Contestable and Contested Definitions of Linguistics

As can be seen from the preceding discussion, any definition of applied linguistics has conventionally been thought to rely necessarily upon an idea of what linguistics itself comprises. In this view, for a solid, “properly constituted theory of applied linguistics” to emerge, it is obvious that one needs to have a clear idea of the theoretical identity of what is being applied (Crystal 1981: 1f.). Even where there are differences in defining the core of linguistics, any attempt to come to a systematic, theoretical understanding of applied linguistics - a theory of applied linguistics - must, from this perspective, of necessity be founded upon an idea of such a core or at least of the core disciplines of linguistics.

But is this really the best place to start? It may seem to be entirely rational and feasible, but, as we shall see below, that is a highly contestable notion. There are two initial observations that can be made regarding the view that in order to define applied linguistics, one should proceed from an idea of what linguistics itself is. The first is that the notion that applied linguistics is necessarily founded upon linguistics is itself a contestable, philosophical claim. The second is that, if it is true that applied linguistics can be built upon a definition of linguistics, the latter may very well become equally contestable. There is a problem, thus, of making the definition of the field dependent on linguistics, if there is not enough agreement on what linguistics itself is. Let us turn to this last problem first.

There are at least two areas of difficulty in attempting a foundational definition of linguistics itself. The first is simply the whole range of difficulties that are called up by most of the standard definitions of the field. The second, that I shall be returning to (vide infra, the section on “Complex linguistic ideas and applied linguistics”) after discussing these difficulties below, lies in the fact that there is in linguistic enquiry a certain dynamic tendency that allows such enquiry to be defined and redefined with every new development in the field, as was evident, too, in the preceding discussion. A sound definition of linguistics may be able to accommodate both of these sets of difficulties, but doing so is quite obviously not philosophically unproblematic.

We limit ourselves first, then, to considering how a foundational linguistic enquiry would set about delimiting the linguistic field of study. Surely it will not begin by claiming that linguistic methodology is unique, since its methodologies “are many and various and ... none is unique to Linguistics” (Spicer 1979) - indeed it can be argued that ‘method’ as such, without any further qualification, is not even characteristic of theory-formation in general (Weideman 1982: 3). Moreover, the apparent intangibility in determining the scope of linguistics and applied linguistics may lie in a seemingly harmless, yet not inconsequential half-truth that introductory textbooks on both invariably confess within their first few pages. It is not uncommon to find in introductory books on linguistics definitions of the field such as

  • (7) Linguistics is the study of language (Berry 1975: 1);
  • (8) Linguistics may be defined as the scientific study oflanguage (Lyons 1969: 1).

As I have pointed out elsewhere (Weideman 2011b: chapter 1), such definitions as (7), or even slightly more sophisticated variants of them like (8), are problematic from various points of view. The main problem with them, clearly, is that linguistics is demonstrably not the only discipline with a theoretical or analytical interest in language. Psychology takes a disciplinary interest in doctor and patient talk, for example, since therapeutic discourse is its direct source of evidence, possible diagnosis, and subsequent treatment. Similarly, theological hermeneutics has an analytical interest in the interpretation of certitudinal or confessional texts, while in jurisprudence the interpretation of legal texts can be the subject of serious study. Everywhere we turn, even in less known parts of the natural sciences, such as acoustic physics, for example, or in the technical disciplines such as electronic engineering or architecture, we find an interest in language. In these disciplines, having analysed the acoustic properties of human language, professionals may well utilise such information and knowledge about the properties of language in order to design small technical instruments such as hearing aids, or large-scale facilities such as auditoria. Why would linguistics then have a monopoly on language, if even algebra and mathematics have a ‘language’ of their own? As one linguist has put it, we need to acknowledge that

the phenomena of language can be studied from different points of view. Dozens of sciences can study linguistic phenomena ... from as many points of view - each one putting these phenomena into relation with phenomena of some other sort. What aspect of the phenomena, if any, is left to linguistics as its exclusive property? (Wells 1966: 15; Joos 1966)

The “aspect of the phenomena” which is the exclusive concern of linguistics would be one that, as the famous structuralist linguist (Hjelmslev 1963: 5f.) has articulated it, attempts

to grasp language, not as a conglomerate of non-linguistic (e.g., physical, physiological, psychological, logical, sociological) phenomena, but as a self-sufficient totality, a structure sui generis.

A further reason why we should be looking for the aspect of reality that delimits the field of enquiry of linguistics lies in a second problem with definitions (7) and (8). This is that they seem to view language as an object, which is clearly not the only lingual unit or fact that linguistics focuses on. Not only sociolinguistic enquiry, but also theoretical (formal) approaches, for example, both have a conceptual interest in lingual subjects, the human agents who produce language. In that sense definition (9) constitutes a slight improvement, if only by implication, since it refers to ‘human’:

(9) The science of linguistics is concerned with ... [m]uch [that] is unknown about the nature of human languages, their grammars and use (Fromkin et al. 2013: 315).

