Language, structure, blending

Benjamin Fortson fortson at FAS.HARVARD.EDU
Tue Mar 19 15:06:40 UTC 2002

>      "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.
> 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'. ..."

I guess I'm a bit ad odds with the dichotomy being drawn here between
"static" structure and dynamism. Take DNA, to
use a biological parallel. A cell's DNA is composed of a particular
sequence of nucleotides, i.e. it has what we would usually call
"structure", and--barring mutations and excepting the
reconfigurations that happen during chromatid crossing-over during
meiosis--this structure is "static" and doesn't change. But it encodes the
instructions for all manner of different cellular activities, including of
course the creation of various proteins. These processes are "dynamic" and
could not exist without the "static" structures.

Likewise, all that generative grammarians (and lots of other linguists, I
think, who don't regard themselves as strictly Chomskyan) are really
saying is that the brain contains "instructions" of various kinds that can
be used for the production and processing of linguistic utterances. How we
characterize those structures is, of course, debated. But at least
consider the output and its structure, which is not a source of debate:
the whole reason people started to think along these lines, and have been
able to engage in linguistic analysis since at least the time of the dawn
of writing, is that the output ("language" or whatever you want to call
it) has elements ("structures" if you will) that combine in certain ways,
and certain ways only (another type of "structure"), and that we have
intuitions about combinations that are somehow garbled or "wrong".


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