The Reality of Sentences3

Steve Long Salinas17 at AOL.COM
Tue Apr 15 06:02:55 UTC 2003

In a message dated 4/14/03 8:09:49 PM, rjfreeman at EMAIL.COM writes:
<< But your own point in your last message was that what a system can do is
largely independent of what a system is. "Where legs are not available,
wheels might do a fine job.">>

That was definitely not the point.  The point was that there may be more than
one system -- more precisely structure -- that achieves the same function.
But neither my legs or wheels will get me to the moon.  In this world, there
is a high degree of dependency between structure and function.  That is why
both birds and airplanes have wings.  Some functions are served by a very
limited choice of structural solutions.

In fact, ideally, what a structure "is" should be precisely equivalent to
what it "does." In the case of a Swiss Army knife, the structure is
specifically dictated by all the things that Swiss Army knives are supposed
to do.  In the case of language, structure should ideally be what structure
does.  When there is a discrepency between what WE THINK language does and
WHAT WE THINK the structure of language is, it suggests something is missing.
 Because language is inherently structured, the first place to look for the
problem is in our understanding of the function of language -- what does
language do?

<< You presented that as an example of the distinction between function and
form, but I think it illustrates the distinction between competency and
system equally well. >>

Language follows rules.  If it didn't, it would be gibberish and have no
function.  You cannot understand legs without understanding walking.  And you
cannot understand walking without understanding legs.

When an archaeologist finds a tool whose purpose is unknown, his only chance
at identifying its function is hypothesizing some use from its structure.
And then to try it out and see if that hypothesis works.

There's no question that language is rule governed.  There is no question
that the human ability to generate those rules is in some ways universal.  So
a big question becomes, if this is the structure, what forces produced that
structure?  From a naturalistic point of view, we can't assume that it
dropped out of heaven.  So we need to be able to explain that structure in
terms of the functions it served or serves.  (And I don't mean something like
"human language allowed us to cooperate" - ants cooperate.  The intricacy of
language structure presents the most serious problem to a functional
analysis.  Why is  grammar effective in the operation of human language?
What contingencies shaped the parts?)

I think that some linguists have been a bit guilty of assuming that we
understand language's functions well enough to justify looking at structure
alone.  But that does not make their observations about structure wrong.  It
simply affects the theoretical conclusions that are drawn from those

<<I'm sure the actual forms of language are the natural result, and a
reflection, of the human tendency to find order in the world.>>

If finding order in the world was all it was about, then there would be no
need for speech.  We could all do it on our own.  I'm pretty sure that human
language had a lot more to do with finding dinner than with finding order.
And that it was the world that imposed its "order" on language, not the other
way around.

<<Just as Functionalism says language is an expression of our tendency to
find meaning in contrast.>>

A more proper functional analysis says the meaning of a word is the effect it
has.  Contrast without consequence has no meaning.

Steve Long

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