Yet its dilemma, by again taking ‘languages’ (this time limiting their nature to their grammar and use, as if their sound system, or graphic representation, or their meaning, for example, can unproblematically be subsumed under these) as a starting point, is that it does not constitute much of an advance. Moreover, this essentially generativist definition of linguistics is not generally acceptable. As Hopper (1987: 140) has pointed out, there is a “whole world of unarticulated philosophical and other assumptions” that underlie this kind of definition. There are also political dimensions to statements in this regard made by Fromkin while she was president of the Linguistics Society of America, since public pronouncements that echo these kinds of definitions by such prominent scholars define the boundaries of linguistics. Hopper (1987: 140) is concerned by a definition that contradicts his views on what linguistics is in terms of

... a logically prior - perhaps eventually even biologically prior - linguistic system which

is simultaneously present for all speakers and hearers, and which is a prerequisite for the

actual use of language.

How would it be, one might be tempted to ask, if one settled the dispute by looking at the data of linguistic enquiry? However sound a suggestion this might appear to be, this simply lands one in a morass of contradictory and conflicting evidence. If one looks at pre-Saussurean linguistics in the nineteenth century, for example, your answer as to what the data would be will involve the (historical) changes to the sounds of a language, while the modern, post-Saussurean view would have it that the data are the sign systems of a language, at all kinds of levels: sound, form, syntax, meaning, and so on. Similarly, for the structuralists working within the linguistic tradition known as American descriptivism, that disallows any examination of the intuitions of researchers and informants about language, the data would be diametrically different than for generativists, such as Chomsky, for whom the data can be found in examining the intuitions that first language users have about well- formedness and syntactic possibility. And Hopper’s (1987) contestation of genera- tivist definitions, referred to above, makes it clear that for some linguists reference to “real discourses” instead of to a grammar that is disembodied, and appears to exist apart from the uses to which it may be put, is what is needed to get to the right ‘data’. The perspective on what constitutes appropriate data for linguistic enquiry changes even more dramatically when one views ‘language’ in a broader, semiotic perspective as a resource for meaning-making (Van Lier 2008: 599), and so gets sight of lingual subject-object relations, and recognises the expressive power of subjective and objective lingual facts - those processes and events that contribute to meaning making (Weideman 2009a: 81f.).

It appears as if the advice of Wells (1966) and Hjelmslev (1963) might then not be the worst idea. Is there an “aspect of the phenomena”, a unique dimension of experience, that would delimit linguistics more adequately? As I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere (Weideman 2009a, 2011a, b, 2013b), linguistics is best defined not by reference to concrete language, but by the study of a dimension or aspect of our experience that could be called the lingual. This dimension of experience is characterised by the view that ‘lingual’ is itself definable by the nuclear idea of expression related to the understanding of signs (Weideman 2009a: Chapter 5; Van Lier 2008: 599). A better definition would then be that

(10) Linguistics is the theoretical study of the lingual mode of experience, where ‘lingual’ refers to expression related to the understanding of signs.

The advantage of this more abstractly formulated definition is that it combines the positive elements of the others, (7) to (9) above, by acknowledging not only that linguistics is indeed a legitimate science, a theoretical discipline, but that it does indeed also take into its perspective concrete facts, which one might call lingually stamped phenomena, agents, objects, or events. These are operative within this dimension, and it is this angle, derived from its theoretical perspective, that gives linguistics its specific focus (Weideman 2009a, 2011a, b). It is this dimension of reality that defines linguistics that sets it apart from the legitimate interests that other disciplines have in language. There is a difference between looking at language from a juridical angle rather than from a lingual, or considering it from the mode of feeling and emotion, as psychology would do, than when we consider analysing language from a certitudinal (theological), or mathematical, or physical angle. It is also the lingual dimension of reality from whose connections to other aspects of experience spring the fundamental concepts of linguistics over the centuries and across many paradigms. So De Saussure’s notion of lingual system, defined as a unity within a multiplicity of lingual norms, derives from the reflection of the numerical notion of one and many within the lingual. Similarly, the constitutive linguistic concept of lingual position and sequence, so important in structuralist analyses of language in the first half of the twentieth century, originates in the analogical links between the lingual and the spatial dimension. Chomsky’s notion of regular lingual movement would have been unimaginable had there not been a clear reflection of the kinematic dimension within the lingual. If we take the notions of communicative competence or of socially differentiated spheres of discourse, we find that they are lingual ideas generated by the lingual dimension of reality reaching out to social interaction. In all of these reflections, it is clear that the lingual dimension of experience, though unique, is connected with every other. That is the fundamental starting point of analyses within the philosophical framework we can use to clarify disciplinary boundaries: each unique dimension of experience is connected to every other; an observation that will allow us to examine both the boundaries of, and the connections between different disciplines (Weideman 2011a, 2009a, 2013b).

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