[20.08.14. This was originally part of an entry I posted on the 5th of January 2008.]
That’s right, Mr Garrison.
In his entry Everyone should study linguistics, languagehat makes some observations about Robin J. Soward’s article Why Everyone Should Study Lingustics in the minnesota review. Structuralism isn’t dead if only because the terminology and concepts still survive in linguistics and, I believe, still get used in the field; but who would actually use structuralism as a linguistic theory these days? The French?
Chomskyism needs to join [Marx and Freud] on the dustheap ASAP, so linguists can get back to what they do best, studying actual languages instead of their theoretical constructs.
The language should be the horse and the theory the cart, but I’ve noticed in my time that the cart is often a square peg being hammered into a round hole.1 Most of the peg fits, but the corners don’t. You can ignore the corners or you can acknowledge them, but put them in a corner by themselves.
At the same time, it depends on what your intentions are. (It’s a who’s-your-audience issue.) If you’re describing a language for specialists and non-specialists alike, you won’t be discussing it in terms of a theory, although it’ll still be impossible for the linguist not to intrude in the description (like any author in any work; Richard Steadman-Jones’s Colonialism and Grammatical Representation [ISBN 978-1-4051-6132-9] discusses an instance of this). If, on the other hand, you’re testing a theory, the theory is the primary focus. The problem with theories is that they can be a little mesmerising. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought that a theory has resulted in a mis-analysis / misunderstanding of the data.
But that’s theory at the micro level. At the macro level, I’m reasonably convinced that the grammars of the world’s languages are all formed by flicking the right switches and pulling the right levers of Universal Grammar (UG). Do we really have the faintest idea of the reality of UG and the grammars of individual languages beyond describing the output of native speakers? I don’t think so. We know there are certain universals in languages, although their implementation varies from language2 to language. We know their are strong tendencies which look like universals to begin with, but then get disproved as new data comes to light. Nonetheless, these are features, universal or otherwise, which are observable across a range of languages which are not necessarily related to each other. How can such similarities be explained unless the human mind is a fairly uniform entity with some sort of uniform capacity for language?
Of course, it’s a little paradoxical that everyone’s grammars are really their own grammars. By and large, my grammar and that of much of the English-speaking world agrees on what is grammatical and what isn’t. There won’t be 100% agreement between any two people. When I was acquiring English, I was merely flicking the switches and pulling the levers as I saw fit. In other words, any dealings we have with any language are going to end up being how an observer sees a particular linguistic phenomenon (which gets back to the author being part of the opus). The description may be adequate, but what’s happening inside my head is another matter.3
1. Worst mixed metaphor evah. –ed.
2. Bugger! Bugger! Bugger! I’m sick of typing “langauge”.
3. I think I’m probably kidding myself if I think any of this is all that clever. I’m off to buy some DVDs, something I should’ve gone to do about an hour and a half ago.