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The Pragmatistic Force of Analogy in Language Structure

Every now and then, no matter how large one’s vocabulary, one encounters a word in a recondite text that requires a special effort to pronounce (to oneself) because of its exoticism. Thus, when reading the introduction to Proverbs in The Jewish Study Bible, I came upon the title of the Egyptian wisdom book, Instruction of Amenemope, and stumbled over the third word before settling on the correct stress on the antepenult.

Contemporary linguists are enamored of saying that language is “rule-governed,” by which they mean that the surface phenomena––just like the correct stress in Amenemope––are the predictable result of applying a rule that governs the assignment of primary stress in an English pentasyllable of the type anadiplosis, i. e., the sort of learned vocabulary that is derived from our Graeco-Latin patrimony.

This notion of language being governed by rules, typically of the form “IF – THEN,” i. e., “IF this structure, THEN this outcome,” no matter how apt descriptively, is theoretically utterly misleading, since what determines the assignment of the stress in the word at issue is ANALOGY, specifically the force that a pentasyllabic segmental structure (the fact of its having five syllables) exercises on the suprasegmental (prosodic) structure. More generally, it is the pattern of the analogical relations between syllabic structure and prosody (stress distribution) that determines where the stress is to be placed in a word.

The mechanicalist conception (as in modern physics) that holds sway in contemporary linguistics when theorizing about the structure of language is fundamentally misguided because it attributes the facts of language use to mechanical (efficient) causes instead of recognizing them for what they are, the results of a real tendency toward a type of outcome, i. e., the results of a final cause (in the Peircean sense,) which is precisely what is meant when one invokes analogy as explanans.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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