Comparative Siouan Grammar project
Rory M Larson
rlarson at unlnotes.unl.edu
Thu Jul 3 21:50:38 UTC 2008
> Do we intend to limit ourselves to surface grammar
> (that's certainly what the historical apporoach would
> require) or should we admit solutions that appeal to
> invisible/hypothetical superstructure?
> On the last point mentioned in Bob's mail, I can
> comment on pretty shortly. I have no interest in
> invisible underlying structures or superstructures or
> aim to proof certain rather abstract models of grammar
> with data from SL. I think, many of us share this
> view [...]
> I personally DO have a very deep (sorry) interest in
> what Bob and Johannes call "invisible" structures.
> And I'd argue that it's pretty much impossible to talk
> about grammar without invoking some degree of abstraction:
> "Noun Phrase", for instance, is an abstract, "invisible"
> concept - even phonemes are abstractions ---
> [...] I would caution us against going too far with rooting
> out "invisible" things. Bob's original question was whether
> we should even admit solutions that appeal to "invisible"
> things, and I think the answer to that should be a
> resounding Yes, as long as the primary focus is
> morphosyntactic description and not theorising. Sometimes
> the "invisible" answer is much better than any other answer,
> and quite frankly, morphosyntactic descriptions often don't
> provide any answers at all, so at least a tentative first
> stab at one should be welcome, no matter how visible its
> structure is.
Gee, it's been so long since we had a good argument on the list! :-)
I wonder if we aren't dancing around a difference in our fundamental
conceptions of what language is about here. One pole might be a top-down
approach that sees all human language as variants generated by a common
universal grammar. In this view, the aim of a linguist is to work back
from specific languages to discover the invisible universals that are at
the heart of all grammar and ultimately control it. The opposite pole
would be a bottom-up approach that sees human language as a practical
communication system for a biological organism. In this conception,
language would be variable, heuristic, and evolving; there would be no
invisible grammatical universals to find.
"Phonemes" might be used as an example of the difference. In the top-down
conception, each language constructs its words as a sequence of discrete
phonologically distinctive building blocks that are symbolically
recognized as such in the brain of each native speaker. In this view,
phonemes are universally real. In the bottom-up conception, perhaps, we
track on fluctuating sound patterns composed of several concurrent lines
of analog features, which tend toward standard momentary forms due to
speaker articulatory habits and the need to distinguish one word from
another when confusion might be possible. In this view, phonemes are
merely useful abstractions conceived by linguists who are trying to fit
the language into an alphabetical writing system.
"Invisible" things may provide valid solutions to visible problems, but
invisible things that relate only to other invisible things circularly
within the same philosophical system are not helpful. I have nothing
against "deep structure" models provided that their proponents make clear
what their conception of language is and how their models improve our
understanding of the linguistic real world. If the models are
demonstrably realistic with respect to Siouan data, then I think they
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