Theory, Model, Method

Introspection and Native Speakers’ Intuitions

Source of the picture:

Linguists often construct their own data samples, because they argue that they are native speakers of a given language and that as native speakers they may rely on their gut feelings (intuitions) about that language. The data is gathered and is judged by the linguists themselves; they rely on their own competence in the language (method of introspection). Primary data is the spoken or written linguistic forms (linguistic transcriptions of utterances, words, etc.), whose linguistically relevant properties and relations are evaluated on the basis of their grammatical character (i.e. native intuitions as secondary data).

Such personal (intuitive) judgments are necessary for further analysis and may include:

  • judgments about the sameness or differences of utterances,
  • judgments about the acceptability of utterances (including the judgment whether a certain linguistic form belongs to a certain language or not),
  • judgments about ambiguity that can be traced back to structural origins or to other sources,
  • judgments about the sameness or differences between sentence types,
  • judgments about the propriety of particular classifications or segmentations.

These judgments are similar to statements (even generalizations are possible) but have clearly non-theoretical status. The judgments also include a) absence of specific forms of data, e.g. possible but not yet observed linguistic forms and b) the range of ill-formed (“ungrammatical”) linguistic forms. This advantage of creating and using “negative evidence” is an important argument for applying this method (perhaps combined with other methods). It can be compared to the medical sciences where studies of diseases help to construct hypotheses about ill people rather than about sane people.

It should be obvious that the procedure of introspection is a deductive method insofar as it presupposes a speaker’s (and a linguist’s) knowledge about a language. Personal introspection, that is, unifying the analysing and theorising linguist as the necessarily external observer and the language user (as the object of study) in one person has often been criticised since this method is expected to produce rather unreliable data. Nevertheless, the use of introspectively collected perceivable data is an accepted empirical method, but the rather common (bad) practice of using only data from one person or the observers themselves is a problem.