haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Thu Jun 12 10:46:12 UTC 2008
Thanks, Tom, for elaborating on my point:
> If the "cognitive" categories you propose are 100% isomorphic to your
> linguistic analysis done beforehand through purely linguistic methods,
> that was done with purely linguistic methods and without reference to
> the methodologically-independent neuro-cognitive literature, then
> chances are you are one of those people Martin frowns upon.
Yes, and what most linguists (who work on language structure) do most of
the time is to provide descriptions, or "analyses", of language
patterns, with purely linguistic methods. This keeps them busy enough,
but because of the rule/list indeterminacy explained by Brian
MacWhinney, it's often too rash to jump to "cognitive" conclusions. This
concerns mostly generative linguistics (where the equation of linguist's
analysis with cognitive pattern is part of the underlying ideology), but
to some extent also non-generative linguistics.
> So for people who have slightly more ambitious goals than just
> describing, I think trying to understand the neuro-cognition of
> language is a legitimate pursuit.
Yes, but explanation comes after description/analysis, and we need quite
a bit of the latter before we can go on to venture explanations. In
particular, we generally need to identify universal patterns before we
can propose cognitive explanations. This is also the point of Lazard
(2007), the great French typologist who declares that "la linguistique
cognitive n'existe pas", meaning that cognitive explanation comes only
at the very end of a description-comparison-generalization process (and
somewhat arbitrarily, he places cognitive explanation just outside
This was also the point of my 2004 paper: When I say that explanation
does not presuppose description, I mean cognitive description and
cognitive/functional explanation. We can formulate generalizations over
non-cognitive ("phenomenological") descriptions and these have to be
explained in cognitive/functional terms. It's not necessary to have
cognitive descriptions before we can come up with universals and
explanations for them (pace Newmeyer 1998).
One other thing that I find lacking in much of current practice is the
social aspect of language. The cognitive perspective is crucial, but
without its social side, one wouldn't understand why languages are so
uniform and why they can change. And without changing, languages
wouldn't be able to adapt. As Aya Katz reminded us, it's quite possible
that different speakers make different choices with respect to rules and
lista. But they still produce remarkably similar outputs: While they may
use different cognitive routes, they all want to fit into the same
social structure. Without a social perspective, we wouldn't understand
why there are languages, not just idolects. The only cognitive linguist
I know who has really thought this through is Bill Croft ("Explaining
language change", 2000). My sense is that the general overemphasis on
cognitive over social patterns is another part of the heritage from
Chomsky's obsession with the philosophy of mind.
References and abstracts
Haspelmath, Martin. 2004. "Does linguistic explanation presuppose
linguistic description?" /Studies in Language/ 28.3: 554-579 (cf.
I argue that the following two assumptions are incorrect: (i) The
properties of the innate Universal Grammar can be discovered by
comparing language systems, and (ii) functional explanation of language
structure presupposes a "correct", i.e. cognitively realistic,
description. Thus, there are two ways in which linguistic explanation
does not presuppose linguistic description.
The generative program of building cross-linguistic generalizations into
the hypothesized Universal Grammar cannot succeed because the actually
observed generalizations are typically one-way implications or
implicational scales, and because they typically have exceptions. The
cross-linguistic generalizations are much more plausibly due to
I distinguish sharply between "phenomenological description" (which
makes no claims about mental reality) and "cognitively realistic
description", and I show that for functional explanation,
phenomenological description is sufficient.
Lazard, Gilbert. 2007. "La linguistique cognitive n'existe pas."
(=Cognitive linguitics does not exist.) /Bulletin de la Société de
Linguistique de Paris/ 102(1). 3–16.
L’expression «linguistique cognitive» n’a de sens que dans le contexte
de la linguistique américaine, où elle signifie l’opposition à la
grammaire générative et à la conception du langage comme un module
autonome. Hors de ce contexte, elle ne désigne en fait que le retour à
une conception traditionnelle du langage, de la langue et de la
linguistique. Elle risque cependant de faire perdre de vue la
spécificité de l’analyse des structures des langues.
The notion of cognitive linguistics is only meaningful in connection
with American linguistics, where it means opposition to Generative
Grammar and to the conception of language as an autonomous module. Out
of that context, it merely means a return to the traditional conception
of language and linguistics. However, it involves the risk of
downplaying the specificity of the analysis of language structures.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1998. Language form and language function.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at eva.mpg.de)
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Deutscher Platz 6
Tel. (MPI) +49-341-3550 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616
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