Theory, Model, Method


Linguistic theory: the general foundations of grammars


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As already mentioned, grammars as descriptive theories of particular languages are based on a general theory of language (or grammar) that helps to define what counts as a human language and what is a different non-linguistic communication system (or tool).

What a theory of language is to account for was highlighted by Noam Chomsky in his famous statement on the primary concern of linguistic theory:

Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance.
(Source: Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp.3).

Notice that the type of theory Chomsky proposes presupposes certain idealisations of the context (homogenous community), of the speaker (perfect, mature, sex-neuter speaker) and of speech processing (idealisation from language production and comprehension). Several linguists have argued against such idealisations and have proposed other types of language, which include permanently changing and varying language or the speaker’s social and individual properties. Deciding which type of theory is the most adequate and which methods are more appropriate depends on the kind of linguistic object the linguist wants to examine. The specific goals of inquiry connected with the area of language as the selected object of study thus determine theory and method.

A theory, in general, is a logically coherent set of hypotheses. It thus embodies statements of general “laws” or universal statements meeting certain criteria, which we will discuss below. Universal statements usually have the form: For all x (instances of x), the statement P is true of x. Linguistic principles or grammatical or semantic rules, for example, are such statements. Any theory is intended to “account for” a range of phenomena. Account could mean: describe, explain or even predict (see below).

Every theory makes use of theoretical terms or “hypothetical constructs”, that is, postulated entities and relationships that cannot be directly observed or defined in any simple manner on the basis of observable characteristics of the objects under examination. In physics, such theoretical terms are: mass, gravity, etc. In linguistics, grammar, sentences in a language, parts of speech, etc. are such theoretical constructs. Even language itself is an extremely striking example of a theoretical construct. A language cannot be directly observed: only instances of a particular dialect or variety produced by a speaker can be observed directly.

In order to make such a theory more clear or comprehensible, theories are often converted to models. A model is a formal representation (even visualisation) of the structural and functional characteristics of an object of study. Models are used in order to make a theory more explicit (“explain”), to focus on the most interesting or crucial properties and structures of an object, to simulate a process, or to illustrate the functioning of an object of study. However, models are not mirrors of the objects but abstract constructs on properties, structures, functions of objects. Only in very rare cases are they intended to be real, to present the object as it is in empirical reality (because theories often use non-observable constructs, see above).

Language as a tool

Traditionally, language has been viewed as a vehicle of thought, a system of expression that meditates the transfer of thought from one person to another, and this is certainly one of its tasks. To view language solely this way, however, is to take a narrow perspective. In everyday life language serves social and emotional functions as well as intellectual ones, and those are equally important. Linguistics addresses language in two foundational arenas of human experience: the mental and the social. Linguists are interested in models of how language is organized in the mind and how the social structures of human communities shape language, reflecting those structures in linguistic expression and interpretation.
(Source: Finegan, Edward (2004). Language: Its Structure and Use, Boston, Mass., Wadsworth, pp. 21)


Exercises on Linguistic Theory