Essays on Time-Based Linguistic Analysis

By Charles-James N. Bailey | Go to book overview

3
Theory, Description, and What Keeps Linguistics from Becoming a Science

I

This writing has a twofold purpose: one is to bring together in summary form ideas that have been presented at various times in diverse writings, not without slight changes arising out of the natural growth of ideas. The second purpose, which is the goal that the first serves as means to end, is to address certain fundamental issues underlying disagreements among today's linguists over how to proceed in the investigation of human language. I hope to be able to show that some positions are inconsistent with their own goals, and that the position advocated here is at least free of this charge. I may be entirely wrong in what I assert here, but it would still be worthwhile making the assertions if that should prove conducive to a discussion of the fundamental issues I plan to expound. So-called 'formal explanations' in generative linguistics aside, the number of explanations to be found in 'minilectal' approaches1 to linguistic analysis--those Re structuralism and transformationalism, which posit idiolects as the only proper object of linguistic analysis--is embarrassingly close to nil. If explanations are wanting, it follows that an explanatory-predictive theory must also be wanting. As for predicting, transformationalists can make predictions about still unknown data within the same minilect; but predicting future systems or developments of a given system would carry them outside their defined object of analysis--the idiolect.

There are two obvious reasons why minilectal approaches cannot explain or predict, why the fundamental concept of naturalness (see later) is so vague and shifting, and why linguistics faces something of a philosophical crisis. First, it is clear that explaining and predicting depend on the study of developments that produce structures: developments explain states, not vice versa. Of course, a given combination of existing structures is a conditional cause for what changes are possible, but the efficacious causes for linguistic changes must be sought

____________________
1
In this writing, minilectal is usually preferred to static or synchronic to designate approaches that postulate idiolects as the proper object of linguistic analysis; similarly, developmental is preferred to dynamic or diachronic to designate the polylectal approach. These uses have been opted for in order to avoid the terminological quibbles that sometimes arise. It should be noted that minilect has the virtue of being neutral with respect to the static-anticomparative idiolect and a dynamic-comparative isolect.

-82-

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