Monday, 24 May 2021

A New Theory of Language

by Thomas Scarborough

The way that we use language does not fit with the way that we theorise about it.  Linguistics professor Michael Losonsky writes, ‘Language as human activity and language as system remain distinct focal points despite various attempts to develop a unified view.’

I have been shaping a manuscript, in which linguistic observations play a major role.  Friends have encouraged me to describe a complete theory of language.  Naturally, it can only be done too briefly in 700 words. 

Language, as we know it, is assembled from a range of basic elements: morphemes, words, phrases, and so on.  These we arrange according to certain rules: semantic, syntactic, morphological and more.  Language, therefore, is seen as a constructive enterprise.  

Take a simple example, ‘This city is green.’  

‘This city’ is the subject.
‘is green’ is the predicate, which completes an idea about the subject.
‘This’ is a determiner—which identifies this particular city. 
‘is’ is the verb—which, among other things, points back to the subject.

We assemble these pieces, then, to produce a meaningful communication with another language user, or users.  This is the standard view.

I propose that language is quite the opposite.  Rather than beginning with basic elements, with which we assemble the ideas we communicate, language begins with the whole world.  The function of language then is to begin with this whole, and reduce it. 

Again, the simple example, ‘This city is green.’ 

‘City’ greatly reduces the whole, now encircling only cities.
‘This’ narrows these cities to one particular city.
‘green’ narrows it to just one aspect of one city.
‘is’ reduces the time window to the present.

In fact, we may note that we do much the same with the scientific method.  The scientific method minimises unwanted influences on independent variables.  It begins with the whole world, then screens things out until only independent variables are left, undisturbed by outside influences. 

A holistic view of language should have various consequences, if it is true.  There are certain things we would expect to ensue.  Here are just a few: 

 Since language is a reduction of the whole, even as we reduce it, our words will retain some involvement in the whole.  This, in fact, is the case.  In the words of the philosopher Max Black, our words 'trail clouds of implication'.  

• Since our language reduces the whole, we may expect to run into problems which one associates with partial views. Everything we put into words, because it is reduced, will overlook critical aspects of the world. The statistician George Box put it simply, ‘All models (which are reductions) are wrong, but some are useful.’

• Language originates in the whole, therefore no part of the whole can be focal. A holistic view of language will exclude origins or central ideas -- at least as a valid means of establishing truth.  We shall avoid all such schemes as, in the words of Jacques Derrida, 'return to an origin'.

• Since language is a reduction of the whole, the rules of language -- semantics, syntax, inflections, and so on -- will represent a tool by which we efficiently reduce the whole. Since there are various methods of reduction, we would expect that there would be various grammars. This, too, is the case. In the words of Max Black, ‘Grammar has no essence.'

Since both ordinary language and science represent a reduction of the world, we would expect them both to work in the same way.  This should enable us to unite our ordinary language and science.  In fact, the philosopher Stephen Toulmin notes that, both in the common affairs of life and in our scientific pursuits, 'we use similar patterns of thought'. 

 The scientific method, being a reduction of the whole, would be tested not primarily by falsification within its own bounds, but by something I shall call ‘invalidation’ in the context of the whole.  The success of science (or otherwise) would be assessed within the context of the whole. 

 Different cultures have different physical and social worlds in their minds.  As they reduce this whole through language, it seems impossible that they could say anything partial which would contradict the whole.  Therefore even snippets of one's language will be a reflection of one's outlook on the world. 


Keith said...

An interesting theory, Thomas. Let me pose one question, however, regarding this: ‘The scientific method, being a reduction of the whole [world]’. Let’s say that all the fundamental forces of the universe (to include quantum mechanics and general relativity) are finally shown to be compatible and complete, resulting in the so-called ‘theory of everything’. An all-encompassing, coherent model of unification thought eventually to be possible. Will the language, both natural and mathematical, of the resulting science used to fully describe the ‘theory of everything’ be an exception to the ‘theory of language’ as framed here — that is, the scientists’ ‘theory of everything’ equating to the ‘whole world’ rather than just a ‘reduction of the world’?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

A comment on this post, elsewhere on the Internet:

'Interesting too if one adds a historical perspective of the whole world and how that world is changing or has changed. How would such change impact on language and your theory. I may be wrong but the development of language somehow the flipside of evolution, meaning the more the world expanded, the greater the need to reduce it through language.'

docmartincohen said...

Can I take up your example of "This city is green". I wonder if you dismiss the significance and scope of the vital word "is" too briskly here - and in so doing indicate a more general weakness in the theory? Here, you say the word "is" reduces the scope of the claim to the present instant - but this is unconvincing to me. "This is my Mum", for example, would surely imply that the lady in question was my mother last year too - and likely to remain so.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. To quote myself, 'The function of language then is to begin with this whole, and reduce it.' Therefore all language is a reduction of the whole, including mathematical language. The statistician George Box: ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’ And a theory of everything would be a model, which is a simplified description. Such a theory would take the whole, it would presumably isolate variables, and such isolation would reduce the world.

Thank you, Martin. Consider 'This city [verb] green.' Without inserting the verb, it may be that the city [was] green, or the city [will be] green. We have a fairly much unbounded time period here: are we talking about the last century, or the next century, or the present? So we shrink that window of what time period this is, and insert [is]. Now language has reduced the whole in regard to time. 'This [verb] my Mum' does the same. It could be that this [was] my Mum, and we hope you are not referring to a corporeal Mum when you say it!

The remaining comment comes from a film producer. The question is, I think: as the world expanded in our minds, did the challenge grow to reduce it? And here we have one of the core problems of humanity. Most philosophers have described the world in terms of things which exist, and the relations between them. But both things and relations are (John Locke) 'almost infinite', while the mind is finite. This means there is a mismatch, in fact a very big one. Epictetus wrote, ‘Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within your control, and some things are not.’ That would include mental mastery. If we knew our finitude better, we might be more humble, more human, and more free.

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