Re: Metalanguage and Metaphysics (was: aspect of present tense)

M. Palmer (
Thu, 12 Dec 1996 23:35:28 -0500

On Thu, 12 Dec 1996, Carl W. Conrad wrote:

> [SNIP]. . . do we really
> have an objective "meta-language" for describing the tense systems of
> English and Greek (or whatever other languages one may choose) that is
> independent of the perspective of one or both of the languages compared?

Objective, no. We do have a metalanguage, but I would call it more
*relative* than objective. In fact, from one point of view linguistics is
an attempt to develop just such a metalanguage. Of course total
objectivity is not really possible. We are always to some degree
dependent on the categories of the languages we speak, though we can
certainly attempt to minimize that dependence by critically evaluating
those categories. We work in the tension between the goal of objectivity
and our dependence on what we already know.

> [SNIP]. . . I worry increasingly that our descriptive categories
> for Greek and Latin and English grammar (these are the ones I'm most
> concerned about, but I think the same might apply to other languages) are
> derived from each other and tend to misrepresent, at least sometimes, the
> distinctive nature of the language being described.

This is a worry which any linguist worth her or his salt must share. In
fact, one of the major objectives of linguistics is to urge the critical
evaluation of these very descriptive categories. We never reach the final
goal of developing the perfect categories, completely independent of the
languages we speak (though a few linguists seem to *think* we have
done so), and even if we did, the next generation would simply
reinterpret them in accord with the expectations of its own language(s).
Still, we constatly strive to sharpen our critical skills, becoming more
and more aware of the limitations of our categories and adapting them to
overcome as many of thos limitations as possible.

> [SNIP]. . . What philosophic assumptions underly the
> metalanguage of Linguistics?

That depends entirely on which brand of linguistics you choose. The main
deviding lines between the various schools of linguistics in present use
are defined by this question.


Micheal Palmer