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Archive for July, 2013

‘Cognitive’ as a Shibboleth and the Irrelevance of Neuroscience

A gloss on a recent essay in the mass media (Nicholas A. Christakis, “Let’s Shake Up The Social Sciences.” The New York Times, Sunday Review, July 21st, p.12,) may interest readers of this blog, since the essay is representative of attempts to reorient the study of human beings in society by examining the biological basis of behavior along lines pursued in the new century by neuroscience. It is noteworthy that the author does not mention linguistics among the social sciences that he thinks would benefit by retooling, even though language is the basis of human thought and communication, and has been during the last 200,000 years of evolution.

As with psychology, the recent vogue for the label ‘cognitive’ among linguists has given rise to the idea that there is something genuinely scientific only to disciplines pursued under the cover of this label, as if the exploration of the neurophysiological processes involved in speech (both its production and understanding) were the key to language and its use. But as Charles Sanders Peirce, America’s greatest philosopher-scientist and the modern founder of sign theory, emphasized, THE SIGN HAS NO CHEMISTRY.

As social beings, we transact our behavior by thinking in and exchanging SIGNS, a process Peirce called ‘semeiosis’. Semeiosis is always at bottom a matter of interpretation, the ability to assign and understand meaning. If we are to explain the thought processes that underlie intentionality and purposive behavior, which are at the root of the social sciences, it will only be by developing sign theory in the spirit of Peirce’s whole philosophy, including his great achievement, the working out of the theory of interpretation. No matter how deep our knowledge of neural networks, synapses, and the prefrontal cortex, such knowledge will always be fundamentally beside the point because it will explain neither semeiosis nor interpretation.


A Case of Pleonasm Syntactically Diagrammatized

As has been repeatedly mentioned in earlier posts, contemporary American English is replete with pleonasms and other forms of linguistic hypertrophy. A well-entrenched one in speech and writing is the construction continue on, in which the postposition is superfluous, since the meaning of the verb is configured without it.

For those who are unsatisfied with a blanket resort to hypertrophy as explanans, a speculative but entirely plausible explanation of the increasing prevalence of the pleonastic variant in this case can be advanced by understanding the postposition as a syntactic diagram of the meaning of the head verb. ‘To continue’, after all, can be realized diagrammatically (iconically) through the expedient fact of its semantics being extended over linear linguistic space: to wit, the continuation of one word, beyond the simple verb, to its compound variant that contains the postposition on. This fundamental semiotic explanation has the insuperable advantage of being in complete alignment with the haecceity (quiddity) of language as a system of signs.


Syncope in Consonant Clusters

English, like some other languages (e.g., Russian), has so-called simplification rules whereby a consonant (usually medial) will drop out of a cluster in pronunciation. Thus words like glisten, hasten, whistle, trestle, etc. are pronounced without the [t] before /n/ and /l/. A cluster like /-rtg-/ in mortgage drops the [t] as well. In fact the sound /t/ in medial position in a cluster of three consonants typically syncopates (drops out) whatever consonants surround it. Other consonants also may syncopate episodically, viz. the [b] in clamber, although in this case a (non-traditional) spelling pronunciation is also extant, whereby the [b] is retained (cf. limber).

While the common explanation of such cases of syncope has resorted to phonetic factors such as the notorious “economy/ease of effort,” a systematic phonological purview makes it clear that what is at stake is the semeiotic relation between the supervenient phonological (markedness) values of the sounds involved and the rules of combination (the phonetic pattern) determining pronunciation. Specifically, the rules of combination are an ICON of the phonological values. In the particular case of consonant syncope, what the rules map are the fact that the consonant syncopated is MULTIPLY MARKED for one relevant feature or another. Thus /t/ is marked for both the features grave vs. acute and strident vs. mellow, so the fact that it drops out from the relevant consonantal cluster is to be properly regarded as an iconic realization of its definition in the phonological structure of English.


Well and Good (in re “I’m good”)

My father’s first cousin, Yakov Malkiel (1914-1998), was a Pninesque professor of Romance philology who had a risible penchant for sesquipedalianism and measured scholarly success in any given year by meeting an arbitrary quota of printed pages (200, if I recall correctly). My mother remembered Yasha (as he was known in the family) as appearing in short pants as a child for his weekly piano lessons in Berlin in the early 1920s, a period when Nabokov was also resident there among a notable group of Russian refugees. While the overwhelming majority of his gargantuan output was in the field of Romance philology, Malkiel is perhaps best associated in a wider linguistic context with his much-cited article on “irreversible binomials” (“Studies in Irreversible Binomials,” Lingua, 8 [1959], 113-160), of which well and good (like thick and thin, dawn to dusk, part and parcel, etc.) is only one example among a familiar and numerous lexical repertory in English .

