The Epistemology of Linguistics

The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby RBrown » October 19th, 2011, 9:40 pm

Hello all. I was hoping someone might be able to point me toward articles and or books which deal with the entire enterprise of linguistic explanation and its relative subjectivity or objectivity as a discipline. What warrants the creation of certain categories of language, does (or can) a linguist have sufficient warrant in multiplying them when there is little consensus about their utility, is consensus about certain explanations even necessary before they can be considered valid? What warrants valid linguistic observation? How much evidence is necessary before an observation can be made? How much can we know about language and to what extent are we able to codify that knowledge into metalanguage? What about the general merit of linguistic observation? At the end of the day, does it make a difference in the lives of individuals? Are there special problems with the process of linguistic explanation that those studying the biblical languages must deal with? Any help is appreciated! (I'm looking at you Mike Aubrey...)
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby MAubrey » October 19th, 2011, 11:10 pm

RBrown wrote:Hello all. I was hoping someone might be able to point me toward articles and or books which deal with the entire enterprise of linguistic explanation and its relative subjectivity or objectivity as a discipline. What warrants the creation of certain categories of language, does (or can) a linguist have sufficient warrant in multiplying them when there is little consensus about their utility, is consensus about certain explanations even necessary before they can be considered valid? What warrants valid linguistic observation? How much evidence is necessary before an observation can be made? How much can we know about language and to what extent are we able to codify that knowledge into metalanguage? What about the general merit of linguistic observation? At the end of the day, does it make a difference in the lives of individuals? Are there special problems with the process of linguistic explanation that those studying the biblical languages must deal with? Any help is appreciated! (I'm looking at you Mike Aubrey...)


Oh man. Called out!

I'm not sure that I can answer all of these questions right up front. Well...let's give it a try anyway.

I was hoping someone might be able to point me toward articles and or books which deal with the entire enterprise of linguistic explanation and its relative subjectivity or objectivity as a discipline.

There's no one book that's going to adequately deal with all these issues in a way that's both useful and accessible...uhm...Paul Kroeger's Analyzing Grammar: An Introduction is going to give an excellent introdution to grammatical analysis and its methods. And maybe Robert Dixon's book Basic Linguistic Theory Volume 1: Methodology is going to give a generally helpful survey as well--though he tends to rant a lot of a variety of problems he sees in the field that I'm not sure are as big as he makes them out to be.

But neither of those books are going to really deal with subjectivity vs. objectivity in linguistics, but then I'm not sure that particularly dichotomy is particularly helpful, so perhaps that's not a bad thing.

What warrants the creation of certain categories of language, does (or can) a linguist have sufficient warrant in multiplying them when there is little consensus about their utility, is consensus about certain explanations even necessary before they can be considered valid?

In terms of justification of "categories," it depends on what the category is and what sub-field that category is in: typology (how languages are the same and different), semantics, historical linguistics, dialectology, syntax, morphology, phonology, etc. Each field is going to evaluate a given category in a different way because their categories are inherently different. A lexical-syntactic category (e.g. "verb") is going to be determined partially on the basis of distribution across a class and its semantic features--and in some languages it is highly debated whether "verb" is a distinct category from "noun." Semantics becomes more complicated because then you're dealing with two interacting issues: how individual items related to each other (e.g. white vs. black), but also cognitive science: how does the human brain categorize? The latter topic is a huge field of study (and I continue to recommend John Taylor's book Lingusitic Categorization on the front). And all of these issues are as much tied to philosophy of language as they are to linguistics.

What warrants valid linguistic observation? How much evidence is necessary before an observation can be made?

Also a highly debated question...if you have access to a university library (or just interlibrary loan at a public library, I'd recommend reading chapter one of Robert D. Van Valin's and Randy J. La Polla's bookSyntax: Structure, Meaning, and Function, which has an excellent survey of how different linguists have answered this question and some suggestions for a way forward--one that I'm in general agreement with.

How much can we know about language and to what extent are we able to codify that knowledge into metalanguage?

I think we can know quite a bit and I think that the advancements (particularly in semantics) over the past two decades have improved that. The question of a metalanguage is different though. All grammars whether traditional or otherwise, involve a metalanguage. And a metalanguage is basically our own conceptualization of how a given language works (or how language in general works). I'm not sure that I would ever be willing to attribute any objective true value to one particular metalanguage over and against another--which is one of the major problems that I have with how much of linguistics has been applied to biblical studies thus far. A given metalanguage is generally presented as the end-all for how we should understand a phenomenon. But in reality, it is just as culturally bound as any other metalanguage. This is why some descriptive linguists advocate the grammatical descriptions be written in what they term "Basic Linguistic Theory" for the broader audience in order to avoid the challenge of language descriptions being impossible to understand 20 years down the road when the theory a given description was written in is long gone.

