Language, structure, blending

Salikoko S. Mufwene mufw at MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU
Tue Mar 19 00:23:03 UTC 2002

Gerald Cohen wrote:

|      'Structure' is a term introduced in linguistics from the natural sciences
| as part of the effort to make linguistics a science, subject to the
| same precise description as e.g., biology.  It is clear that the
| distinction structure vs. function has relevance in biology, e.g. the
| structure of the liver vs. its functions; but it is not at all clear
| that this distinction can be applied with equal success in
| linguistics.

       As far as your comparison adduces examples from anatomy, then you could also start with the anatomical, mechanical infrastructure of language (the hardware, so speak, that gives verbal language some physical reality): speech organs have a function. I expected you to invoke your comparison at the more abstract level of genes (though languages have the peculiarity of being more abstract constructs). My hunch is that the disction between structure and function in biology is not that different from that posited in linguistics. Regardless of whether the distinction was copied from biology or any other discipline, "structure" has to do with some sort of organization perceived among coexisting items. It really lies "in the eyes of the beholder," since nature is assumed to be chaotic until made sense of. I consider "structure" to be an epistemic notion and a function (oops!) of how one approaches a particular subject matter and a particular body of data for analysis.

|      "I therefore look upon 'structure' in linguistics as meaningless
| until the term is better defined.  But even undefined, 'structure'
| has influenced linguists' conception of the nature of language.

      My hunch is that your observation is true of biology too, when one focuses on the structure of genes, e.g., how are they "structured" or how are they related to each other? Things become more vexed when one steps from an organism (the counterpart of idiolect) into a population/species.

| Structure suggests firmness and unchangingness, at least at a given
| point in time, and this is a suggestion I would like to challenge
| with my work on blending.  Blending suggests a dynamism within
| language, even synchronically, and this dynamism is in direct
| conflict with the basically static view of language as suggested by
| the term 'structure'. ..."

      Your position is disputable, because biologists speak of "gene recombination," which is really similar to "restructuring" as 'system reorganization' in linguistics (at least as I define it in my book THE ECOLOGY OF LANGUAGE EVOLUTION. There's also a notion of "blending inheritance" in biology.


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