothing more.
Furthermore, language (langue) comprehends much more than the values of
words; as a linguistic system, it also comprises grammatical morphemes and
function words, i.e., syntax. Beedham cites as partial proof of the strong
version of the hypothesis that concepts such as the function words; e.g.,
OF, THE, AN, etc., do not have a correlate in reality. I argue that
function words / grammatical morphemes do have a correlate in reality – the
reality of relations between entities as perceived by human cognition. Just
because the function words / abstract concepts do not represent concrete
objects does not mean they are not perceived to exist in some form by human
cognition. What is the origin of syntax? This question is intrinsic in any
debate regarding whether thought / perception or the linguistic system
precedes the other.
The strong version of the hypothesis fails to take into account, among
other things, the debate regarding modularity of language (Is there a
singular language faculty or is language a function of generalized
cognition?). Theories of language that take into account how thought and
perception influence grammar such as Emergent Grammar (Hopper, 1998) and
Grammaticalization (Bybee, 2003 ) are fundamental to this question. If one
develops an argument based on the tenets of Saussure's structuralism and
the 'Cours de linguistique générale' recognizes that 'reality influences
language,' it is incumbent on the researcher to include in the literature
review theories in which reality influences grammar. Such theories include
those that recognize real-world experience as metaphor in the creation of
auxiliary verbs (Sweetser, 1990; Lakoff, 1987) and embodiment, metaphorical
extension, and the evolution of grammar (Lakoff, 1987), as well as the role
of language processing (Chafe, 1987; Givón, 1998). Langacker's Cognitive
Grammar (1987, 1991) could also serve to represent the other side of the
argument. These are just some of the many perspectives that could inform
this discussion. In short, there is no space devoted to the concept of
'reality influencing language' and as such, the book is very shallow in its
treatment of what the author himself recognizes as dual and complementary
An additional major flaw I encounter in this book is that it confounds
'formal' and sentence-grammar. Contrary to the author's claim, it does not
proceed from Saussure's definitions of 'langue' as the social aspect of
language and 'parole' as the individualistic usage of 'langue' that the
former deals exclusively with sentence-grammar while the latter is tied to
text-grammar. There are some elements of grammar that do not come into play
at the sentence level but that MUST belong to 'langue' as components of a
linguistic system as a whole. Some of these elements from a more extensive
list in Givón (1998:54) are: (a) definiteness and reference, (b) anaphora,
pronouns, and agreement, (c) tense, aspect, modality and negation, and (d)
topicalization. The inconvenient reality in this case is that (a)-(d) are
FORMAL grammatical elements manifested in discourse or text grammar. Givón
(1987: 53-54) sums up the situation as follows:
Both linguists and cognitive psychologists often ignore the fact that
grammar is the coding instrument for BOTH cognitive components that feed
into episodic memory: propositional semantics and discourse coherence.
...Grammar is not primarily about extracting the information of 'who did
what to whom when and where and how.' Rather the functional scope of
grammar is, predominantly though not absolutely, about the COHERENCE
RELATIONS of the information in the clause to its surrounding discourse.
Unfortunately, in spite of a half-hearted attempt to make a case for
discourse approaches to grammar, the book ignores crucial facts about
discourse--grammar. That these facts do not support the book's arguments
does not justify omitting them. The oversimplification of the premise that
'language creates reality' in combination with lack of reference to the
formal elements of discourse-grammar indicate lack of rigor in research
methodology. In spite of the insightful treatment of the passive
construction, the organization and content of the book do not address the
questions stated in the introduction. The quasi-philosophical arguments, at
best superficial and at worst, a trivialization of the issues, do not
advance the kind of rigorous methodology the author purports to espouse. In
short, a highly relevant body of research is ignored and consequently the
'research questions' are not convincingly answered. I recommend this book
only for its treatment of the passive and its explanation of what formal
linguistics should be.
Bybee, Joan. 2003. 'Cognitive processes in grammaticalization.' In
Tomasello, Michael (Ed.), The new psychology of language: Cognitive and
functional approaches to language structure, Vol. 2. Mahwah, New Jersey:
Chafe, Wallace. 1987. 'Cognitive constraints on information flow.' In R. S.
Tomlin (Ed.), Coherence and grounding in discourse, 21-51. Amsterdam/
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Gili Gaya, Samuel. 1970. Curso superior de sintaxis española, 9a ed.
Barcelona: Biblograf, S. A.
Hopper, Paul. 1998. 'Emergent grammar.' In Tomasello, Michael (Ed.), The
new psychology of language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language
structure. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire and dangerous things: What categories
reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Langacker, Ronald W. 1987-1991. Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, Vols. I
and II. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1972 (1916). Cours de linguistique générale.
Edition critique préparée par Tullio de Mauro. Paris: Payot.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1987 (1916, in French). Ferdinand de Saussure:
Curso de lingüística general. Publicado por Charles Bally y Albert Sechehay
con la colaboración de Albert Riedlinger. Traducción, prólogo, y notas de
Sweetser, Eve. 1990. From etymology to pragmatics: Metaphorical and
cultural aspects of semantic structure. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Amy E. Gregory is Assistant Professor of Hispanic linguistics at the
University of Tennessee. Her research interests include cognitive grammar,
the interface between pragmatics and syntax in Spanish, language
acquisition, and knowledge about language in pre-service Spanish teachers.