If you read my blog at all, you may have noticed that I read the 1825 English edition of Georg Benedikt Winer's Greek grammar rather favorably, despite its age: Occasional Surveys in the History of Greek Grammar: G. B. Winer (1825)

What about the general merit of linguistic observation? At the end of the day, does it make a difference in the lives of individuals?

Absolutely. Linguistic observation has transformed parts of the 3rd world. For the minority language group, linguistic observation brings education and literacy to the disenfranchised and ignored of society. Linguistic observation brings grammars and lexicons of those minority languages which then bring ethnic confidence and pride--there is a common belief you'll find in minority languages groups that only languages that have writing and books are real languages. That's not a helpful attitude the development of education for those people groups and can results in a disconcerting loss of cultural richness in the world.

On the theoretical side, linguistics show dramatically improved our understanding of how the human mind works. Language is the most directly accessible piece of human cognition--linguistics like to pride themselves in saying that they work in the *most* cognitive of the cognitive sciences. Advancements in understanding the nature of human thought and cognition improves our understanding of how we learn, how we communicate, and how we miscommunicate. Cognition is a massive part of what makes us human. My favorite part of being a linguist is that I can have a discussion with anyone from just about any field--language is always relevant.

Are there special problems with the process of linguistic explanation that those studying the biblical languages must deal with?

I don't think the problems with the process of linguistic explanation are any different for biblical languages than they are from any other languages. The moment you begins talking about an ancient language and ancient texts, there particular challenges that a person studying a contemporary language doesn't need to face, but even then, those issues are no different than the ones other ancient languages.

Any help is appreciated! (I'm looking at you Mike Aubrey...)

There are other linguists around who might have helpful insight here...maybe they'll chime in, too.

Steve Runge
Micheal Palmer
Randall Buth
Randall Tan
James Tauber (is he around?)
Other's I'm not away of...
Mike Aubrey
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby RBrown » October 19th, 2011, 11:25 pm

Mike,

Thank you for your thorough response. You've given me a lot to work with and think about. Thoughtful and helpful as usual!

Neill
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby karivalkama » October 20th, 2011, 2:33 am

Hi RBrown,

I would like to answer some of your questions here.

First, linguistics is part of humanities, like history or anthropology. Thus it is not exact science, like physics or chemistry. E.g. there may be several explanations to a historical event. Like, why did the first world war start?
Scientific explanation can be valid on three grounds. I remember two of them at the moment. The first one is that the explanation is true. That is quite self explanatory. The second one it that the explanation explains the data. This is what linguists are aiming at. We do not need to prove that something we assert is true, we only need to prove that it explains the data. If we get more data that does not fit the explanation, then we need to revise our explanation.
Explanations need to be falsifiable. Thus for example the notion of UG or universal grammar that we are born with, is a hypothesis that cannot be falsified, so it is not a scientific hypothesis.
The most simple explanation wins. If there are two competing explanations that both explain the data, the most simple explanation wins. For example, if there is one explanation that explains the word order in Spanish, and it has 15 rules and then there is another explanation that has only one rule, the latter explanation wins.
One interesting web page I found:
http://www.philosophypages.com/lg/e15.htm

Then to your questions.
1. Categories.
I understand that to mean verbs, noun, adjectives and the like.
The answer is that categories are based on form and distribution.
Form here means the internal structure of the words. Nouns can take plurals: cat, cats, ox, oxen. Verbs cannot: I looked at him, *I lookeds at him.
Distribution here means that nouns can function as the head of a noun phrase, verbs cannot.

A practical consequence of this is that in some languages there are no adjectives, instead they have static verbs. Thus the category adjective is not universal, i.e. it does not exist in all the worlds languages.

2. What is valid linguistic observation?
Linguistics, as all sciences, work on a spiral of inductive-deductive reasoning. Before one starts to analyse a language, one has some notions about languages in general and about the specific language in particular. That is the deductive part. Then one starts to gather data. Texts for example. When one analyses the texts, that is the inductive part. After analysing some texts, one creates hypothesis, which may be different from the notions one had before one started the analysis. When one has formed a hypothesis, one starts to check it. That is again the deductive part.

Thus from the beginning it is all valid. The question is, how probable it is that the hypothesis is valid for the whole language? it is possible to form a linguistic hypothesis from analysing one text. But it would be insane to claim that that is the final word on the language. Thus the validity of the hypothesis correlates with the validity of the data. The validity of the data depends on the quantity of the corpus, the quality of the corpus, the representativeness of the corpus etc. Text are the best data compared for example to elicited sentences. But one cannot analyse a language only based on texts. One has to have elicited data also. But texts must be the basis and foundation, not the elicited sentences.

Thus, if one has a valid corpus and the hypothesis i.e. the grammar is based on that corpus with the proper inductive-deductive method, then one has a valid linguistic observation.

