Linguistics: The Almost Science

In place of Saturday Morning Semantics, as I need to build syntax up more before diving in there, I offer my thoughts on Linguistics.

Linguistics is a troubled department, split into many sub-fields, which vary in their general feel. (I have left some important ones out, I’m sure)

Acoustics – it’s physics, right?

Phonetics – categorical perception is all the rage in neurolinguistics

Phonology – Imagine if physics was different on Mars than it is on Earth? Phonological rules vary by language

Morphology – on some planets, they juggle geese, and their adjectives pattern after verbs. Does that make Morphologists archaelogists of language?

Formal Syntax – Is it Math? Is it Computer Science? Is it language? Is it the model behind all of those things? Is it to be done mathematically, from first principles, or scientifically, from data?

Formal Semantics – Why don’t we just call it Binary Philosophical Logic influenced by Philosophy of Language?

Pragmatics – Is it a formalism? Anthropology?

Anthropological Linguistics – Is it linguistics or anthropology? To an Anth-Linguist, there may be no difference. Language, thought and culture are all three sides of the some self-influencing coin?

The point is, Linguistics is hard to classify. Most people, after all, have never heard of Linguistics. Try this sometime: if you are in college, next time somebody asks you what you’re studying, tell them ‘Linguistics’. You will get one of three reactions. The first (and my personal least favorite) is ‘oh, how many languages do you know?’. This is my least favorite because the languages I know are English, Classical Latin, Attic Greek, math (if that counts), and various computer languages. So, the actual answer to the above question is 1, and I think they had already assumed I knew English. The second reaction is ‘oh, I read something by Noam Chomsky once’. The third is simply the blank stare. The respondent has no clue what your major is.

I was drawn to semantics and syntax, the philosophy/math side of Linguistics. This makes good sense, as I was previously a philosophy major, with my concentrations in logic and philosophy of language. Syntax offered me binary operations where Logic had ternary ones, and if you know anything about sexy, irresistible concepts, binary operations pretty much top the list.

But Syntax(and most of Linguistics) has a dirty secret. It’s almost a science. The little science that couldn’t quite. For example, look at the first three syntax posts. In the first, I postulated a theory: words combine into phrases, which combine to make sentences. I then showed several ways to test this hypothesis, and using those ways, recreated my original intuitions of the sentence. Using limited data, I came up with S–> NP VP, VP–> V NP. But of course, I was soon presented with intransitive sentences, and their VPs didn’t have an object. So I had to change my hypothesis slightly: sentences still had a general structure, but one shaped by the verb of the sentence. This is the mode of doing syntax: start from as few assumptions as possible, and derive a working system of grammar(one that is psychologically feasible, if not validated). Now, obviously, this is simplified. I knew there were transitive and intransitive sentences, and set the first system to be flawed, so that I could introduce new data. But I can do this only with hindsight, a number of ‘simple’ issues in syntax were once unformalized. And while some were easier to solve than others, they all present the same challenge to formal linguistics: explain these sentences within your model, or lose your model.


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