This is by way––an admittedly eccentric one––of introducing the topic of a contemporary change in American English, whereby well is being supplanted by good, as in the all-but-ubiquitous retort, “I’m good” (instead of the traditional “I’m well” or “I’m fine”) in answer to the question, “How are you?”; cf. the grotesque present-day solecistic construction, *good-paying job. What is evidently at stake in such cases, which can be characterized as the recession of the scope of well and the concomitant hegemony of the scope of good, is a change in the NOTIONAL CONTENT of the two words in appositive position. Thus, while one can only say “You did the job well,” where the word well is an adverb, as an adjective it has become restricted to a quasi-medical meaning (as in the neologism wellness). This then suggests that “How are you?” is no longer taken to be a query apropos the addressee’s well-being or health but one aimed rather at eliciting (an admittedly perfunctory) report on the latter’s STATE OF MIND, hence the linguistic tropism toward good, with its ETHICAL PURPORT in the global sense.


The Uniqueness of Human Language: Meaning by Indirection

“Heads roll at the Vatican bank,” was the opening statement of a radio broadcast this morning (“Marketplace Morning Report,” NPR), which any person with a sufficient knowledge of English automatically understood to mean nothing to do with decapitation literally, only metaphorically, i. e., in a transferred sense, via the visceral image used in English to connote persons who had been dismissed from their positions.

The tropological use of language, which can be called MEANING BY INDIRECTION, is the unique semeiotic capacity of the human species. Despite claims in the animal ethology literature about primates like chimpanzees and bonobos, and even non-primates like parrots and whales, nothing reported about the communication systems of animals (including mimicry, camouflage, and other forms of deceptive behavior) is even remotely comparable to the capability at the heart of human language, namely the routine ability of saying one thing while meaning another––and being understood correctly.


Grammar as Fundament of Thought and Knowledge

A command of the grammar of one’s native language is typically taken for granted as something a speaker acquires from childhood on through acculturation and education into adolescence and adulthood. The basic rules of grammar are generally taken to be securely embedded in one’s knowledge by around the age of twelve. Naturally, neophyte speakers make mistakes, and the correcting done by parents and teachers eventually remedy such episodic defects so that they are not perpetuated. Some errors that are unattended to may eventually enter the language and change its norms over the language’s history. But at any given stage in a language’s development, the grammatical norms are fundamentally stable and adhered to by a broad population of speakers (and writers) of the standard.

When grammatical norms are violated by adult native speakers, assuming such errors are not merely ‘slips of the tongue’, they ought to be regarded as lapses in competence that betoken, at bottom, not just a lacuna in one’s knowledge but a fundamental failure of thought. Language is not just the outer garment in which knowledge is dressed (expressed) but the very stuff of thought. Hence a failure to adhere to the rules of grammar is not just a contravention of social norms but a sign of wrong thinking no less significant than faulty reasoning or factual inaccuracy.

In the light of such general cognitive considerations, when a native speaker makes, viva voce, a fundamental grammatical error that goes uncorrected––i. e., is not just a lapsus linguae­­––one is justified in considering this phenomenon as a token of a species of defective knowledge, with all the consequences that such a judgment entails. Here is a contemporaneous example.

In a speech last night (June 30, 2013) to a gathering at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, which was broadcast today on NPR (“Morning Edition”), President Barack Obama, a native speaker of English with both a college and a law degree, is heard uttering the erroneous complement of the verb confer ––viz., saying “confer to” instead of “confer on“––in referring to an honorary degree that had been awarded to Nelson Mandela by the University. This speech (as evidenced by the photos online) was delivered without a text or teleprompter, which means that the grammatical error was produced spontaneously, in context (though probably not ex tempore).

However one regards the current president, latter-day occupants of the office have not routinely distinguished themselves by an exemplary command of their native language (witness George W. Bush), so it is perhaps no surprise to note an occasional linguistic lapse in their public pronouncements. But a mistake in verbal government cannot simply be written off in the way a stylistic infelicity might be because it adverts to a fundamental consideration of the speaker’s competence.


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