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Approaches in the Field of Linguistics - Реферат

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Approaches in the Field of Linguistics

Early Approaches: Pānini and Grimm

Sobel S.P. The Cognitive Sciences:

An Interdisciplinary Approach. – London; Toronto:

Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001. - pp. 155-158.

The notion of linguistic competence introduced previously rests on the assumption of unconscious knowledge and unconscious cognitive activity. This is not a new assumption; it underlies, for example, the work of the grammarian Pānini, who carried out his research in India sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Pānini sought to capture the underlying patterns of the Sanskrit he spoke and, in this fashion, to describe the whole of the language. The few examples presented in the previous section indicate something of the nature of the rules that a language rests on. How vast a task it would be to try to describe it all: rules affecting the sounds and their variants, rules for forming words, rules for generating all the possible sentences. Pānini approached this monumental task by formulating detailed, highly condensed rules. Their nature was not prescriptive but rather descriptive. As such, they reflect the unconscious knowledge of speakers of the language rather than rules that might have been explicitly taught. They capture so much detail of the language so tersely that expanding and understanding them has required the work of many scholars and much time. Since Pānini, no one has accomplished so impressive a description of any language.

The work of Pānini, and of other Indian linguists of his time and earlier, was not known in the West until the 19th century. Linguistics scholars of the 1800s had observed many similarities among the languages of Europe and sought to trace their history, engaging in comparative studies of these related languages and projecting backward to arrive at a "reconstruction" of the ancestral language, or group of dialects, from which they derived. One of the most famous of these scholars was Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), of fairy-tale fame. Grimm's contribution to the understanding of certain important consonant shifts among the Indo-European languages (many of the languages most familiar to us, including English) is a staple of historical-comparative study, known to all linguistics students and scholars as Grimm's law. This law, which aids in the process of linguistic reconstruction, explains for example the historical relation between Latin p (as in pater) and English f (as in father), both of which derive from the same source, a language spoken some thousands of years ago and referred to today as Indo-European.

Linguistics scholars engaged in reconstructing early languages of which there is no written record made educated guesses as to what the earlier forms were based on evidence from all aspects of these languages—from the vocabulary they contained to the kinds of change exhibited over time in their sound systems and in their grammatical structures. This type of comparative-historical research contributed a great deal to our understanding of the processes languages undergo on their evolving paths. Access to information about Sanskrit played an important role in this endeavor.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf

In line with this type of research was research carried out into this century by scholars who sought to learn what processes underlay the many languages spoken by Native American tribes. In the process, they encountered ways of thinking quite different from those of the Western European culture, which had up to then provided the background for their studies. These scholars drew attention to the many different possibilities inherent in languages for expressing perceptions and experiences common to humankind. Edward Sapir, the American linguist and anthropologist, made many contributions to the field, among them important technical studies in Native American, Indo-European, Semitic, and African languages. With this wide basis, he was able to provide the field with cogent analyses of the relation of language and culture. His interest in this aspect of linguistics extended to the relation of language and thought. He and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, expounded a view that had great influence on linguists and other scholars in the middle decades of the 20th century. Known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it was articulated thus by Whorf in 1940:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but Us terms are absolutely obligatory-, we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees, (in Carroll, 1956, pp. 213-214)

Whorf had held, for example, that the Hopi language reflects a different conception of time from that of English. He claimed that Hopi has no linguistic means of referring directly to time, as English does, no word for "past" or "future." If he was correct, then, according to some, the Hopi could not distinguish past from future. Whorf's point was that the Hopi language reflects a different worldview—one that our own language lacks the means of expressing.

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds first that our language determines the way we think (linguistic determinism) and, second, that the distinctions found in a given language will not be the same as those in any other language (linguistic relativity). The basic principle follows from the observation, through study of the languages of different peoples that populations "carve up" in many different ways the natural world they experience. An instance is found in Whorf's paper "Science and Linguistics." After describing some of the characteristics that distinguish the worldview of speakers of the Hopi language from our own, Whorf says

What surprises most is to find that various grand generalizations of the Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe. The psychic experiences that we class under these headings are, of course, not destroyed; rather, categories derived from other kinds of experiences take over the rulership of the cosmology and seem to function just as well. Hopi may be called a timeless language. It recognizes psychological time. . . but this "time" is quite unlike the mathematical time T, used by our physicists. Among the peculiar properties of Hopi time are that it varies with each observer, does not permit of simultaneity, and has zero dimensions; i.e., it cannot be given a number greater than one. The Hopi do not say, "I stayed five days," but "I left on the fifth day." (in Carroll, 1956, p. 216)

Whorf's description of the Hopi conception of time seems to indicate that for the Hopi time exists as a series of points rather than as a continuous flow. This conception relates interestingly to Kant's discussion of time, in which he argues that "all appearances of succession in time are one and all only alterations . . . all change (succession) of appearances is merely alteration" (Kant, 1781/1965, p. 218). That is, we only recognize time by the sequential changes that we observe. A flow, or passage, of time, as we are accustomed to conceiving of it, and which seems to us the natural way of conceiving of it, is equally naturally perceived as a sequence of events, each one different from the preceding one. The Hopi's "I left on the fifth day" seems to accord with this conception of time better than our own characterization of the situation "I stayed five days": "The fifth day" marks one of a series of days, whereas "five days" combines them into a whole.

The notion that language serves not only to express thought but also to filter it leads easily to the idea embodied in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language serves to shape thought. This view was subsequently interpreted to mean that we cannot—and cannot learn to—think in any way but the way in which our language dictates. Because many felt this interpretation was incorrect—and was threatening to groups that might be politically affected by it—the hypothesis was rejected by the establishment. In fact, there was a strong reaction against it, because it seemed to predict that if one's language lacked some forms of expression its speakers were incapable of conceptualizing what such expressions express. Consider, for example, the construction that is second nature to English speakers: "If I were you. . . ." Of course I know perfectly well that I am not you. That is precisely why I put it in this way, using an if construction, paired with the special form were of the verb to be. There are languages that lack a construction of this sort, called a counterfactual, as it is counter to what is in fact so.