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Linguistics and Other Fields

Crystal D. Linguistics. Second ed.

Penguin Book, 1990. – pp. 256-267.

The main merit of research over the past few years is that people now have a much clearer idea as to what the important questions of linguistic theory are: over the next few years, we may go some way towards solving some of them. It should be clear from this attitude, then, that those who clamour for applications of linguistics - myself included - are not likely to be satisfied for a while. Too much of the subject is in an unformulated state to be able to be applied in any useful way to the study of some other field - though, as we shall see, some restricted areas have come to be fairly well investigated and introduced. The absence of any complete grammar of English (which has been the most analysed of all languages) is one of the most obvious limitations of the applicability of linguistics at the present time. The presence of so much fundamental theoretical disagreement, which has to be gone into before one can adopt a particular 'applied' line, is another. However, it would be wrong to criticize linguistics for failing to come up to expectations, or for being too negative (in its criticisms of earlier work), or for being too complicated and abstract - such criticisms are not uncommon. The negative flavour of early linguistics was, as we have seen, an essential preliminary to the development of a more constructive and open-minded state of mind on the part of language scholars. Understanding the weaknesses of early accounts of language helped them to reach an understanding of the fact that it was complex, and to appreciate the nature and extent of its complexity. It was this awareness which promoted the careful analysis of data and the development of the necessary (albeit abstract) distinctions of phonetics, morphology, and the other levels. It is in fact this very complexity which is the reason why linguistics has not developed further than it has. It would be perfectly possible for any competent linguist to sit down and write a linguistic grammar of English, in the light of available knowledge, for the purpose of language teaching; but it is unlikely that it would be a wholly satisfying job. There is still too much dispute about the theoretical principles on which such a grammar should be based, too much dispute over terminology, and too much uncertainty over the facts of the language, to produce a sound, comprehensible and comprehensive grammar. And bearing in mind that linguistics has been with us such a short time, this inadequacy is perhaps not surprising. A great deal has nonetheless been achieved.

Awareness of this inadequacy has not of course stopped people from trying to write such grammars; nor should it. The more attempts there are to formulate adequate grammars for particular applications in teaching and elsewhere, the more quickly the difficulties will be appreciated, and the sooner they will be overcome. What is important is that the potential users of these books should not make premature demands for their production (rushed research is regretted research), and that the authors of these books - or their publishers - should not make premature claims for their product. This prematurity can be possible in two ways. First, a linguistic introduction to the structure of English, let us say, can be premature in the sense that the kind of model in which it presents its rules and facts has been outdated by new ideas about the nature of the model, or about the formalization of the rules, or even about the nature of the facts (e.g. new statistical information about usage having become available). This has often happened, particularly in generative grammar, where the development of ideas has been so rapid that a grammar book is liable to find itself dismissed as old-hat by linguists, even when it is hot off the press. Naturally, teachers who are trying to get to grips with generative grammar are disturbed by this reaction; but they should not be, if they appreciate the inevitable movement in the progression of scientific theory. They should use a grammar book, for the time being, not as an authoritative account of linguistic structure, that has to be taught to the letter; but as a set of suggestions about ways of looking at language which they are likely to find illuminating and applicable to specific problems. This can be done even though there is a likelihood of further developments in the subject which will make some of the specific features of the approach redundant. This critical attitude is also helpful, I believe, in that it helps to reduce the difficulties inherent in the second cause of prematurity mentioned above, namely, that not enough is known about the psychological and other demands linguistics makes upon the student, or about the methodological difficulties involved in grading linguistic material for presentation pedagogically. One book may be suitable for pedagogical context A (e.g. language teaching to immigrants from the West Indies), but not for context B (e.g. language teaching to immigrants from India and Pakistan). Teachers, however, who are eclectic in their use of linguistic material, who build up, in a personal but informed way, their own 'theory' of language and their own description of English, bearing in mind the specific needs of the situation in which they are working, are likely to avoid the more serious of these pragmatic difficulties. This of course is what many teachers already try to do, if they are in the unfortunate position of not having an applied linguistics research project trying to do the job for them (and there are more and more such projects producing materials in a variety of fields these days). It is good to see an increasing number of centres in Britain and the United States organizing courses, conferences, in-service training, and the like, in order to try to bridge the gap between theory/research and pedagogy, and to develop a positive and selective state of mind of this kind.

For such a gap does exist, and there is no point in trying to deny it. There is a considerable gap in this book, for instance, between the practical claims and suggestions which show the potential applicability of the subject. There might almost seem to be two subjects involved, the study of language, on the one hand, and the study of linguistics, on the other - and there are those who make this distinction in their work. But ultimately there is and can be no such distinction: whether or not we commit ourselves to the detail of a specific linguistic approach, when we commence the study of language, on no matter how small a scale, we are necessarily committed to the demands for clarity, consistency and accuracy, which it is the ultimate purpose of linguistic study to fulfil. As soon as we ask ourselves how we are using terms, as soon as we impose a certain grading or selection on material, we are committing ourselves to a particular linguistic view of the world. Whether we realize it is another matter. Naturally, one hopes that intelligent people will take pains to realize what they are doing - linguists included. But developing this awareness of principles of analysis is at once to do linguistics. There is no natural gap between theory and practice in language study; but there is a very real psychological and practical gap, due to the apparent complexity of many linguistic ideas, and the lack of time and material for people outside the subject to get into it. Indeed, the bridging of this gap is the whole purpose of the present book.

But there is another way in which this gap can be bridged, through the development of the relationship between linguistics and other fields of study. A cardinal principle underlying the whole linguistic approach is that language is not an isolated phenomenon; it is a part of society, and a part of ourselves. It is a distinctive feature of human nature (some, who talk of 'homo loquens', say it is the distinctive feature); and it is a prerequisite -or so it would appear - for the development of any society or social group. [...] it enters into a very large number of specialized fields. Consequently, it is not possible to study language, using the methods of linguistics or any other, without to some extent studying - or at least presupposing the study of - other aspects of society, behaviour, and experience. The way in which linguistics overlaps in its subject-matter with other academic studies has become well appreciated over the last few years, and in the past decade we have seen the development of quite distinct interdisciplinary subjects, such as sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, philosophical linguistics, biological linguistics, and mathematical linguistics. These, as their titles suggest, refer to aspects of language which are relevant and susceptible to study from two points of view (sociology and linguistics, psychology and linguistics and so on), and which thus require awareness and development of concepts and techniques derived from both. And as many of the points of contact refer to issues which are obviously of everyday concern, these marginal branches of the subject stand a much better chance of avoiding the charges of irrelevance levelled at its 'purer' aspects. This can be seen by looking briefly at the kind of topic covered by the two most important branches to have developed so far, sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics.

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