As a practical example: is the actor focus in Philippine languages in fact anti-passive, or is it normal transitive clause? Or is the main category of Greek verbs aspect or tense? One needs to gather data from Philippine languages and prove one hypothesis and disprove the other.

3. How much can we know about language?
We can know as much about a language as we can know about history of the every day life of hunter gatherers in Papua New Guinea.

4. Does a linguistic observation make a difference in the lives of individuals?
If we think of Greek and Hebrew, we can say that understanding the Bible correctly is important to us. That is not possible without descriptive linguistics. James Barr's book on the The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961) was a good example of linguistic observation making a difference.

Also in translation, linguistics makes a real difference. People who do not know how language works cannot translate accurately or idiomatically.

5. Special problems with biblical languages.
The main problem is that we have no respondents to ask questions from. We cannot ask Paul, what did you mean with x?

Yours,
Kari
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby cwconrad » October 20th, 2011, 9:42 am

karivalkama wrote:Hi RBrown,

I would like to answer some of your questions here.

First, linguistics is part of humanities, like history or anthropology. Thus it is not exact science, like physics or chemistry. E.g. there may be several explanations to a historical event. Like, why did the first world war start? i


I'm more familiar with a distinction between Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities. I have always had the understanding that Linguistics was a subdivision of Anthropology, which is a Social Science. There certainly is, however, a clear distinction between the Natural and the Social Sciences in that the Social Sciences depend upon a much shakier epistemological foundation, theoretical foundations, terminological distinctions, and notions of reliable evidence to support theory. Philosophy is ordinarily categorized with the Humanities, rightly so, I think, and my own inclination is to categorize Linguistics as a subcategory of Philosophy. I guess this is a roundabout way of saying that I am in full agreement with the above-cited assertion.

The question is "academic" in all senses of that adjective. No doubt Linguistics is a Wissenschaft, or to be more precise, a Geisteswissenchaft distinguished from the Naturwissenschaften. But "science" in English never did quite mean the same thing as German Wissenschaft.

I'm delighted to see the question raised regarding the "epistemology" of Linguistics. The same question ought, of course, to be raised about the epistemological foundation of traditional grammatical "lore." "Lore" is a good word in English; although etymologically cognate, it's far less pretentious than German Lehre, or than English/Latin "doctrine/doctrina".
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Retired)
… ἐπειδὴ καὶ τὸν οἶνον ἠξίους
πίνειν, συνεκποτέ’ ἐστί σοι καὶ τὴν τρύγα Aristophanes, Plutus 1085
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby Stephen Carlson » October 20th, 2011, 5:05 pm

My own sense is that linguistics (at least the linguistics I've read) is about as rigorous and epistemologically grounded as cognitive psychology.

Granted, some of the results, insights, and methods still have not percolated into Classical and Biblical Studies, but the field is still young and there's plenty of time.

Stephen
Stephen C. Carlson, Ph.D. (Duke)
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby RDecker » October 20th, 2011, 6:08 pm

Mike's bibliography is likely on target for those working heavily in linguistics (or who want to). But perhaps for those of us lesser beings it might be profitable to suggest some less technical discussion. If nothing else, it might serve as a useful introduction to the subject of linguistics in general as it relates to biblical Greek. For that I'd suggest reading Moisés Silva's God, Language and Scripture: Reading the Bible in Light of General Linguistics (Zondervan, 1990). He will not address the more technical questions raised above, but I consider it an invaluable introduction to the subject—and one framed explicitly in the context of biblical Greek.
Rodney J. Decker
Prof/NT
Baptist Bible Seminary
Clarks Summit, PA
(See profile for my NTResources blog address.)
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby mwpalmer » December 22nd, 2011, 10:44 pm

I regret that I was not around in October when this discussion was underway. I've enjoyed reading through these old posts and would like to add only that the difficulty in giving a precise definition for the field of Linguistics stems from the diversity of strands that led into the formation of the field as we now know it. Some came from philosophy, some from anthropology, some from brain research, etc. There are now several well developed sub-fields, such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and historical linguistics. While the sub-fields share much in terms of methods and standards, they also differ in their aims and to some extent in their methods of analysis.

I wish you well, RBrown, as you explore the field and its relations to the study of Ancient Greek (specifically, Biblical Greek).

I would like to thank those of you who took the time to answer R. Brown's question with such thought and detail!
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby karivalkama » December 23rd, 2011, 5:33 am

Hi mwpalmer,

Greetings from Finland with no snow.

You said: "The difficulty in giving a precise definition for the field of Linguistics stems from the diversity of strands that led into the formation of the field as we now know it. Some came from philosophy, some from anthropology, some from brain research, etc. There are now several well developed sub-fields, such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and historical linguistics. While the sub-fields share much in terms of methods and standards, they also differ in their aims and to some extent in their methods of analysis."

