Friday, April 10, 2009

Hunk saved from shark

Where are this guy's clothes? Exactly what was going on in that boat before the shark elbowed in? Horror is visible in the eyes of the young boys. The men seem merely determined to do what comes naturally.

A rich allegory of sexual maturation, I think. The shark is clearly das ewig Weibliche. (As it might have been in Faust: das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinunter).

Once rescued, this guy became Mayor of London for a year.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A zillion questions about linguistics

I sometimes wonder what linguistics is about. "It" is about various and sundry things, to be sure. But does anything tie them together? Earnest-minded readers may here already suspect the baleful influence of Luhmann in the background - and they would be right.

This is how the foreword to Social Systems begins:
Sociology is stuck in a crisis of theory. Empirical research, quite successful on the whole, has increased our stock of knowledge, but has not led to the construction of a theory that would unify the various subdisciplines. Being an empirical science, sociology cannot abandon its ambition to validate its pronouncements against data gathered from reality, however old or new the bottles may be into which the pressings are poured. Yet sociologists have been unable to apply precisely this principle to demonstrate that sociology has its own special area of study, and is a unified scientific discipline. Resignation about this state of affairs is so profound that no one even tries anymore.
One might reasonably expect linguistics to have some kind of general, unifying theory. But what are the common ideas of phonology and grammatology, say? Chomsky didn't think actual languages were much worth bothering with, as I remember - UG is embedded in a reductionist program. At a pinch, would one say phonology and grammatology are "just very different aspects of the same thing, language"? What is this "language"? Is it different from "languages"?

Isn't it a bit strange that this kind of unanswered, perhaps even unproductively formulated, question seems to be completely irrelevant to the everyday work of linguists? But does "we're all just laboring in the vineyards of the Lord, so go away" say all that could usefully be said in answer to questions that are seldom if ever asked?

Is there a more satisfactory account of "what is linguistics about" than there is of "what is sociology about"? Surely physicists should have something useful to say about physics (not just about physicists), which after all is part of the physical world? Physicists were forced to start doing precisely this about 100 years ago, upon the advent of quantum mechanics to explain how physics is non-trivially intricated in physics. Surely linguistics is non-trivially intricated with language? If Sapir/Whorf had made their claims with regard to the terminology of linguists themselves, not Eskimo Joe's words for snow, the ensuing ruckus might have been more productive.

On the internet, discussion threads among linguists often seem to me to be squabbles about taxonomy: "is this an adverb or an adjective?", "did /x/ mutate into /y/ or the other way around?", "is [a] an etymological descendant of [y], or is [a] on a different branch?". It reminds me vividly of the enormously productive classification activities in botany and zoology up into the mid-19th century. Darwin drew heavily on the results, and contributed his own. Then he took a step further, and blew many of his colleagues out of the water.

Are languages just "there, to be studied", like species used to be? Do languages evolve from other languages on the analogy of organic species? If phonology is not a subfield of biology, or musicology or acoustics, what is it? Is everybody sure it has nothing to do with semantics? On what principles has this been demonstrated? Or is this an axiom, making linguistics more like a field of mathematics? As presently visible in discussion threads, at any rate, many parts of linguistics seem to me more like cross-dressing cousins of ontology.