Advances in Written Text Analysis

By Malcolm Coulthard | Go to book overview
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2

Trust the text

John McH. Sinclair

By way of a sub-title to this chapter, I should like to quote a short sentence from a recent article in The European, by Randolph Quirk:

The implications are daunting.

I shall refer to the discourse function of this sentence from time to time, but at present I would like to draw attention to its ominous tone. The implications of trusting the text are for me extremely daunting, but also very exciting and thought-provoking.

The argument that I would like to put forward is that linguistics has been formed and shaped on inadequate evidence and, in a famous phrase, ‘de-generate data’. There has been a distinct shortage of information and evidence available to linguists, and this gives rise to a particular balance between speculation and fact in the way in which we talk about our subject. In linguistics up till now we have been relying very heavily on speculation.

This is not a criticism; it is a fact of life. The physical facts of language are notoriously difficult to remember. Some of you will remember the days before tape recorders and will agree that it is extremely difficult to remember details of speech that has just been uttered. Now that there is so much language available on record, particularly written language in electronic form, but also substantial quantities of spoken language, our theory and descriptions should be re-examined to make sure they are appropriate. We have not only experienced a quantitative change in the amount of language data available for study, but a consequent qualitative change in the relation between data and hypothesis. In the first part of the chapter I hope to raise a point about description based on the appreciation of this fairly fundamental appraisal.

Apart from the strong tradition of instrumental phonetics, we have only

This chapter is edited from the transcript of a talk I gave to the seventeenth International Systemics Congress at Stirling in July 1990. I would like to thank Kay Baldwin for her excellent transcript.

This version has greatly benefited from the plenary and informal discussions at Stirling, and from the comments of two colleagues, Michael Hoey and Louise Ravelli, who kindly read the first written version and made extensive comments.

-12-

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