As a linguist I would like to assert that linguistics proper, what Saussure called langue, is clear and precise. It is the study of the system of language. It is the study of the grammar all native speakers have in their minds. Sociolinguistics is not linguistics proper, it exists at the intersection between sociology and linguistics. Thus in sociolinguistics one studies e.g. dialects used by the British upper class vs. dialects used by the working class, or the middle class. Historical linguistics exists at the intersection between history and linguistics etc. In my mind that does not cause confusion about the definition of linguistics.

What I find more confusing to the general public, is that they think philology is the same as linguistics. According to Wikipedia "philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics." It's viewpoint is narrower and it concentrates more on the structure rather than the function and the system of language. Traditionally philology has tried to force all languages into one system or grid. It did not allow individual languages to be different from Latin, for example. As an example, in Finnish philology, it was claimed that in Finnish nouns in the object position are marked with an accusative case which can look like genitive or partitive, instead of claiming that objects are marked with genitive or partitive case. The end result was that nouns that seemed to be in partitive or genitive case, must in some cases be analyzed as having accusative case instead. The reason for this was that in Latin the object has an accusative case, so in Finnish also objects must be marked with accusative case. Thus Latin grammar was forced on Finnish. The simple truth is, that in Finnish objects are marked with genitive or partitive case.

This has implications for the study of Greek. Since the teaching of Greek has traditionally been in the hands of philologists, this kind of wrong analysis has occurred and has mislead students of Greek for a long time. It is time for the teaching of Greek to free itself from the chains of philology and embrace general descriptive linguistics. As an example, the Greek aorist is often taught to be a special tense, and the imperfect has been thought to be the default or unmarked past tense. Thus when a student of Greek, or a pastor, or a commentary writer finds an aorist in Paul's epistles, often poetry ensues, not exegesis. I guess we all have heard or read expositions where the wonders of aorist have been explained to us. The fact is that aorist is the default or unmarked past tense, hence its use does not need to be explained. It is the occurrence of the imperfect that needs to be explained.

Yours,
Kari
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Re: The Epistemology of Linguistics

Postby MAubrey » December 23rd, 2011, 12:41 pm

karivalkama wrote:As a linguist I would like to assert that linguistics proper, what Saussure called langue, is clear and precise. It is the study of the system of language. It is the study of the grammar all native speakers have in their minds. Sociolinguistics is not linguistics proper, it exists at the intersection between sociology and linguistics. Thus in sociolinguistics one studies e.g. dialects used by the British upper class vs. dialects used by the working class, or the middle class. Historical linguistics exists at the intersection between history and linguistics etc. In my mind that does not cause confusion about the definition of linguistics.


Chomsky disagrees. He connects the beginning of linguistics as a field of study with the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Aspects of the theory of syntax. I also think Bloomfield would be seriously distressed to see what you're saying here, too. Though he laid the foundation for much of the structuralist work in linguistics in America, he himself had been trained in Germany by the Neo-grammarian comparativists (the philologists), whom you claim here are not real linguists. Beyond that, there are many linguists who reject Saussure's distinction between langue and parole entirely (no, I'm not one of them). For them, there is no reason to start linguistics with Saussure, because in their view, he didn't actually contribute anything useful.

Maybe your definition of linguistics works and you find it clear and precise, but its not a standard view or definition by any measure. I doubt that there is a standard view. What Micheal said is only false when you've started with a completely different set of assumptions.

karivalkama wrote:What I find more confusing to the general public, is that they think philology is the same as linguistics. . . . This has implications for the study of Greek. Since the teaching of Greek has traditionally been in the hands of philologists, this kind of wrong analysis has occurred and has mislead students of Greek for a long time. It is time for the teaching of Greek to free itself from the chains of philology and embrace general descriptive linguistics. As an example, the Greek aorist is often taught to be a special tense, and the imperfect has been thought to be the default or unmarked past tense. . . . The fact is that aorist is the default or unmarked past tense, hence its use does not need to be explained. It is the occurrence of the imperfect that needs to be explained.


This is false. The mistakes by pastors and students has nothing to do with the philologists. Those guys knew exactly what they were talking about, even if they didn't have the theoretical apparatus to describe it. Every instance of an aorist being misappropriated in the way you describe here is a result of commentator writers, and students cherry picking what the grammarians have said for theological reasons. The correct idea that the aorist that the aorist is the default narrative tense goes back at least as far as Winer (1819) and is probably in Matthiae (1808) and Thiersch (1818) as well. When grammar was in the hands of the philologists things went quite well precisely *because* they were linguists. It was when grammar got out of their hands and into the hands of theologians, commentators, and others that problems began. Placing the beginning of linguistics at Saussure is an arbitrary choice that does little justice to the work in linguistics that preceded him. If anything, it blinds linguists into thinking that their ideas are more new and exciting than they actually are.
Mike Aubrey
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